A Closer Look Lessons from a year of careful observation in the Sewanee woods.
by David George Haskell, professor of biology
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horeau went to the woods to suck out all the marrow of life. I, too, wanted to learn what the woods had to teach, but my teeth are weaker, so I worried at the gristle, gradually gnawing my way into Sewanee’s bones. What better place to listen to the forest than on Sewanee’s Domain, in Shakerag Hollow? For a year, I sat in silence, watching one tiny patch of forest. Shakerag Hollow lies just a few minutes’ bicycle ride from central campus, on a rocky north-facing slope. Portions of the cove retain old growth forest, surrounded by trees grown back from the homesteads that were scattered across the mountain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Hollow gets its name from the trade in liquor
and pedaled across the deserted University campus, down Green’s View Road, to the bluff overlook at the end of the Shakerag trail. I followed the trail for a while, then peeled away to my square meter. I settled in and started the watch. Every day or so for the rest of the year, I returned to the rock and observed the happenings in the forest. My visits had no set schedule, but that year I spent hundreds of hours sitting on my rock, observing without manipulating. I didn’t kill or remove any organisms. I kept soil disturbance to a minimum, simply peering down into small gaps in the leaf litter. Beyond the occasional use of binoculars and a hand lens, my senses were unimpeded by gadgetry. On almost every visit, the forest surprised me with
that was transacted on its slopes: Shake a rag, leave some money, then come back later to find your bottle of liquid corn. More recently, the cove has seen less moonshining and more education. Shakerag is a favorite site for classes studying the natural and human history of the Mountain, and naturalists travel from across the Southeast to marvel at its springtime flush of botanical beauty. I went to the forest seeking a new way to experience the natural world. Like most teachers and scientists, my everyday work is marked by an almost total lack of silence. I jaw at colleagues and profess to students. When I go to nature, I go with an agenda: a lesson plan to cover, a hypothesis to test, or a series of measurements to make. This way of loving nature has its place, but it is a garrulous love, mostly unlistening. So, to engage more fully, I observed a small circle of Shakerag Hollow, one square meter of leaves and jumbled rocks, tucked in a notch on a wooded steep slope. I chose the square meter haphazardly, ambling through the forest until I found a rock that looked flat enough to sit on for a year without too much discomfort. I had never seen this little patch of forest before, so its promise was unknown. At dawn on the first of January, I climbed on my bicycle
interesting creatures (scuttling shrews, waddling salamanders, peculiar mushrooms) or ecological interactions (bees covered in pink pollen, writhing parasitic worms, ants wrestling with caterpillars). More often than not, I understood only a small part of what I had seen. To learn more, I ran to duPont Library and sat in the company of my students, reading all I could for my self-assigned homework from the woods. The gristle, bone, and maybe a few pieces of marrow were slowly digested. Later, a book, The Forest Unseen, emerged from this watch and these readings. Every essay in the book grew from an unexpected observation. Throughout, the forest set the narrative; I followed the year and scribbled my thoughts.
HE FOREST, I soon discovered, is ruled by a proletariat of tiny and seemingly obscure creatures. By slowing down and paying attention, I found them everywhere. Lying down, I pressed my nose to the litter: fat, warm, truffly smells. This is the scent of good soil, created by the exhalations of actinomycetes, an abundant group of bacteria. Who among us has heard of these, let alone appreciated their importance? Our nose understands what our mind does not. The pleasing smell of these bacteria
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indicates the human ecological niche. Their odor marks habitats where our food will grow, whereas unproductive soils smell acrid and unpleasant. Somehow, the aesthetics of aroma is tightly linked to our ecological needs. If our species’ habitat was wetlands instead of well-drained forests and field, we would feel an unconscious affinity for the odor of swamp gas. Actinomycetes not only rule the ecology of the forest’s soil, they have given us many of our more useful antibiotics. When epidemics of coughing, vomiting, and wheezing sweep through Sewanee’s campus, the sorry victims trek to a building in Shakerag Hollow’s watershed, University Health Services. Here, we are given drugs that came from
relationships, the whole wild world rests. Even that most grand of ecological dramas, the ongoing destabilization of the world’s climate, is manifest here in lowly ways. Forests, along with the oceans, have absorbed half of the carbon that we’ve poured into the atmosphere from unearthed coal and oil. Forests have therefore shielded us from the full consequences of our profligacy. The ledger of these carbon accounts is right before my eyes, etched onto every twig in the forest. The smooth bark of each twig is interrupted by rings left by the scales that protected last winter’s buds. These rings mark the places where the elongation of each twig stopped for the year. By reading back along the length of each twig, we can deduce
soil bacteria: streptomycin, erythromycin, neomycin, tetracycline, and more. Other species from the forest also yield helpful drugs. The fruit and stems of mayapple are loaded with anticancer chemicals; birth control pills came first from wild yams and cholesterol-lowering drugs may soon be developed from this species; and ginseng’s simulative and healing properties are so well known that the plant has been hunted nearly to extinction. Modern medicine is rooted here. This is why at Sewanee we require all biology students, even those with molecular and medical orientations, to take at least one class in field biology. The distance between the lab, the health center, and the woods is short. Sewanee’s geography and curriculum make this clear. Above the leaf litter, tawny snails graze on lichens and mushrooms. These, too, are humble creatures. They are hard to see, even harder to identify, and ignored by even the most ardent naturalists. Yet, without the calcium that snails conveniently provide in snack-sized morsels, mother birds could not lay their eggs. The flaming exuberance of birds’ feathers and songs would be snuffed if the snails were to disappear. Indeed, where acid rain has soured the soil’s chemistry, snails have declined, and bird eggs are thin-shelled and inviable. On these esoteric ecological
the yearly growth pattern of every twig and thereby calculate the amount of biomass that the forest has added. This is our future, written in woody script. Worldwide, the twigs send a silent but sobering message: The forests’ ability to absorb carbon has a limit and the rate at which they sponge up our excess is slowing. What could be more insignificant than a twig? Yet, like bacteria, wildflowers, and snails, these unobtrusive members of the biological community can tell us things worth hearing, if we’re willing to listen.
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spiring naturalists must learn to be quiet. This is particularly hard in a college class – 20 excited students and their enthusiastic professor make a lot of din. That noise drives away many animals and, more subtly, changes the patterns of communication among the animals that remain. By clamorously entering the forest, we change the nature of the place, and thereby fail to learn all we could. Our loudness is partly our inheritance as primates; chimpanzees and monkeys are the same way. But partly we’re so boisterous because we’ve lost the need to move with stealth. Re-entering the forest requires that we unlearn some habits. By sitting for hours, resisting the urge to fidget, rustle,
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or wander, I tried to sink into the forest’s network. Raccoons and deer came close; birds perched briefly on the sleeve of my jacket. I listened and heard the animals listening to each other. When a deer nearly walked into me as I sat, it leapt away, snorting. Chipmunks, squirrels, and thrushes picked up the alarm, sending sharp chik notes out across the mountainside in concentric circles. The waves
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took more than an hour to quiet down. As I got better at listening, I learned that hikers and classes were preceded by bow waves of animal calls; I could detect approaching people many minutes before arrival of the sound of their voices. The movement of forest animals creates more subtle ripples. A crow flying overhead creates a momentary pulse of irritation from squirrels; a passing hawk is tracked with
soft whistles from songbirds. It is not just animals that are connected in this way. Plants are joined by underground networks of fungi. Tiny fungal strands penetrate plants’ roots and carry molecules from one plant to another. The sturdy individuality of trees is therefore an illusion; sugars from one tree can travel into the trunk of another. Plants also communicate with each other with messages that drift through the air. By sniffing the air, plants can sense whether their neighbors are being attacked by insects. The “alarm chemicals” from damaged plants allow other plants to prepare defensive chemicals in their leaves, before marauding insects arrive. We, too, are part of the forest’s chemical network. When we walk in the woods, the airborne plant chemicals enter our lungs and our blood stream, finally binding to our nerves and giving us a sense of well-being. This chemical interpenetration might partly explain part of our affinity for nature. Deep in our bodies, our nerves are rewarded for participation in the forest’s community. Botanical highs are not just for stoners. Every individual in the forest is connected to others in an invisible web of communication, a “social network” of many dimensions. Now, in my classes, I include exercises to help students become aware of this network. We pay particular attention to sounds, learning to tune into the soundscape and to hear things that we previously missed or dismissed. The study of natural history is therefore like the study of music, poetry, or theater: It requires a heightened sense of the acoustic richness of our world.
aulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Sewanee, of course, teaches this from the moment we enter its gates. Here, we learn to listen to history, both the good and the bad, not for the sake of nostalgia, but to understand who we are and how we got here. My watch in the forest taught me that Faulkner’s words are as applicable to nature as they are to human culture. The ecological particularities of the present are wholly contingent on what has come before. On a very short time scale, that of decades and centuries, the unpredictable mischief of windbursts, rock slides, and ice storms has textured the forest, creating
a patchwork of tree ages and fallen wood. This patchiness creates thousands of microhabitats, supporting the extraordinarily high biological diversity of this forest. Scattered tree falls also contribute to the renewal of the forest by letting light penetrate to the ground to stimulate seedlings. Listening further back in time, over millennia, the calls of extinct species echo. The forest is recently bereaved. The “megafaunal” species that lived in this forest for millions of years are mostly gone. Until just over 10,000 years ago, the forest was grazed by mastodons, rhinosized ground sloths, giant herbivorous bears, long-nosed tapirs, peccaries, woodland bison, and several species of extinct deer. These hulking, meaty creatures all went extinct at the end of the last ice age, just after humans arrived in America. Our roots as a nation of barbecuers evidently run deep. The large animals that went extinct were mostly prodigious browsers of plants. Their demise drastically reduced the level of herbivory in the forest, forever changing the ecology of trees and other vegetation. Lately, the number of white-tailed deer in Sewanee has increased, reflecting a nationwide population increase and helped along by the University’s deer reintroduction and predator control program in the mid-20th century. Now, when I cycle across town at night, I often see half a dozen deer grazing on the Quad in the dappled light from the stained glass of All Saints’ Chapel. Every student has a deer story to tell — the fawn they found in Abbo’s Alley, the herd that they nearly hit as they drove to Julia’s for a sandwich, or the eight-point antlers they would love to hang on their wall. The deer provoke strong opinions from students, staff, and faculty. Some community members would like to annihilate the garden-munching pests; others feed the adorable creatures from their back porches. Awareness of ecological history can help put these competing views into context. The recent boom of white-tailed deer is a limping, impoverished return to the plant-munching days of the Pleistocene. Our forests have always experienced high levels of herbivory, so the deerless days of the early 20th century were an aberration. But, the current explosion of just one species is also
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unprecedented and, where deer are very abundant, many native plant species will struggle to survive. So, knowledge of history gives a more nuanced view of the present: Deer belong here, perhaps in some numbers, but they can also create ecological problems. Underfoot, the tumbled, eroded rocks recall even deeper time. This is the same rock from which the University’s academic buildings are made, a physical manifestation of our connection to this land. But the sandstone is more than a distinctive architectural feature, it is a lithic memento mori. Everything will pass away, the rocks say: 300 million years ago, forests of giant club mosses stood here, rooted in the eroded remains of an ancient mountain range. All this was built on dried ocean beds that are older yet. These forests and mountains have been repeatedly raised and erased, coming and going on a time scale incommensurable with human experience. When you and I are dead and gone, when Sewanee is not even a memory, when Homo sapiens has run its course (no species lasts for more than a few million years), these rocks will still be here, barely changed from their present state. By glimpsing this history, we can better see our own
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place. A graceful and fruitful relationship with the land will be easier if we understand our past. We’re newcomers to this continent, even newcomers to the world, being among the youngest of mammalian species. Perhaps, like any recently arrived guest, we should sit awhile, watching and learning?
hat is the relationship between contemplation and action? Are silent observation and active engagement in opposition? At one level, they are. I entered the forest alone, without students and without scientific paraphernalia. The forest set the pace of my watch. I let go of the talk and control that dominate classrooms and scientific research. But this contrast exists at the surface only. After a year in the woods, I learned that the discipline of silence can lead to more vivid speech. Further, the best observers are those who want to share what they have learned. My sit in the woods has enriched my work as a teacher more than any other experience. Paradoxically, action and contemplation feed each other. I am not alone in this conviction. Faculty colleagues across the curriculum at Sewanee are using contemplative
practice in their work as teachers. Jim Peters, in the philosophy department, and I have team-taught an Ecology and Ethics class in which we asked students to find their own place in the forest to weekly sit and reflect on their work. Bran Potter’s Walking the Land class in environmental studies has students do a similar exercise. Jennifer Michael uses contemplative approaches in her teaching of poetry in the English department, using silence and periods of reflection to move deeper into texts. In the religion department, Sid Brown uses both contemplative practice and action in the community in her classes and her book, A Buddhist in the Classroom, explores how contemplative practice can inform and enrich everyday classroom life. In several different disciplines, faculty use a version of the Christian monastic practice of lectio divina, mixing group readings with periods of silent reflection. This method helps us to hear both the author’s and each other’s voices as we study the written word. None of these projects involves stepping away from the academic rigor that Sewanee has emphasized for so many years, nor do they proselytize any particular doctrine. Rather, contemplative practices offer additional ways to engage with texts, to understand ideas, and to fall in love with learning. For my part, I came away from my watch in the forest with a better grasp of how the ecosystem works and with hundreds of stories to tell my students. Perhaps more important, I appreciated in a new way the limitations of these stories. As teachers, our interpretations capture only a portion of the richness of our subjects, whether those subjects are animals, scientific processes, literary texts, or works of art. This knowledge, that there are insights, challenges, and wonders still unknown, is a great motivator for professors and students alike. At a deeper level, facing the vastness of our ignorance, seeing the unknown turn into the unknowable, is a teacher of epistemological humility. After a year of study, I still could not name all the species visible in the one square meter, let alone the
invisible hordes of microscopic creatures. Understanding the origins of these organisms or the relationships among them was even further out of reach. Nature is a vast and ancient manuscript; we’ve recovered and read only scraps. These are soaring conclusions to have drawn from a year-long study of a square meter of forest. On the face of it, such flights through the canopy of academe can hardly be warranted by the modest scope of my observations. But my hope is that the circle of forest has served as a window into something larger. If not, then I am content down here with the snails and can tell you some interesting tales about their mating habits … I’ll close, as professors so often do, with an exhortation: Please try this at home. Pick a tree in an urban park, a patch of land behind your house, a stream running behind some condominiums, or a view of the sky. Then, return to it often and watch how the narrative of the place gets richer and deeper with time. My experience suggests that as you give one small place your attention, life’s marrow will become just a little easier to find.
The Forest Unseen The Forest Unseen (Viking), David Haskell’s critically acclaimed book chronicling the year he spent observing a square meter of forest floor in Sewanee’s Shakerag Hollow, is available now from bookstores nationwide and online retailers. The book has been chosen as the freshman reading for students entering Sewanee this fall. Learn more at theforestunseen.com.
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Reflections on The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell, published in the summer issue of the Sewanee Magazine.