Forest Unseen

When the season of spring comes, I can feel my own body surging with a forgotten excitement. Every year when I sense this renewal of the earth, I feel like something inside of me is coming back to life. Maybe I am sensing a vestigial memory first experienced by my distant ancestors, when the seasonal departure from winter had a more immediate effect on how they lived their lives. I don’t hunt or fish or plow the dirt to keep myself alive, so I feel somewhat disconnected from what the seasonal change says about my own well-being. For those who live and work close to the earth and nature, spring renewal must provide them with a promise of bounty or continued experience of pleasurable existence. Last night while lying in bed, I tossed and turned for an hour or two when I should have been sleeping, but I wasn’t restless or sleepless. Rather, I experienced this deep-seated excitement over the greening of the earth, that kept me awake and thinking.

The book I have been slowly reading, “The Unseen Forest”, by David Haskell, has helped feed some of my natural elation. Haskell revisits a small portion of old-growth forest in the mountains of Tennessee. He is a practicing biologist who comes to one spot in the forest to perform his nature studies. Each chapter is a different visit to the same spot to observe the living forms that occur during the different seasons of the year. So much living is happening nearby to anyone who can get close to a bit of undisturbed dirt and has the curiosity of a scientist. When I was a kid, I was always thrilled to observe bugs and plants, birds and snakes. That thrill never really left me. But I gradually learned how to not see any more. Haskell awakens that child-like wonder in me. Following along with him on his discoveries in the forest, I learn once again some of the innate understanding that I possessed and lost, that living things are connected with each other and, through evolutionary processes, with a long line of ancestors. Haskell also manages to toss in a lot of really astute observations about the way in which our modern world is headed.

So I lay there last night trying to digest some of Haskell’s knowledge and wisdom, wondering to myself whether I missed my calling in life. I think of the many years I went to the office doing my routine work as a technical writer. How I would just gaze out the windows this time of year, when life on the skin of the earth was being renewed, while I could not step out into it, except on weekends, because I was so deeply trapped in the man-made system of making money, rather than that of studying the economy of the honey bee. I know better than to look back with regret, but I’m puzzled by own fascination with reading the studies of naturalists. I have accumulated quite a few books written about the natural sciences. Perhaps my missed calling was a career in writing about nature rather than about the details of computers and other complicated technologies.

Haskell’s love for his work is what makes his book successful. If I understood the nature of my work to consist of slopping around in the ice and the mud in the midst of a Tennessee winter to go inspect a few bugs and plants, perhaps I would soon lose the passion that Haskell keeps inflamed. The kind of writing I did for a living was aimed at geeks who needed to understand or program the internal architecture of silicon wafers so that Chinese telephone manufacturers could build smarter gadgets and make more money. It was just work for me, which required some fastidious concern for minutiae. I knew that only a handful of specialized computer engineers would care much about what I said in the documents that I produced, and that the currency of the information would expire and be useless within 18 months. I never found the passion in that kind of writing. None of the words I worked with on a daily basis connoted life or emotion.

Keeping a journal these days is partly an effort to undo a few of those misgivings about my career. It’s me trying to drown out the impersonal vocabulary of technology that clouded my spirit and imagination for so many years. Haskell says that underneath all the seemingly dead forest soil, new unseen spores are busy springing to life.

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