Spring is just around the corner at Centre College, with fresh buds, singing birds and Frisbee-playing students beginning to emerge around campus. Just in time for the reawakening of Centre’s lush grounds is visiting Humana Lecture series speaker David Haskell, author of The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature.
Set on a wooded hillside in Shakerag Hollow, Sewanee, Tenn., the book follows Haskell’s observations of one square meter of forest floor over the course of one year. Haskell borrows the Buddhist concept of the mandala — a circular symbol that represents the entire universe — when describing the tiny patch of life he observes regularly (pictured right, photo by Buck Butler).
Haskell’s book is particularly interesting because it represents a fusion of aesthetic and scientific perspectives; Haskell holds a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a Ph.D in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University, yet writes about the nature he observes from a philosophical and artistic perspective. A fascinating fusion of scientific information and sensory description make the work intriguingly complex, forcing us to ask questions about the nature of life, death and the universe, amazingly contained within just one square meter of forest floor.
Charles J. Luellen Professor of English Mark Rasmussen was instrumental in arranging Haskell’s visit to campus.
“I first heard David Haskell read from The Forest Unseen at the University of the South in the summer of 2012,” he explains. “David’s book had just come out, and it was quite honestly one of the most mesmerizing readings I’ve ever attended. He brought his audience into the intricacies of the natural world and made the forest come alive. My first thought was: we have to bring this guy to Centre.”
Haskell will be sharing some of his writing during a community reading on the evening of April 1, but Rasmussen stresses that his visit will truly immerse him in the campus and local communities.
“His work is relevant to many different areas of study and to many different interests of those in our community,” he says. “He will have a very busy few days while he is visiting campus.”
Haskell will be visiting various classes on sociology, ecology, biology and environmental studies during his two-day visit, immersing him in the rich academic environment on campus.
In addition to the variety of classroom visits both days, on March 31 at 4 p.m., Haskell will hike through the Central Kentucky Wildlife refuge with H.W. Stodghill, Jr. and Adele H. Stodghill Professor of Biology Mike Barton and any other members of the Centre and Danville community (those interested in joining the group hike should contact Dr. Barton at firstname.lastname@example.org). That evening, Haskell will meet with MeditationCentre, a contemplative practice group led by Assistant Professor of Psychology Aaron Godlaski.
On Tuesday, April 1, at 11:20 a.m. in the Grissom Room in Grace Doherty Library, Haskell will participate in a panel discussion about nature writing with H.W. Stodghill, Jr. and Adele H. Stodghill Professor of English Dan Manheim and Associate Professor of English Lisa Williams. One of Manheim’s regularly offered courses, titled “Getting Back to Nature,” centers on nature writers and the philosophy behind nature writing, and Williams’ poetry is deeply grounded in the natural world and its imagery. The discussion is open to all members of the community.
In preparation for Haskell’s visit, Rasmussen worked with the Humana Fund and the Dean’s Office to procure copies of Haskell’s book and organize a Centre community discussion group. That group of 40 students, faculty and staff met on the evening of March 13 and, according to Rasmussen, “had a lively, thoughtful discussion of the book that should be an ideal prelude to David’s visit.”
Haskell’s work is a winner of the 2013 Best Book Award from the National Academies, a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction and runner-up for the 2013 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. The Forest Unseen won the 2013 Reed Environmental Writing Award and the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award for Natural History Literature.
Haskell’s convocation, “The Forest Unseen: Reflections on Science, Literature, and Contemplative Practice” is on Tuesday, April 1 at 7:30 p.m. in Weisiger Theatre. Books will be available for purchase and for Haskell to sign.
By Mariel Smith