Review of The Forest Unseen, by David George Haskell

Reviewed by Anne DiFiore

A square meter of Tennessee forest can give us insights into all forests.

This is the premise of The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (2012, 288 pp). Haskell, Professor of Biology at Sewanee, the University of the South, visits a corner of old growth forest every few days over the course of a year to record his observations. Inspired by the intricate sand paintings, or mandalas, created by Tibetan monks to represent the cosmos, Haskell lays down a hula hoop to mark the boundaries of his mandala. Armed with a hand lens, he uncovers within this microcosm stories of creation, evolution, adaptation, life unexplored, and man’s relationship to the natural world.

For Master Naturalists, this book deserves a place of honor on our bookshelves, alongside A Sand County Almanac and other classics of ecology/natural science. Through Haskell’s penetrating lens, readers are able to see and appreciate the often unseen organisms that populate the forest’s soil and upper layers. He then switches to a wide-angle lens, educating the reader on larger ecological issues and emphasizing always the interconnectedness of life on our planet.

In his January 1 entry, “Partnerships,” Haskell discusses the amazingly successful union of fungi and algae—the “world-conquering” lichens and the first living thing he encounters in the mandala. Lichens cover 10% of the earth’s surface. How symbiotic relationships push evolution forward–microbes living in digestive tracts, the interdependence of fungi and plants—is a recurring theme in the book.Humans, he notes wryly, “… are lichens on a grand scale” (p. 5).

A sense of humor infuses his writing. In “Faces,” he reluctantly confesses to finding a trio of young raccoons adorable (naturalists aren’t supposed to make such judgments)—and then analyzes human responses to animals. In “Earthstar” he debates removing golf balls from the mandala and decides to allow geological forces to return them to their elements, reminding us that humans are part of nature and “our biggest failing is a lack of compassion for the world, including ourselves” (p. 158).

Haskell’s sense of wonder at nature’s ingenuity and variety is evident in each entry. The firefly’s incandescence, the turkey vulture’s ability to destroy anthrax bacteria and cholera viruses through digestion, the snail’s reproductive strategies—fascinate him, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

Haskell takes the scientific community to task for its alarm cry that the recent rise in deer population is ruining our forests. He argues that historical and archaeological records point to deer being plentiful inhabitants until the 1800s, when they had been extirpated. “The deerless forests of the early and mid-1900s were aberrations” (p. 31). For 50 million years, large mammalian browsers—wood bison, oxen, tapirs, peccaries, herbivorous bears, and mastodons—feasted on forests until they were hunted into extinction. Only the deer remain. In “Flowers,” he credits deer for dispersing wild flowers from their post Ice Age home along the Gulf Coast across the continent, arguing that ants who travel little more than a few feet from their nests would not have been able to accomplish the task so quickly.

The author laments that while science informs and educates us, it does not help us “listen” to nature. In “Epilogue,” Haskell urges us to create our own mandalas for ecological exploration. His advice: To leave behind expectations and to be present—see, listen, smell—and return, over and over again.

“The desire to name, understand, and enjoy the rest of the community of life is part of our humanity. Quiet observation of living mandalas offers one way to rediscover and develop this inheritance” (p. 245).

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Sign up for Harvesting Garden Water, at Green Springs, 25 February

Green Spring Gardens Park, 4601 Green Spring Road, Alexandria

25 February 2018, 1.30-2.30 pm

Water harvesting involves strategies to manage and enhance the water resources on your land, leading to healthier plants and lower water bills. Understanding and implementing just a few simple water harvesting techniques, such as swales, hugelkultur beds, and rain gardens can improve the way water moves through your yard and how effectively your plants are able to use it. Designer Michael Judd shows you designs that best fit your land, how they are created and how to make them look good. These principles will help make your land more diverse, productive, and ecologically friendly. Register via ParkTakes. Fairfax County residents $10, others $12.

Counts toward continuing education credits for master naturalists.

The Fairfax County volunteer website has LOTS of service opportunities

Do you need fresh ideas on where to find meaningful volunteer work? The Fairfax County volunteer website has a special section listing volunteer opportunities for people who are interested in the environment, parks, recreation, or sports. 

You will need to register, but it only takes 10-15 minutes to complete the application. Dozens of opportunities qualify for FMN service hours (e.g., volunteering at our county parks, rec centers and other public lands).  

Don’t forget to check the County website for new opportunities from time to time; you can even search for opportunities by date.  If you see more than you can do yourself, share them with the rest of us!

Review of Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren

Reviewed by Sarah Glassco

Lab Girl (2016, 512 pp) recounts the life and career of a research scientist in the field of  geobiology. Because her roots are relevant to her present, Jahren writes about  her childhood in Minnesota, where she was raised in an unemotional, uncommunicative family. She spent her days with her mother, who gardened to put food on the table and studied literature to earn a college degree by correspondence course. In the evenings, Jahren played in her father’s laboratory. (He taught college physics and earth science.) Here she felt she “transformed from a girl into a scientist,” so she took the necessary steps to become a plant scientist with a gift for writing. Her anecdotes are as compelling as her insights. Clear-sighted, funny, and unromantic, she describes the professional challenges for a female scientist.

A failed experiment early in her career caused her to shift her approach to botanical research. “I tried to visualize a new environmental science that was not based on the world that we wanted with plants in it, but instead based on a vision of the plants’ world with us in it.” Much of what we study in our master naturalist training backs up this sensibility. The whole field of ecology is based on understanding the complex interrelationships of unique organisms. In our naturalist training lecture on botany, we learned about the importance of fungal mychorrizae to the growth of plants. We also learned that the invasive garlic mustard is particularly destructive because it poisons the arbuscular fungal mychorrizae on which many native plants rely.

Science is complex, but good storytellers like Jahren make it as simple as possible. To this end, she structured the book in layers, with essays about plant lives that parallel phases in her life and career. She recounts the latest research into plants, and gives us glimpses of discoveries that are changing scientific ideas about their natures.

Her observation that “perhaps I was destined to study plants for decades only in order to more fully appreciate that they are beings we can never truly understand” is relevant to all of us, no matter where we are in our own quests to be worthy, engaged participants in the natural world. Now, when I see a maple tree, I remember that the saplings beneath it rely on water drawn up and shared from the mature tree’s roots for their survival. When I see a willow tree, I remember that its annual growth rate is nearly twice that of its closest competitor, and that it stores nutrient reserves in older branches and sheds them to send colonists out into the world.

You too will be amazed by the stories this masterful naturalist tells, and inspired to share her appreciation of plants as complex beings with lives of their own.

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Invasive cleanups at Salona Meadows

There are several volunteer opportunities coming up to help control invasive plants at Salona Meadows in McLean. Alan Ford, president of the Potomack Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society, leads the Saturday cleanups on the following dates:  Feb. 17, Mar. 3, Mar. 17, and Mar. 31. Volunteers will work from 11 a.m. to about 1:30 or 2 p.m.

Email Alan at amford@acm.org if you’re interested! The property is protected by a conservation easement that Northern Virginia Conservation Trust monitors, and it is slated to become a Fairfax County Park.  Salona Meadows is located on Dolley Madison Blvd. and Buchanan Street, and parking is available at Trinity United Methodist Church, just across the street.

College Scholarships for Natural Resource/Conservation Students

The Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts annually offers several $1,000 scholarships to graduating high school seniors for college study. The scholarships support studies related to natural resource conservation. Fairfax County students must submit their applications to the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, which will select one student for consideration by the state committee. Applications can be found online and are due by March 12, 2018.

Apply for the 2018 Youth Conservation Camp

For over 35 years, the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts has sponsored a week long summer conservation camp in July for Virginia high school students on the campus of Virginia Tech. The camp provides a week of learning about Virginia’s natural resources from conservation professionals and university faculty. Youth Conservation Camp is a selective program. Interested students must send their applications to the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, whose staff will select which students will attend and be eligible for partial scholarships. The pre-scholarship cost is $550.

Rain Barrel Spring Workshop Dates Announced

The Northern Virginia Rain Barrel Partners’ have announced the spring dates for their popular build-your-own workshops and pre-made rain barrel sale. Build-your-own workshops will be held on March 24th and April 14th, and the pre-made barrel sale will be April 20th-21st. Online registration and ordering will open in early-to-mid February.

Get Ready for the 2018 Potomac River Watershed Cleanup!

Sure, it’s still winter, but it’s not too early to start planning for the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s 30th annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup. Volunteer to pick up trash at one of the many participating cleanup sites throughout Fairfax County and beyond, or better yet, get some friends or family together and organize your own cleanup – with bags and gloves provided, of course! If you’ve never led a cleanup before, consider attending the Site Leader training workshop on February 10th. The official day of the Watershed Cleanup is April 14th, but events will be held throughout the month of April, and even into March and May. Please visit the Alice Ferguson Foundation website to volunteer.

Get ready for the Great Backyard Bird Count!

Enjoy observing local birds? You can make your observations count. The Great Backyard Bird Count, running from February 16-19 is a fun, free, family-friendly event that asks us to observe and count the birds in our backyards, building balconies, parks, schools–anywhere we may find them. Learn how to sign up and get started counting here.

Help spread the word with pre-made resources here.

In support of the bird count, DC Audubon is organizing a bird walk on Saturday, February 17 at 10:00 am at the U.S. Arboretum. For details and other updates, sign up here.

Join citizen scientists around the world for this annual tradition!