Cover image courtesy of Camille Pfister.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to David Haskell’s books as “novels.” Haskell’s books are not novels and are now referred to as books in this article.
For the first time in nearly three years, Friends of the Library hosted an in-person event in the Torian Room, open to students, faculty, staff, and community members. The room filled with people as Professor David Haskell read from two of his books- The Forest Unseen, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary, and Sounds Wild and Broken, which came out this year.
Professor Haskell is a professor of Biology and Environmental Studies, and along with the two books he read from, he has written two more books and a number of academic papers, essays, poems, and op-eds.
In his first book, Haskell took the audience on a sensory journey through the well-known Sewanee staple: Shakerag Hollow, where the book takes place. “I pick one square of forest, and return to this place again and again to just sit down and shut up, and try to pay attention.”
As he read, exploring the intricate details of the forest where one pays close attention, Haskell focused on the “early warning network” that all animals have. He explored this network as an idea that animals use sounds and movements to warn other animals that danger approaches. “It is in an animal’s best interest to pay attention to what alarms others,” Haskell explained.
Haskell emphasized the importance of observing quietly, however also explored the idea that it is impossible to have “dissociated observation in the forest.” Every action we make, accidentally startling a chipmunk or stepping on a “living leaf” affects the forest and changes it. As Haskell put it, “The trees are listening.”
The forest also has the same effect on us. Each tiny movement and communication within the forest affects us when we open ourselves to the beauty of it. Haskell explores the connection between individuals through sound, and the “networks of relationships” the forest has with every living creature that resides in the landscape.
“Forest lovers know very well that trees affect our minds,” Haskell said. “The Japanese have named this knowledge, and turned it into a practice, shinrin-yoku, or “bathing in the forest air.” It seems that participation in the forest’s community of information may bring us a measure of well-being at the wet, chemical, core of ourselves.”
Following the reading of his first book, Haskell discussed the importance of the five senses and how, although animals and humans have vastly different understandings of the senses, if we use our senses to study their senses, we can connect to the stories of life.
“Studying the senses of other beings, through our own abilities, is a way of connecting into those stories of relationships and connection that are the very start of life,” Haskell said.
Furthering this concept of sounds, senses, and community, Haskell then read from his latest book, Sounds Wild and Broken, which begins at the start of the universe and explores the journey of the earth’s sound, asking two main questions: “How did the earth’s sound come to be so varied?” and “How do humans fit in?”
Haskell argues that we are in a human-caused “age of sonic diminishment.” The book argues that each creature and living organism releases beautiful noise, and yet due to human’s “excess of noise” there is so much unheard.
“So we have a great silencing happening, and paradoxically, we also have an excess of noise,” Haskell said. “So in a reduction of sound in some places, and way too much noise of one kind in others. [Noise] that smothers the acoustic networks of other beings.”
Haskell writes about using a hydrophone to hear the water and all the underwater creatures that reside in this “acoustic domain.”
“Suddenly, I am plunged into a pan of sizzling bacon,” Haskell said. “Sparkles surround me, a sonic shimmer. I’ve arrived in the acoustic domain of snapping shrimp.”
Haskell analyzes the “acoustic immersion” of the underwater world and explores the “boisterous place” that is the sea. Using the hydrophone, Haskell was able to explore a new sound of nature, previously unknown to him.
“The acoustic realm of these fish seemed alien to me,” Haskell said. “I was used to the melodies and timbers and rhythms of humans, birds, and insects.”
Haskell explores the community of nature and the living, breathing, sounds that are everywhere in all four of his books, and this latest addition to his collection simply adds to the beauty.
Haskell leaves the listeners and readers with a question that he explores in his books: “What does it mean to be in a living community?”