Book Review: The Forest Unseen

Sand Mandala September 2012

By Vicki Linton

If you head into the woods hoping to see animals, holding pictures of bears and wolves or other large mammals in your head, you are likely to be disappointed. Except for perhaps some white tailed deer, you are likely as not to see “nothing.” Most mammals are nocturnal and very good at making themselves scarce.

Yet right under your feet are thousands of life forms, from mosses and fungi to invertebrates of all sorts. Two things may be necessary to see some of these smaller beings: a patient way of looking and an expert guide.

The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell provides both.

Haskell sets out to tell the reader about what he observes for one year on a small plot of land in the Tennessee mountains. He calls this small plot a “mandala” and introduces his way of looking by describing Buddhist monks creating a sand mandala. The monks use brass funnels of sand to slowly create a lotus flower design.

Haskell writes, “The mandala has significance at many levels: the concentration required for its creation, the balance between complexity and coherence, the symbols embedded in its design, and its impermanence…. The whole universe is seen through this small circle of sand.”

He sets out to see the forest “through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks, and water.” His mountain mandala is no more than a meter across. His book takes us through the months in this mountain space, describing what is seen through patient observing and quiet contemplation.

I cannot say that I have applied such an intentional practice to observing in the mountains. But I do know that simply being aware of your surroundings as you sit or slowly walk through the woods will lead to observation of nature’s otherwise hidden facets.

It is always a thrill to see a large mammal such as a black bear or to see a Pileated Woodpecker flying through the trees. But these are occasional gifts the mountains give, at a smaller scale of insects and plants there is a constant flow of life to experience.

Haskell describes the life of a woodland amphibian:

“Like mosses, salamanders thrive on moisture, but salamanders cannot use the mosses’ strategy of drying up and waiting out the days between rains. Instead, they follow cool, humid air like nomads, moving in and out of the soil as the humidity changes. In winter they creep down between rocks and boulders, escaping the freeze and living as troglodytes in the subterranean darkness, up to seven meters belowground. In the spring and autumn they climb back up and ply the leaf litter, pursuing ants, termites, and small flies.”

A key to seeing, I have found, is not to look but to be aware. Noting movement in your peripheral vision can often lead to observations you might have missed. One fall day, I was doing nothing much just outside my mountain house when I noticed movement. When I turned toward what I sensed and looked carefully, I saw a red salamander by the wood pile. The next time I met up with one was quite different: I encountered one inside my house!

Come July, Haskell’s gaze concentrates on fungi:

“Specks of orange, red, and yellow, the sexual buds of fungi, glow from the sodden forest floor. The heat and rain have emboldened the belowground parts of fungi, causing them to sprout their fruiting bodies. The prettiest of this morning’s colorful fungi is a cup fungus perched on a decaying twig. Tangerine orange, shaped like a goblet, and fringed with silver hairs, it is called a shaggy scarlet cup. Although it measures less than an inch across, its color catches my attention, drawing me onto my knees to examine it more closely. Once my eyes are closer to the ground, I see tiny fruiting bodies everywhere, a colorful regatta on a sea of decaying leaves and twigs.”

Some fungi such as shelf fungi can be seen from a distance through the woods; others are tiny and found only by close examination. There are many ways to see fungi. I remember years ago walking in the woods with my cousin and her very young son. She showed him a puffball, gently touching it with her foot to release the puff of spores. He was delighted and proceeded to find fungi all along our walk and then happily stomp on them. We all saw many more fungi than we would have otherwise that day!


The forest is a mosaic of leaves everywhere and if you look closely insects are everywhere among these leaves. Often you will see not the insects themselves but the signs of them on plants. Holes chewed through the leaf surface; galls growing from branches as if they were a part of the plant; leaves folded carefully by insect larvae slumbering inside. Haskell’s mandala displays these signs amidst its profusion of green:

“The mandala contains insects designed to steal every part of a plant. Flowers, pollen, leaves, roots, sap are all preyed upon by a diverse toolbox of insect mouthparts. Yet the mandala is green. Leaves are a little tattered, but they still dominate the forest. Above, leaves are stacked in layers, blocking my view of the sky; around me shrubs stretch out across the hillside, again hemming in my sight; below, my feet rest in a carpet of saplings and forest herbs. The forest seems to be an herbivore’s heavenly banquet. Why is the mandala not stripped bare? This is a simple question, but is much fought over, and it stirs up controversy among ecologists for good reason. The relationship between herbivores and plants sets the stage for the rest of the forest ecosystem.”

Haskell brings his scientific knowledge to bear on the observations he makes in the forest. He provides many interesting tales of how life forms interact in the mandala. He tells of the role of ants in dispersing the seeds of spring wildflowers. He explains how ferns disperse their own seeds with “botanical catapults” that magnified look like snakes. With a hand lens and one’s nose to the forest floor, such events can be seen unfolding in ways one otherwise would not imagine.

Haskell is a biologist and his is one way of seeing a forest. There are, of course, other ways of seeing. An artist, a poet, a philosopher might see very different things there. Certainly, the Buddhist monks, adept at the concentration needed to create the sand mandala, would view it differently again. Taking a cue from both Haskell and the Buddhist monks, any one of us can glimpse a bit of each of these visions, just by being quietly in the forest.

Haskell notes these differences while making suggestions about how to experience the forest. He suggests borrowing “from the practice of meditation and to repeatedly turn the mind’s attention to the present moment.” And he explains:

“The interior quality of our minds is itself a great teacher of natural history. It is here that we learn that “nature” is not a separate place. We too are animals, primates with a rich ecological and evolutionary context. By our paying attention, this inner animal can be watched at any time…Each of us inhabits a storied mandala with as much complexity as an old-growth forest. Even better, watching ourselves and watching the world are not in opposition; by observing the forest, I have come to see myself more clearly.”

The Forest Unseen is a lovely way to learn of Haskell’s insights and the ways of the forest.

Photo credit: Sand Mandala September 2012 by Pacific Asia Museum on Flickr
Photo credit: Tiny mushrooms by Jenny Powers


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