The Preacher of Twigs

David Haskell has a gift for taking stock of the fine biological details of life while simultaneously contemplating their meanings. By inhabiting the dual worlds of biologist and writer, he has found a way to make ecology accessible and astounding. In Haskell’s acclaimed first book, Pulitzer Prize finalist The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch In Nature, he spent an entire year simply observing a single square meter of forest.

Haskell, a self-described “Preacher of Twigs,” was very much inspired by a personal practice of meditation. Not surprisingly, one of the book’s major themes is that the self is an illusion: “I am not a subject observing objects,” he says, “I am part of this mandala.”

In Haskell’s opinion, to believe ourselves as separate from nature is a false illusion—one that is often made worse by nature writers themselves. These writers tend to look to the wild as a place of transcendence, rather than embeddedness. In contrast, Haskell writes of the incredible beauty and fascination and pain found in ecology, and suggests that through learning about other species, we come back to knowing ourselves.

David Haskell
Author David Haskell says we learn a lot about ourselves when we study other species.  Photo by Buck Butler.

In his wild world, the grand questions are often rooted in the particularities. From Haskell’s descriptions of homosexual trees to examinations of bird acoustic alarm networks he calls the “original Tweetosphere,” the book comes across as a sort of protest against the dominant grain of hypermobility and globalization. “If we don’t know our home,” he cautions, “we have nothing to offer global society.”

But, Haskell warns, we can never truly know the forest. We are indeed limited by our own poor spectrum of senses. Chickadees, for example, have 4-dimensional eye-sight. They live in a fundamentally different forest than we do. Still, by observing ourselves observing nature, Haskell believes we can learn a great deal more about both.

SAGE Magazine’s GinaRae LaCerva sat down with David Haskell for a wide-ranging conversation about the many congruencies between religion, music, technology and ecology. The following is an edited and condensed excerpt.

SAGE: There is a long history of nature writers who have spent time observing one place — Gilbert White, Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard. How do you see yourself within this tradition? Are you following a well-worn path or do you bring something new?

David Haskell: I’m in that tradition. I sat down, shut up and paid attention for a while. But at a different spatial scale. This was one square meter, and it was very deliberately drawing on meditative practices. For example Vipassana meditation,  where you just return your attention to the breath over and over.

Well, here I wasn’t returning my attention to my breath, but to this one very small area. The hope was that by narrowing the frame of focus, things come into a crisper focus. Like a pinhole camera. That’s the paradox of contemplative practice, as you slow down, as you do less, you perhaps see more—or at least see in a different way. As we look at other species on the planet, we come to know ourselves quite well. So really it’s a reflection. Again and again in the book, I learn about what it is to be a Homo sapiens.

SAGE: So you see a real connection between a Buddhist aesthetic and environmental aesthetic?

DH: The guiding metaphor for the book is the forest mandala, which comes out of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and there are also other Buddhist and Taoist sensibilities built into how I discuss humanity’s relation to the community of life. I think there are, in fact, quite deep parallels and congruencies between ecology and religion. There is at least a parallelism of language. Theology is often quite ecological in how it describes the supernatural. It’s about connection to something beyond yourself. It’s about connection within your community. It’s about the limits of the view of seeing the world as structured around the self.

In ecology, there is no great designer or composer, it comes from the ground up, from all the individual interactions among these species and networks and individuals producing an overall thing that is uncomposed music. There isn’t a big designer directing the motion of every ant. Ecology is interesting because there is harmony but also a great deal of dissonance and disorder.

SAGE: What role, then, do you see humans playing in this music? We seem more often than not to be on the outside screwing things up.

DH: Yeah I would actually disagree. I see humans as being part of the whole, we are a species just like any other species and we are no less alien or less biological than any other. We are certainly having dramatic effects out there in the world—we have become more like a geologic process—but you can find examples of that having happened through other processes. Humans are a natural process, as are meteorites, as was the oxygen revolution, as was the evolution of angiosperms that completely disrupted all the ecological communities and took them over. The amazing thing really is that after 3.5 billion years, life is still here and it’s thriving. The odds of that would seemingly be quite low.

So the challenge is, how can we have an ethic that views us as belonging to this system but also calls us into a responsible relationship with it? And I think part of that responsibility has got to be about increased awareness of the consequences of our actions. There are a lot of us with expanding appetites. It’s not so much that humans are fundamentally different, it’s that humans are so energetic and abundant that we have perhaps a very strong responsibility to move out of our ignorance. I think seeing us as somehow different, actually, is not helpful because it continues this idea that we can live by different rules. Ecological rules apply to us just as much as anything else.

For me, the bothersome thing is that a lot of the damage and the loss is not being done out of necessity, that we need these things, but because we just want them. We are consuming vast numbers of resources for nothing other than short-term, very minor pleasures. This seems a rather thin reason to destroy what is a gift that we haven’t deserved—which is to have this amazing world that can sustain us. It comes down to how can people live in this community of life so that we can all thrive. That’s the dream, right? That we can all thrive.

SAGE: How do we go about doing this? How does knowing our immediate environment help?

DH: It enriches our lives to know what bird’s song is outside the front door, to be able to identify a few local trees and to know the history of the town we’re in. I think they make us better community members. And there is practical utility as well: we are more likely to make better decisions if we know the players involved. I think that is particularly important in terms of management or activism. If we are going to be managing or telling people how they should or shouldn’t be managing, it needs to be based on experience and relationship in that place.

People should just try this, and all you would lose is a few minutes. Make a friend with a tree on campus and check in on it everyday. Check the quality of light on it, when does it bud out? Or find some other way of committing—what is the nature of the sky, what is the quality of light everyday? The sky is an amazing thing, an amazing informative thing, but mostly we don’t look at it.

SAGE Magazine: One final thing I have to ask: in writing this book, what one thing did you discover about your environment that was the most otherworldly, that felt like it was lifted from science fiction?

DH: I’d say fungi. When you get down on the leaf litter, in the late summer when it’s really wet from a lot of rain, there is an incredible diversity of fungal fruiting bodies that are just a millimeter tall. It really is a crazy other world. Like the surface of a planet that I wasn’t previously familiar with because I hadn’t been facedown on the forest floor with a hand lens very much. And here it is, right under my feet, all these weird little structures. And you could imagine spaceships flying around, and in fact there are in the form of fungal gnats. And then through a hand lens a huge snail comes through. You know it’s only a centimeter or two long, but through a hand lens it’s this great creature covered in glossy glass. I’m a big believer in the legalization of hand lenses, because it really takes you into an altered mental state. And it doesn’t drive the drug trade. And you won’t get a felony or misdemeanor for engaging in this.

 Edited by Noah Sokol.

GinaRae LaCerva

GinaRae LaCerva is a Masters of Environmental Science candidate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

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