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Finding Zen in a Patch of Nature

Finding Zen in a Patch of Nature- It is afternoon in a hardwood forest on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau, and the cicadas are singing.

Finding Zen in a Patch of Nature
Finding Zen in a Patch of Nature

David Haskell, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of the South, is taking me through part of the 13,000 acres owned by the university, to a small circle of forest floor a bit over a yard in diameter. He visited this randomly chosen forest “mandala,” as he calls it, many times over the course of a year and recorded his observations in “The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature.”

He is pointing out flowers, salamanders, insects, trees, as we follow a well-worn hiking path, and stops for a moment to listen. These are swamp cicadas, he says, not the kind that hatch all at once after years underground and hammer the ear mercilessly.

“Was it last year or the year before we had the 13-year cicadas?” he says. “I took my sound pressure meter down to a place where they were really loud, and it came to over 90 decibels. At 85 OSHA says you need hearing protection in your workplace.

“Everybody else hates them.”

But to him, the noise is biological alchemy, sunlight into sound. “These guys have been feeding on roots for 13 years. And so it’s 13 years of combined Tennessee forest productivity being blasted out.”

It is this kind of perception, halfway between metaphor and field note, that makes his voice a welcome entry in the world of nature writers. He thinks like a biologist, writes like a poet, and gives the natural world the kind of open-minded attention one expects from a Zen monk rather than a hypothesis-driven scientist. He avoids terms like “nature deficit disorder” and refuses to scold the bug-fearing masses. His pitch is more old-fashioned, grounded in aesthetics as much as science.

“You can live a perfectly happy life never having heard of Shakespeare,” he says, “but your life is in some ways a little diminished, because there’s such beauty there.

“And I think the same is true of nature. Much of it is useless to us, and that’s O.K. It’s not true that every species that goes extinct is like another rivet off the plane and the plane’s going to crash. We lost the passenger pigeon and the U.S. economy did not tank. But we lost the passenger pigeon and we lost some of this remarkable music made out of atoms and DNA.”

Dr. Haskell wanted to tell the story of forest ecology and also to refresh himself with a kind of natural history meditation, as opposed to goal-directed scientific research. He has a daily practice of sitting and concentrating on his breathing (he doesn’t use the word “meditation”) of no specific religious bent. He does, however, set himself apart from crusading atheists, like Richard Dawkins, saying he harbors a “deep suspicion that the world is more than atoms rearranging themselves.”

He did no experiments and no research at his forest circle. He sat, and watched, and listened.

“I had my hand lens and binoculars and a notebook,” he said. “And that was it. And of course my senses.”

He is not, however, averse to technology when it comes to reaching an audience. He blogs(davidhaskell.wordpress.com) and tweets (@dghaskell).

As we walk in the forest, he points out shagbark hickory, baneberry (“very poisonous”) and blue cohosh (“you wouldn’t want to eat it”). The forest is rich in animal and plant diversity partly because it never suffered the onslaught of glaciers that scoured more northern forests in the last ice age. His small circle lies in an area that has been untouched for hundreds of years.

But this forest is no pristine wilderness, as is obvious from the occasional golf ball resting under the ground cover. The path we are on is well down the side of a rough hill, beyond the crest of which lies the golf course. “They remind me of eggs,” Dr. Haskell says. “You hatch one of these things and you get a golfer.”

Dr. Haskell was born in England, raised in Paris and educated at Oxford and Cornell before he came to Tennessee, 16 years ago, with his wife, Sarah Vance. One result of his background is that his accent is so hard to pin down, he says, that wherever he goes, people say, “You’re not from around here.”

At Oxford he met two people who had great influence on his approach: the evolutionary biologist William Hamilton, with whom he studied, and Ms. Vance, a biologist, artist, goat keeper and soap maker. They live on less than an acre in Sewanee with a garden and dairy goats for Ms. Vance’s Cudzoo Farm, along with ducks, rabbits, bees, a dog and several cats.

His wife, Dr. Haskell says, “really taught me what it would be like to look at nature with a more empathetic eye. And a careful eye.”

Dr. Hamilton, whose work on the genetic basis for altruism inspired both Dr. Dawkins’s book “The Selfish Gene” and E. O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology,” taught him that “the big ideas were not in conflict with the particularities of natural history.” In the field, he said, Dr. Hamilton would “be noticing little tiny wildflowers and telling me not to put my bike on them.”

We reach the circle where Dr. Haskell made his observations, a spot he picked, he writes, “by walking haphazardly through the forest and stopping when I found a suitable rock on which to sit.” The name “mandala” was inspired by the sand paintings made by Buddhist monks. In describing their making, he writes, “The whole universe is seen through this small circle of sand.”

In the book, he asks, “Can the whole forest be seen through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks and water?”

But unlike a mandala, which calls the eye to it with its intricacy, this bit of nature has nothing that would catch the eye of a passer-by. He looks it over and says, “The first thing I see is this big old stick that’s fallen across here and that has fallen since I wrote the book. And there’s a downy woodpecker that’s been at it since it fell and has taken out one of the wood-boring beetles.”

“Usually, if you stay here for a while, something is going to happen,” he says. As if on cue, a bird’s cry pierces the cicadas’ hum. “There’s a blue jay. There are the cicadas. There are the harvestmen crawling around.”

He spent as much time doing research for the book as he did at the mandala, and some of the beauty he captures is intellectual, not sensual, found in the balance of conflict and cooperation in the forest. Of the toxins in plants and the detoxifying biochemistry of some herbivores, he writes, “The mandala is not a banquet waiting for guests to arrive but a devil’s buffet of poisoned plates from which herbivores snatch the least deadly morsels.”

When he sees ichneumon wasps in a fleck of sunlight running about, searching, he harnesses language and his acuity of vision to describe the moment: “Every minute or two the wasps flip onto their sides and shudder their legs together, cleaning away the silk that spiders have strewn over the mandala.”

Then he harnesses history and biology to note that the reproductive habits of the wasps — they lay their eggs in caterpillars, which the larvae, when hatched, eat from the inside out — posed the “problem of evil” for Darwin and led him to agnosticism.

Science did not, however, give him his most enduring insight, which came while he was watching squirrels on a sunny December day. They were not frantic as usual, he writes.

“I watch them for an hour,” he writes, “and mostly they loll in the sun, limbs sprawled.” It is a scene that seems a warning against too narrow a reading of nature.

“Science,” he writes, “deepens our intimacy with the world. But there is a danger in an exclusively scientific way of thinking. The forest is turned into a diagram; animals become mere mechanisms; nature’s workings become clever graphs.”

These loafing squirrels were something else. “They are alive; they are our cousins,” he writes. “And they appear to enjoy the sun, a phenomenon that occurs nowhere in the curriculum of modern biology.” Science is one story, he writes, true but not complete, and the world cannot be encompassed in one story.

Still, his inner scientist — noting, recording, cataloging — is never far from the surface. As we sit at the mandala, Dr. Haskell keeps on noticing one small thing after another, even as we are nearing time to head out of the forest.

“Look,” he says, “here’s a big old cricket. Looks to me like one of the cave crickets with the huge long antennae. That’s a species I have not seen in this circle before.”

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