Want to learn more about nature writing? The Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center is hosting a series of four nature writing retreats.
Session One: The Nature of a Life-Spring
Date: April 20
Time: 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Venue: Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center
Facilitator: Dr. Jean Lomino
Cost: $60 Members; $65 Non-members
Gather with fellow learners, take a closer look at the plants, animals and landscapes around you, and learn simple nature journaling techniques. Session is limited to 20 participants.
Before embarking on a trail that winds deeply into Shakerag Hollow, David Haskell paused at the edge of a rocky bluff overlooking a patchwork valley and took a deep, deliberate breath. After a minute of silence, he drew my attention leftward where a dozen or more turkey vultures circled high in the sky.
"I don't know if they are patrolling the area below or playing in the updrafts - or both," Haskell laughed. "They are masters of soaring flight and can float up there for long periods of time without a single flap of their wings. They're quite amazing." He drank the experience in. To Haskell, the natural world is a place of wonder; a stage of true beauty; an exhibition of innate connectivity and partnerships; and a classroom designed for contemplation. He shares these sentiments through his writing.
Indeed, his book, The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature (theforestunseen.com), is a naturalist's work of art. It chronicles his yearlong vigil perched on a slab of sandstone in the hollow observing a one-meter-round patch of forest floor he refers to as "the mandala."
Haskell, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at Sewanee: The University of the South, equipped himself solely with a small hand lens, binoculars, a notebook and his senses. He watched, he smelled, he listened, he experienced - all the while striving to answer the question: can the whole forest be seen through a small window of leaves, rocks and water?
And then he wrote - each of his lyrical essays presenting a physical observation followed by wildly intellectual discussions ripped from Haskell's probing, restless mind. His book and blog fit nicely into a genre of writing many call nature writing - narrative nonfiction prose combining observations about the natural environment with scientific information and personal, philosophical reflections.
As we trekked beneath the sprawling branches of the old growth forest, I peppered Haskell with questions about his book, his experiences as a naturalist and his philosophy. He answered my questions, stopping occasionally to turn his ear toward a sound or his eyes toward a subject - a rust-colored centipede hurrying off the leafy path, seafoam green lichen splashed on the surfaces of rocks, the bark of a tree chipped away by the hammer-like beak of a pileated woodpecker and the rotting remains of a tree stretching horizontally across the terrain. "Most of a tree's useful life comes after it falls," Haskell remarked. "As it decays, it releases nutrients into the soil and hosts thousands of beetles, ants, spiders and worms that feed many other animals here."
Learn more about Haskell's project and listen to him read selections from his award winning book, The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature. His appearance is being sponsored by the Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center and the the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.
Date: May 3
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Venue: Benwood Auditorium
(in the Engineering Building adjacent to the UTC Fine Arts Center)
We descended a stairway made from the natural placement of boulders, then forged deeper into the wild. We paused again at a natural spring and turned a few rocks over looking for salamanders which frequent the soggy soil, but we didn't find any.
"Look - these are popping up all over the place," he said pointing to delicate wildflowers peeking through the leafbed. He knelt down to take a closer look and invited me to join him. "These are called salt and pepper. See? The tiny black specks against the white petals look like sprinkles of pepper. I've heard some people call them harbingers of spring."
He told me about a day in April when he visited his mandala to find a sea of three hundred or more purple wildflowers bursting in bloom, wowing him and beckoning a band of buzzing bees. Next, he recounted an encounter with a skunk with a broken back that prompted him to ponder humanity's view of end of life and suffering. It was a somber moment.
"Why did you write your book?" I finally asked.
"I want to share the stories of the forest," he said. "And I want to connect people to the outdoors again. But I also want to learn more about the world myself."
"And what did you learn about the world from your experience at the mandala?" I followed up.
"Two things have really stuck with me - the beauty of the world and the brokenness of the world," he said. "Beauty is everywhere we look and people certainly don't need my direction to find beauty. But the world is also a very broken place. We've lost our way and we need to reconnect with the natural world, paying close attention to the other species around us."
I inquired further, asking Haskell how those of us who already love the outdoors can develop a deeper connection - a renewed relationship - with nature.
"First, slow down and really open yourself to your senses," he said. "What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? What do you smell? Think about each one."
He also suggested spending time with naturalists and other people who are passionate advocates of nature and the outdoors. Guided hikes and lectures are great ways to learn more about the natural history and wildlife of an area.
"And I often recommend learning ten trees or ten birds common to an area," he added. "Learn to identify leaves or bark or birdsongs. It's a first step in a wonderful journey of learning and exploration."
After an hour, we smelled the rain moving in from across the valley, and so, we turned around. On our way back to the trailhead at scenic Green's View, we spotted a yellow daffodil along the edge of the trail. "Evidence of homesteads here years ago," he noted. "Occasionally I find a piece of pipe or metal from an old moonshine still or glass from a jug of some sort. It's all out here among the trees and rocks, plants and animals. Remnants of man are part of our natural world, too."
I was intrigued by his comment.
"We are all related - everything on the Earth," he said. "That tree is literally a distant cousin of ours. We are a family, united by the blood-ties of DNA."
Talking with Haskell was like conversing with Emerson. Reading his book was like devouring the works of Thoreau. Most of all, hiking with Sewanee's beloved nature writer was like rambling the hillside with Muir. I saw the forest through Haskell's lens and experienced it as if I was experiencing it for the first time.
David George Haskell teaches biology at the University of the South, where he has served both as Chair of Biology and as an Environmental Fellow with the Associated Colleges of the South. His innovative teaching methodology combining scientific exploration, contemplative practice and community action is nationally recognized. The Carnegie and CASE Foundations named him Professor of the Year for Tennessee in 2009, and The Oxford American featured him in 2011 as one of the South's most creative teachers. In addition to The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature, Haskell has published numerous noteworthy scientific articles, essays and poems about science and nature. His research, supported by the National Science Foundation,
the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the World Wildlife Fund and the Templeton Foundation, focuses on the evolution and conservation of animals, especially
forest-dwelling birds and invertebrates. Haskell was born in England, raised in Paris
and educated at Oxford (B.A. in Zoology) and Cornell University (Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) before moving to Tennessee 17 years ago. He is a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies and was granted elective membership in the American Ornithologists' Union. He served on the board of the South Cumberland Regional Land Trust, initiating and leading the campaign to purchase and protect more than 200 acres of forest in Shakerag Hollow.