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Originally published Saturday, March 17, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Book review

'The Forest Unseen': a very close watch on nature

David George Haskell's "The Forest Unseen" follows the author's close observations for one year of a small patch of old-growth forest in southeastern Tennessee. Haskell discusses his book Wednesday at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

David George Haskell

The author of "The Forest Unseen" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall Seattle. Advance tickets are $5 at brownpapertickets.com, at 800-838-3006, and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.
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Thanks for this article. Because of it, I hope to go to Town Hall and hear more. Yea... MORE

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'The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature'

by David George Haskell

Viking, 265 pp., $25.95

"To see a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower," wrote William Blake in a paean to the grace of observation and interconnectness of life. Taking Blake's ode to heart, biologist David George Haskell attempted to do the same by focusing on a circle of old-growth forest, "a little over a meter across," in southeastern Tennessee.

Haskell visited what he calls his "forest mandala" regularly for year, recording the rhythms, changes, comings and goings of the land and its creatures. The result is his new book, "The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature."

Each chapter takes a simple aspect of nature, such as a chewed-off shrub branch or the season's first flower, and mixes in science, observation and philosophical musings to reveal the grandeur of nature.

Although Haskell, a professor at the University of the South, has written the book as a series of entries tracing the year, you don't need to follow along chronologically. Simply pick a chapter and you will find a quiet enchantment in the writing. "We are lichens on a grand scale." "The dead, especially the frozen dead, should not return."

Haskell occasionally drifts into the Thoreauvian school of nature writing, with epiphanies and too earnest discussions of nature, but for the most part he avoids platitudes. And it's hard not to like, or at least appreciate, a writer who strips down to nothing on a 20-degree-below day to see how chickadees survive. Not making it long in the raw, he comes away with a deep appreciation of the birds.

One final note: Take a gander at Haskell's bibliography. Filled with dense titles, and even a fun one or two — "Anachronisitic fruits and the ghosts who haunt them" and "Mate choice in hermaphrodite: you won't score with a spermatophore" — they provide an insight into how a good natural-history writer takes science and makes it more accessible.

In doing so, Haskell has done a worthy job of fleshing out Blake.

Seattle resident David B. Williams is the author of "Stories in Stone"and "The Seattle Street-Smart Naturalist."

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