“We are using Dr. David Haskell’s book, “The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature,” as one of our texts for the ecology, botany and animal survey units,” said Brad Waguespack, biology teacher at Pell City High School. “The book is beautifully written, integrating complex scientific ideas with cultural concepts all found within our local forest.”
Pell City High principal Dr. Tony Dowdy said all the honors biology classes, approximately 125 students, were able to attend Haskell’s presentation.
“I think this will give greater meaning to the book and greater insight into what the students are reading,” he said. “It takes what they are studying in class and brings it to life.”
Haskell, a professor of biology at University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., said the basis for his book was to take a mandala, or small patch of forest, and learn from it, then tell the stories of the forest in a manner everyone can understand.
“My forest mandala was a circular area about the size of a small dining room table,” he said. “I spent hundreds of hours over a one-year period observing it. We need to understand those species, which go largely unseen by the world, to understand the world. Knowing the stories enriched my life.”
Haskell said learning about his one-square-meter mandala is similar to getting to know the town you live in better.
“I learned that the world is ruled by the inconspicuous things,” he said. “I saw the world in a different way — it is not dominated by the big things such as humans, deer, trees. We are the hood ornaments of life — the engine underneath is the small creatures.”
Haskell said he went to the woods to sit down, shut up and learn.
“I learned lots of stories,” he said. “I realized what an incredibly beautiful world we live in. I also learned about the crushing sense of brokenness that cohabits with that beauty.”
Several students asked questions about the book and asked for advice on how to do a similar study.
“I still visit the mandala,” Haskell said in answer to a student’s question. “I also observe other areas regularly to see what is there. For me, focusing on a particular area is like forming a friendship. It gives ground for deeper understanding the more often you interact.”
Haskell encouraged the students to find a mandala near their home.
“It can be a tree or a flock of birds,” he said. “The key is to repeatedly engage with one thing or entity. You want to pick something fairly easy to get to. Also, get a hand lens for three- or five-times magnification to get up close and look at the incredible things you can’t see with the naked eye.”
Haskell said being nominated for a Pulitzer has opened doors for him.
“For me, it is a very profound honor and it has encouraged me to think of what to do next,” he said.
Haskell said he conducted a lot of research about things seen in his mandala, but focused the book on folks who have a curiosity about how the world works but are not specialists in the fields of ecology or biology.
“I wanted to take the richness and make it available for people who want to take a walk in the woods and understand,” he said.
Pell City Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Barber said Haskell’s presentation was the most exciting thing he has seen in education in a while.
“Seeing this many students so excited about connecting what they are reading in class to the author—I think this has really impacted how they see the world,” he said. “I think they have a deeper appreciation of the world around them. Through the students’ questions, I think it has sparked some curiosity and interest to go out and experience their world in a similar manner. I commend Mr. Waguespack for bringing this opportunity and experience to the students and thank Dr. Haskell for coming and sharing with us.”
Contact Elsie Hodnett at email@example.com.