Monday, July 18, 2016

Review: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell

I have this hypothesis that if you want to see the amazing glory of nature you needn't trek off to the rain forest or arctic, you need only look in your backyard. Heck, if you had the right equipment, you could probably get away with looking under your fingernails. David Haskell, in The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature, has done me the favor of spending a year proving this point. The resulting book is far more fascinating than even I had ever imagined.

Haskell's task is to monitor a one by one meter of forest for an entire year, and every chapter represents one particular day's observations. In some respects you can flip open to any chapter, read it, and if you enjoyed that chapter, know you'll enjoy the whole book.

The location in question consists of the flora and fauna you see every day: squirrels, moss, robins and countless other life forms that have blended into the background noise. Haskell's gift is the ability to reveal the natural wonder behind these mostly familiar creatures and thereby elevate them to the most precious of encounters.

For example, consider the Aphid. If you know of these tiny creatures, it's almost certainly as a garden pest. They're known to feed on the sap of plants. What could be less inspiring, right? Consider, however, that these creatures have a remarkable challenge: how to survive on nothing but a sugary stream of liquid. Or as Haskell put succinctly, it would be like humans trying to survive on nothing but soda. Impossible, right? Not if you're the incredible aphid. Here's a recounting of how the Aphid functions (note this is from an additional source; I had to return my copy of The Forest Unseen before I had a chance to write this review):

I think this is the really interesting thing about aphids. They feed on the phloem sap of plants. This liquid is very sugar-rich, (think of maple syrup), has a high water content, but is low in nitrogen and amino acids. So the bug must eat large quantities to get sufficient nutrients.

The gut is modified so that the excess water and sugar can quickly pass from foregut to hindgut then rectum, bypassing the midgut (see above which shows the sap feeding hemipteran digestive tract). The midgut is where the nitrogen and the amino acids are absorbed. This means that the excreted liquid is very sweet, and it is sometimes called honeydew. It tastes quite nice, but soon goes mouldy as you find out if you park your car under an aphid-infested tree. Forest honey and leaf honey are made by honey bees from this honeydew.

Some aphids can excrete as many as seven droplets of this sugar-rich liquid an hour - that can be as much as 133% of the insect's weight! And some hemipterans consume more than 100 times their body weight per day.

Sometimes the honeydew is in quantities large enough to be used by man. In the Old Testament the manna given to the Israelites was probably anal excretions of Trabutina mannipara, which feeds on the tamarisk. The Arabs still collect it today, and call it "man". The Australian aborigines also collect honeydew.

That's amazing, no? And that's from a single example in a book packed with dozens, if not more, of such insights.

There are clearly a number of repeating themes in the book. The first has to be that of the marvel of bio-engineering. Like the aphid above, animals and plants all around us have amazing specialization that humans can only begin to approximate. Consider something as simple as the flow of liquid within a tree. Sure, human engineers have no problem lifting liquids up 190 feet. But imagine that the Tulip Poplar does this same task, minus any pumping equipment or assistance of any kind. To actually stop and consider the mechanics behind creatures we encounter every day, from the blood sucking mosquito to the somehow-does-not-freeze-in-the-winter song bird reveals a world of remarkable building practices that are right under our noses.

Another key theme is that of tightly woven relationships between all creatures. No change in the eco-system, regardless of how small, goes unfelt. Something as trivial as a squirrel nibbling on a leaf can allow a beam of light to impact a plant that had been shaded before, which has repercussions for countless plants and animals in the vicinity. As my Dad is fond of saying, Darwin is always in the room, and Haskell proves this out chapter after chapter. Competition and natural selection are the primary drivers that continually shape the environment. It's remarkable to see this played out at every level, from the shape of seeds pods, to the wiggle of a deer's tail when running away from predator.

Haskell clearly inspires us to hit the outdoors and appreciate nature like never before, but he's not in the business of preaching to us about saving the environment. In fact, if anything, he stresses that we're as much part of nature as any other creature in the forest. His wish appears to be that we understand that we have an impact and to use this impact wisely. As for what polices and procedures we should be following he does not say. I find this approach quite refreshing, and while there's a time and place to be lectured by climatologists, this isn't one of them.

Every once in a while I pick up a book that was seemingly written just for me. That's the case here. I'd gladly get on a soapbox and preach the value of observing your local surroundings. But now I don't need to, I can just hand you The Forest Unseen and get the same effect.

Finally, there's quote in the epilogue of the book that I think captures the essence of my original hypothesis. It goes thusly:

We create wonderful places by giving them our attention, not by finding pristine places that will bring wonder to us.

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