Reader Diane G called my attention to a piece in the New York Times about David Haskell, an evolutionist and ecologist at The University of the South: “Finding Zen in piece of nature” (the author of the piece is James Gorman).
Over a year, Haskell monitored 13,000 acres of woods owned by his university and has produced a book (The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature) in the tradition of lyrical nature writing. A snippet of his observations, these about an emergence of 13-year cicadas:
But to him, the noise is biological alchemy, sunlight into sound. “These guys have been feeding on roots for 13 years. And so it’s 13 years of combined Tennessee forest productivity being blasted out.”
It is this kind of perception, halfway between metaphor and field note, that makes his voice a welcome entry in the world of nature writers. He thinks like a biologist, writes like a poet, and gives the natural world the kind of open-minded attention one expects from a Zen monk rather than a hypothesis-driven scientist. He avoids terms like “nature deficit disorder” and refuses to scold the bug-fearing masses. His pitch is more old-fashioned, grounded in aesthetics as much as science.
“You can live a perfectly happy life never having heard of Shakespeare,” he says, “but your life is in some ways a little diminished, because there’s such beauty there.
“And I think the same is true of nature. Much of it is useless to us, and that’s O.K. It’s not true that every species that goes extinct is like another rivet off the plane and the plane’s going to crash. We lost the passenger pigeon and the U.S. economy did not tank. But we lost the passenger pigeon and we lost some of this remarkable music made out of atoms and DNA.”
Although I haven’t seen the book, I appreciate Haskell’s emphasis on the intrinsic value of nature rather than trying to sell it by arguing for its pecuniary value to humans. The analogy to literature is apt. We don’t need to show people how saving the rain forest will make them healthier or wealthier to justify conservation. That is one reason, of course, but animals and plants have intrinsic value, both aesthetically and simply because they have a right to live. We have no right, as just one evolved species, to destroy every other species on our planet.
Sadly, though, about halfway through the article comes what Diane calls “the drive-by Dawkins diss,” in which someone attempts to gain credibility by denigrating the prominent biologist/atheist:
Dr. Haskell wanted to tell the story of forest ecology and also to refresh himself with a kind of natural history meditation, as opposed to goal-directed scientific research. He has a daily practice of sitting and concentrating on his breathing (he doesn’t use the word “meditation”) of no specific religious bent. He does, however, set himself apart from crusading atheists, like Richard Dawkins, saying he harbors a “deep suspicion that the world is more than atoms rearranging themselves.”