From A Tennessee Forest, Singing The Beauty Of Nature And Science

Jan 2, 2013
Originally published on November 8, 2012 1:23 pm

A scientist enters a hardwood forest in Tennessee. He doesn't collect soil, map the distribution of tree types or statistically sample the behavior of animals who live there.

Instead, he settles down in a patch of ground, one tiny bit of the forest he visits over and over. He watches, listens and takes notes. Eventually, he writes a book about what he learned. It's called The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch In Nature.

Such is the approach to forest ecology taken by David Haskell at The University of the South, profiled last month in The New York Times. I have often wondered: shouldn't the world of science value the acute observations and reflections of a trained eye just as much as it values experimental testing and quantitative measurement? Here was an evolutionary biologist offering an emphatic "yes" to that question.

I wanted to know more. Last week, via email, David Haskell conversed with me about his experiences in the forest. Here are some highlights from our exchange, starting with his observation that the most numerous woodland creatures were not the most obvious:

The forest is ruled by the inconspicuous small creatures. Birds and mammals are more eye-catching, but the vast majority of the animals present were tiny insects, snails, worms and other invertebrate animals. Getting down on my belly with a hand lens pressed to my eye was the best way to see this.

Snails caught Haskell's imagination.

Southern Tennessee is one of the most diverse places for land snails anywhere in North America. Almost no one studies them, yet they are the critical link between the ecology of the soil and the larger world of animals that we can see. Mother songbirds prey upon them for calcium in the shells of the eggs they lay. Beetles and mammals prey on them as well. Parasites use them as stepping-stones to other creatures.

But it's not only the animal species that are inter-connected; Haskell, too, became part of the forest ecosystem.

A deer walked right up to me — I was sitting very still and it did not see me — then took alarm and snorted. The deer's call was picked up by chipmunks, then squirrels above me, then wood thrushes downslope, spreading like a wave from a rock thrown into a lake. It took more than an hour for the wave to settle, especially for the chipmunks. From then on, I could tell when hikers were approaching by the bow wave of alarm that preceded them.

Haskell's methods, he says, fall along a continuum with those of other scientists.

I don't know any field biologists who don't spend at least some time wandering through their field sites without a particular hypothesis or agenda. I just took this a little further.

Projects like Haskell's expand our notions of what it means to do good science. And yet they do something more. As Haskell put it to me:

[It] is as much about using literature to sing out the beauty of nature and science as it is a project designed to do "new" science.

This approach resonates with me, strongly.

You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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