Forest Life Comes Into Focus In Single Square Meter Of Tennessee Woods

Biologist and author David Haskell in the small patch of nature that he's visited regularly for a decade.  Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

Biologist and author David Haskell in the small patch of nature that he’s visited regularly for a decade. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

Scientific endeavors usually begin with a hypothesis. They generally include an experiment of some sort. But as scientifically minded as David Haskell is, one of the most career-defining moves the biologist has made so far is to, in his words, “go sit and just shut up.” No agenda, no expectations, just observation. It’s honed his senses, changed the focus of his research, and lead to a book that was shortlisted for this year’s nonfiction Pulitzer.

Ten years in, Haskell is still seeing new things. This, for example, is a species of ladybug that he had never seen in his square meter before this year. The continual discoveries raise questions of whether it was just a matter of time for a particular plant or animal to show up in his spot, or whether its appearance indicates something is changing in the forest as a whole. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

Ten years in, Haskell is still seeing new things. This, for example, is a species of ladybug that he had never seen in his square meter before this year. The continual discoveries raise questions of whether it was just a matter of time for a particular plant or animal to show up in his spot, or whether its appearance indicates something is changing in the forest as a whole. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

Committing To “A Relationship” With One Place

It all started about ten years ago, when Haskell decided to pick one square meter of forest and visit every day, just to see what nature would do there. He chose a spot in the woods that is completely average in every way. At first glance, it’s just an empty bit of forest floor, with nothing to recommend it except a comfortable rock for sitting-and, indeed, that rock is the reason he picked it.

All through that first year, Haskell stayed true to his goal of near daily treks to his square meter. He visited at different times of day, in all kinds of weather. Even after he had a heart attack, he hiked back to that spot again as soon as he was able. When the year was up, he never really stopped.  It’s been a decade now of regular visits, several times a week if he can swing it, and the practice remains as simple as ever: he brings a notebook, a tiny magnifying glass, and not much else.

Look, Listen, Observe

He surveys the ground in front of him, looking for changes to the plants and dirt or any signs of animals or bugs. He listens intently to the sound of chipmunks calling from tree to tree, of wrens scolding their mates, and to the way that tree leaves and branches resonate in the wind. Over time, he’s learned to hear how each species of tree has its own song, as he calls it. “A fir tree sounds very different in the wind from a maple tree,” If you listen carefully enough, it’s even possible to pinpoint a single leaf falling to the forest floor.

“At a superficial level, almost every day looks the same, right? It’s a pile of rocks, it’s a pile of dead leaves. Well no, it’s not the same, it’s transforming day by day and week by week here. So by forcing myself to restrict my gaze I get a sharper image and a deeper image into the ecology of the place.”

Haskell often gets down on hands and knees to search for insects, even puts his nose near the fallen leaves to smell for hints of what microbes are doing. The scientist gets very, very close, but he doesn’t disturb anything or take samples. This is about seeing what nature does when it’s left alone. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

Haskell often gets down on hands and knees to search for insects, even puts his nose near the fallen leaves to smell for hints of what microbes are doing. The scientist gets very, very close, but he doesn’t disturb anything or take samples. This is about seeing what nature does when it’s left alone. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

The Ripple Effects Of Asking Questions In The Woods

The more details and subtle changes Haskell notices, the more questions he has, the more research there is to do to understand the what and why and how of everything he’s seen. So watching things like the way birds eat snail shells, or how those snails help break down fallen leaves and branches, is changing the way he thinks of ecology and even what species he chooses to study in the lab.

Of course, the most obvious effect of that time in the woods is his book: a year in the life of a completely average spot of Tennessee forest that’s actually teeming with life, if you just look long enough.

The book’s success means speaking engagements and book signings far away from his spot, but David Haskell says that’s just another opportunity. He’s identified a handful of other places, like one particular tree in Manhattan, where he makes a point now to sit, look, and listen.

Haskell's traditional work now focuses on small, seemingly obscure or irrelevant creatures like snails. He now considers snails a 'keystone:' beyond essentially maintaining the forest floor, their shells provide calcium necessary for birds to create shells around their eggs, and the birds in turn play an important role in spreading the genetic material of many plants. Haskell says he's become keenly aware of the way each living thing depends on others to get by, to the point that he considers the notion that any plant, animal, or person is truly separated from the rest as an individual doesn't hold much water, scientifically speaking. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

Haskell’s traditional work now focuses on small, seemingly obscure or irrelevant creatures like snails. He now considers snails a ‘keystone:’ beyond essentially maintaining the forest floor, their shells provide calcium necessary for birds to create shells around their eggs, and the birds in turn play an important role in spreading the genetic material of many plants. Haskell says he’s become keenly aware of the way each living thing depends on others to get by, to the point that he considers the notion that any plant, animal, or person is truly separated from the rest as an individual doesn’t hold much water, scientifically speaking. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

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