The Forest Unseen named Book of the Year

by Lam Ho

This year, about five hundred incoming freshman were asked to read Professor David Haskell’s The Forest Unseen. The book describes one square meter of land where he observes the activity around him with rigor and patience — and without specific scientific experiments.

National Academies selected Haskell’s work for communicating important environmental issues to the general public. With recordings from his days in the mandala (named after a Buddhist practice that demonstrates impermanence and spiritual connectedness), Haskell was able to attract the attention of numerous prestigious organizations, National Academies being only one of them.

Haskell’s work is a very personal piece built from a desire to become more attentive. In an interview, he explained, “I wanted to integrate [a] contemplative approach with my work as a biologist and a teacher, so I wandered into the woods about ten years ago and haphazardly picked a spot to sit.” He humorously added that he selected this square meter in particular because it “accommodate[d] [his] rear end.”

Accidental or not, the location he selected became a place where he built a relationship with nature, both inside and outside of his body. A famous chapter in his book describes two golf balls littered accidentally in the mandala. In the chapter, Haskell explains that even man-made objects are a part of nature. His unique observation that even golf balls are connected to the Earth provokes a more genuine reflection upon how humans treat the environment. His initial outrage becomes a realization: loving nature also means loving human actions. Moreover, loving nature also means loving “human ingenuity.” In this way, he asks the readers to reevaluate the side that they take in the hot topic: environmental debate. When asked about how readers can benefit their natural surroundings, he replied, “Our bodies are natural too, as wild and as natural as any old growth tree. Nature is not somewhere else, it’s what we are. I think we’ve lost touch with that reality.”

After The Forest Unseen was published, Haskell continued to read scientific works. The best scientific books he read in 2012 include The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane and Spillover by David Quammen. He said, “Other interesting writers that I’ve read lately include Robin Kimmerer, Kathleen Jamie, and Brian Doyle.” Haskell will have a three to four minute speech during which he will give thanks for the prestigious award. This speech will precede the annual Sackler lecture, a celebration of the National Academy of Sciences’ 150th anniversary.

Still holding to scientific relevance, the book was chosen by National Academies for being colorful, poignant, and informative. Despite its awards and decorations, The Forest Unseen conveys a basic understanding of science and “celebrate[s] the stories of the other species in the forest” and encourages readers to “think about our relationship with these ‘others.’” Haskell was able to communicate a deep connection with nature through his quiet reflections and inspires others to do the same.