The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature

David George Haskell

Viking, 2012

Sacred art in Hindu and Buddhist traditions often takes the form of mandalas. Mandala is a Sanskirt word that can be translated as circle. In Indian religions, beautiful Mandalas are used, among other things, as aids in meditation. Because they represent the wholeness and unity of all life, and of the universe itself, they can help one to ponder very large ideas by contemplating a very small space, or as the poet William Blake said, “to see a world in a grain of sand.”

In the new book The Forest Unseen, biologist David George Haskell used the idea of a mandala to think about nature. He marks out his own mandala, a circle just over a meter across, to see if he can answer the question, “Can the whole forest be seen through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks, and water?” Haskell’s mandala is in a patch of old-growth forest in Southern Tennessee. He visits it regularly, almost daily, for a year, taking readers along to share his observations and meditations. As it turns out, he sees far more than the whole forest through this small window.

If this sounds like a recipe for boring (245 pages all about one small circle of ground in a Tennessee forest?), be assured that, as with monks meditating on their mandalas or the poet seeing the universe in a grain of sand, that meter of ground in Tennessee is just the source. Haskell remains on that square meter only literally. From that small patch of old-growth forest in Southern Tennessee, Haskell takes you, figuratively and imaginatively, to many more places you’ve never been before.

While reading The Forest Unseen you will learn a lot, quite effortlessly, but the interesting facts – how birds keep warm in winter, how dehydration threatens ticks, how fireflies flash — are of less importance than the sheer joy of visiting the mandala along with Haskell and seeing what unfolds there from day to day and season to season.

The Forest Unseen contains its share of harsh realities (extinctions, vanishing habitats), but unlike many books designed to make readers care about nature, it doesn’t rely on cautionary tales or guilt to do the job. It takes you sweetly by the hand and leads you into the forest to make introductions.

The book is slow, gentle, kind. Reading it made me want to stake out my own small circle of the universe, just to watch and listen and think — and see what happens.

You can read The Forest Unseen all the way through in order, and you may want to. But it is also a great book for visiting from time to time, just the way Haskell visited his mandala.