Sally James

Seattle Science Writer

Blog post

Read “The Forest Unseen”

David Haskell, crouched on the forest floor, looking at a plant through a magnifying glass.

The book, “The Forest Unseen,” is seductive and delightful. Every one of the short chapters takes you on a journey from an overview down to a microscopic and then sometimes genetic level of an organism. All of this is part of the author’s visits to a small section of a forest in the Southeastern United States.

These chapters take surprising turns, but seem crafted to keep the reader comfortable and close, even while taking us far inside a molecule or a historic evolutionary branch or the chemistry of photosynthesis. We are omnivores in this journey, sampling from a wide variety of delicious scientific flavors, while our guide remains true to his emotional and philosophical musings.
Biologist professor David Haskell teaches at the University of the South, but writes that he held his “scientist” way of looking at bay while he visited the same square-meter section of forest for a whole year. “This year, I have tried to put down scientific tools and to listen: to come to nature without a hypothesis, without a scheme for data extraction, without machines and probes.” He calls his square meter – the mandala.
Please enjoy my list of some favorite chapters and see whether this book crawls under your skin and makes a place for itself.
1. Samara
The spinning maple seed that seems to helicopter through the forest is a samara. Maple samaras “live in a little-known border country between the aerodynamics of fast, large objects like cars and airplanes and the aerodynamics of slow, miniscule objects, like motes of dust.”
2. Litter
While helping us understand the layer of detritus on the forest floor, he takes us beneath for a survey of the mysteries just below fallen leaves. “The rootlet is a smooth, creamy cable sprouting a maze of hairs that radiates out into the soil surface. Each of these hairs is a delicate extension of the root’s surface, a tentacle stretched out from a plant cell.”
3. Mosses
“I gaze through my hand lens and see water caught everywhere in the moss. In the angles between leaves and stems, water is caught in silver pools, trapped by surface tension. Droplets don’t flow: they clasp and climb. Moss seems to have erased gravity and conjured rising snakes of liquid. This is the world of the meniscus, the lip of water that pulls itself up the wall of a glass cup. And moss is all glass edge, an architecture that invites then traps water in its labyrinthine core.”
4. Medicine
Through the eyes of a man who has recently been given drugs for his heart, we get to see the forest plants as sources of aspirin and digitalis. But he also speculates on how certain plants developed their armories to protect them in tough times. “Ginseng, yam and mayapple are all small plants that overwinter as nutritious underground stems or roots. “ They are vulnerable to attack. Their defense is to soak themselves in chemicals that attack mammals. “By finding just the right dose, herbalists can turn the plants’ defensive arsenal into an impressive collection of stimulants, purgatives, blood thinners, hormones and other medicines.”
5. Moth
“A moth shuffles his tawny feet over my skin, tasting me with thousands of chemical detectors. Six tongues! Every step is a burst of sensation.” Later, we learn this moth is harvesting salt from the sweat of the author to give as a “gift” to a potential mate.
6. Underground bestiary
“In the end, it is not just the diversity of the bestiary that our size and dryness hides from us but the true nature of life’s physiology. We are bulky ornaments on life’s skin, riding the surface, only dimly aware of the microscopic multitudes that make up the rest of the body.”

The book was published in 2012, won many awards, and came to my attention through a post by Carl Zimmer on Twitter.

Photo of the author above by Buck Butler.

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