A biologist who spent a year studying a square meter of forest puts a new spin on ‘exploration’ at The Explorers Club

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David George Haskell talks about his square meter of discovery (Lauren Kirchner)
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Biologist David George Haskell’s relationship to nature is a tad more dramatic than most.

“The forest is a kaleidoscope, it’s a soap opera, it’s a dance, it’s a tragedy, it’s a starburst of light,” he said at the start of his lecture at The Explorers Club on the Upper East Side on Monday night. “My goal is to share just a little taste of that with you this evening.”

Haskell was reading and signing from his new book, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, about his close—very close—examination of one patch of forest in particular. If William Blake wrote of his desire “To see a world in a grain of sand/ And a heaven in a wildflower,” Haskell said, he felt as though he could see the entire planet’s delicate network of flora and fauna in one square meter of old-growth forest in Tennessee. Haskell is an explorer who looks in rather than out, but what he found in a year observing that square meter reveals just how ripe the world still is for exploration if we just know where, and how, to look.

The venue for Haskell’s talk appeared to be the set of every Wes Anderson movie ever made. The New York City headquarters of The Explorers Club—a century-old professional club for scientists, astronauts, and adventurers of all kinds—is a building lush with stained-glass windows, globes, leather chairs, and fireplaces. The club holds lectures most Monday evenings, and they are open to the public but only free for members. Attendees last night enjoyed wine and cheese in a drawing room before being ushered down the hall past a taxidermied polar bear when the lecture was about to begin.

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In a dark-wood-paneled room, with framed semaphores on the walls and an arctic sled hanging from the ceiling, Haskell began his talk with a slideshow. He showed photos of some of the subjects of his study in the Tennessee environs: blueberry bushes, sassafras, moss, fungi, wildflowers, snakes, slugs, and snails. He explained the rules of his examination:

“Visit often. Watch a year or so go past. Be quiet. Keep disturbance to a minimum. No killing, no removing of creatures … the occasional thoughtful touch is enough.”

He equipped himself with only a magnifying glass (as at right; photo Buck Butler), binoculars, a notebook, and a pen. He visited several times a week, at different times of the day and night, and sat very still there for hours on end, watching.

This patience was rewarded with just the kinds of discoveries that only prolonged and careful observation could produce: the different behavior patterns and markings of animals and insects in different types of seasonal light, for instance. Likewise, he explained how woodpeckers signal to each other not only with birdcalls but with their positioning in light or shadow—showing off or hiding their bright red crowns depending on whether or not their territory was being challenged.

Haskell’s British accent and professorial attire (he teaches at Sewanee, The University of the South, in Tennessee) balanced out his somewhat mystical reveries about the forest and his experiences there. When he said things like “we are all connected in the tree of life,” he wasn’t reciting an aphorism; he backed it up with science. Take jasmonate, the sweet-smelling chemical that comes from the jasmine flower. We humans make perfume out of it. But we may be surprised to learn that it’s actually an “alarm chemical,” a hormone that the plants release when they are in danger, so as to protect other plants in the vicinity.

Just as birds and bugs will alert each other to an errant hiker with a range of calls, a damaged leaf from a nibbling insect can set off a cloud of hormones that in turn triggers chemical reactions in other plants nearby. The hormones trigger the plants to switch on “defensive genes” that protect the remaining undamaged leaves by making them taste worse to the insects.

“When I sit or walk in the forest, I’m not a subject observing an object,” Haskell read from his book. “I’m caught up in webs of communication, networks, and relationships. Whether or not I’m aware of it, I change these webs: by alarming a deer, or startling a chipmunk, or stepping on a living leaf. Dissociated observation is not possible.”

Haskell’s sense of wonder was most evident when he described the things that he was not able to study, despite his close and patient examination. For instance, we have evolved with the ability to evaluate soil by its smell: too-dry or too-wet soil will smell bitter, while fertile soil will have the pleasant smell we call “earthy” thanks to a healthy microbial community within. Smelling the “earthiness” is about as close as we can get to truly understanding it, though. There are about a billion microbes in a small handful of soil, only one percent of which could possibly be cultivated and studied in a lab setting, Haskell explained.

“The interdependencies among the other ninety-nine percent are so tight—our ignorance about them and inability to replicate their bonds is so deep—that the microbes die if isolated from the whole,” he read. “The soil’s microbial community is therefore a grand mystery, with most of its inhabitants living unnamed and unknown to humanity.”

Before a hearty question-and-answer session with a knowledgeable audience, Haskell ended his lecture on a contemplative note. He described how his sensory awareness had increased after his year of quiet concentration in the forest. He became at once aware of our interconnectedness with the natural world and of our utter irrelevance within it—a fitting quandary for an explorer of one square meter.

“Both of these things…both became deeply true to me at the same time,” Haskell said. “Close attention to one place gives us a space to hold that paradox, to hold those seemingly contradictory things in our minds simultaneously, without pressing for a resolution.”