In his book The Forest Unseen, David Haskell takes readers on a meditative journey through science, ecology, and philosophy as he dedicates a year of his life to studying a small circle of forest floor in Tennessee.
We talked briefly in our class meeting about the address given by Michael Blackwell at this year’s HRC Exchange and how it reminded us of Haskell’s book. When talking with us, Blackwell encouraged each of us, if we hadn’t already, to find a tree with which to share moments of our lives. That is, to find a tree, to observe it in different light, at different times of day, in different seasons, in different moods and moments, and then to observe how our connection with this tree grew as its presence continued to intersect with our lives and how our understanding of ourselves grew naturally with this connection.
Perhaps this kind of intense study does not work for everyone. Perhaps it takes a kind of time and meditation that is beyond the reach of everyday life in today’s world. But, regardless of whether we realize it consciously, everyone has a tree or a small circle of forest. It may not be a tree or a circle, or even a part of nature, but everyone has a piece of place that connects them more fully to the world or to themselves. I think the closest common name we have for these pieces of place is home¸ though that name requires some abstraction to fit this concept. A better name may be axis mundi, which, in mythology, is the center of the earth—more than that, it is the convergence of the universe, where everything known and unknown comes together to make uncanny sense of each other.
When I began reading Haskell, I did not know whether I enjoyed his elevated language or found it unnecessary in the context of his study. It seemed as if he was trying to elevate nature beyond itself. But I think that is what we all do when we encounter something that is beyond reason—most especially when, as in Haskell’s forest, our understanding of this “something” is rooted in reason and science. We need, somehow, to use language to understand out experience. This is why poetry exists, and why abstraction is necessary, and why concrete detail needs to be lifted out of its mundanity using elevated language. We have a need to describe our relationship to the pieces of place we encounter because, for a reason beyond reason, they are important to us.