Wednesday, January 3, 2018

These Frosty Woods

Jan 1, 2018 viewed from upstairs study
          For friends who notice the photos I post on Facebook, my love affair with deciduous woodlands will come as no surprise. The view from the upstairs desk mesmerizes me, even taking me from the mystical readings; maybe it’s not a separation but rather a union! These two must be of one spirit. The best pages breathe their origin, the inner fiber of tree; both transmit inspiration.
          My romance with books often gets teased by the spell of Maria Popova’s reviews. About a month ago, she featured David George Haskell’s recent book, Song of Trees. The tease enticed me to chose his earlier book: “The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (Viking, 2012,, winner of the National Academy of Sciences’ Best Book Award for 2013, finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, winner of the 2013 Reed Environmental Writing Award, winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award for Natural History Literature, runner-up for the 2013 PEN E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award…” 
         The book has 43 short chapters, each based on his observations and musings focused around a spot “of old-growth forest in the hills of Tennessee.” Every few days through the year, Haskell watches this forest mandela that is about a meter across. He connects this to Tibetan mandelas (p. xii). My intention is to read his book throughout 2018 and to ask this reading to inspire my walking in our woods. 
         Haskell’s first entry comes on January 1. He features lichens whose “vibrancy contrasts with the winter-weighed lethargy of the rest of the forest.” He continues:
Supple physiology allows lichens to shine with life when most other creatures are locked down for the winter. Lichens master the cold months through the paradox of surrender.” (p. 2) 
          Our woods, some 600 miles northeast from Haskell’s forest, look pretty locked down on January 1, 2018, still frosted with snow, temperatures below freezing all week, dropping to near zero at night. It is cold. Still I look for lichen, trying not to lock down for winter.

lichen on rocks ?
lichen on tree trunk ?

close up of lichen (?) on rocks 
          Haskell enriches his observation about the lichens’ paradox with an anecdote about a fourth century BCE Chinese Taoist philosopher and then elaborates the biological explanation. He comments on their means of survival:
By stripping off the bonds of individuality the lichens have produced a world conquering union. . . the lichen partners have ceased to be individuals, surrendering the possibility of drawing a line between oppressor and oppressed. (p. 3)
hmm...what's this?
Interesting...but sacrifice of individuality? Yikes--but that does sound rather like the Sufi mystics on surrendering the self. 
         While we might celebrate the “winning partnerships,” Haskell keeps us from imagining only unseen rosy hints when he also notes the presence of piracy and exploitation. And yet: “Even piracy is powered by collaboration” (p. 6). 

When you look out (and in), can you see these fascinating happenings?

Next up: “January 17—Kepler’s Gift” pages 8-11. The woods keep calling.

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