Author Archives: David George Haskell

Forest soil at the end of the year’s long exhale

In Shakerag Hollow, the leaf litter is down to almost nothing. Bare mineral soil, a few twigs. Last year’s downed leaves — once lying several inches thick — have now had their energy and matter dissolved away into the forest’s blood. In a few weeks, ground will fatten with a fresh fall of leaves, but for now all feels empty and exhausted. Six weeks of sunshine and no rain have added their burden: the soil is desiccated.


It was not always like this. At the peak of the last glaciation, the Cumberland Plateau was a spruce-fir forest, analogous to the boreal forests of Canada and the northern US. In such forests, cold temperatures, a short growing season, and more regular rainfall keep the soil’s litter well padded. Leaf litter seldom decomposes fast enough to reveal the mineral soil below. Instead, it builds into a spongy duff. Atop this bed, mosses and mushrooms exult. Contrast the photograph above with these images from Grafton Notch in a higher elevation forest in Maine. Time travel to the end of the Pleistocene.

img_20160924_142937667 img_20160924_143105544 img_20160924_150424487


Above ground: fires run through here every other year. Below ground: glacier-dumped sand, long washed of its nutriment. Between the two, plants that survive in the sandplains only with the help of fungal partners whose skinny bodies worm through the acid, root-hostile soil, scavenging minerals.


We call the plants lowbush blueberries and little bluestem grass, growing ankle high between scorch-barked, straggly pitch pines. Other names, too: Little bluestem is “poverty grass” and blueberry fruit is harvested in poverty.


No leanness for migrant birds, though, who pluck at sun-puckered blueberries and wind-blown grass seed. Their bodies fatten here, storing plant-captured sunlight for migratory treks from Canada to the southern US and beyond. A dozen flickers flock like sparrows, feeding low to the ground, then scattering to shelter in pines. Field sparrows and cedar waxwings rise like dust in our wake as we traverse the fields. Palm warblers scurry rabbit-like among the blueberry plants. Above this tumble of small birds: merlins, sharp-shinned hawks, kestrels. Predators, too, need their autumnal fat and frost-edged nights make the hunters flesh-hungry. A merlin and hawk lance and twist in an aerial chase, then each wings to its own corner of the fields.


Once these sandplain communities covered large parts of coastal New England, but fire suppression has choked most with woodland. Housing development claims the rest. In a few places restoration efforts have pushed back the trees, opening habitat available nowhere else. These efforts involve controlled burns, land acquisitions, yearly mowing, signage, insurance, staffing: the poverty left by the retreat of glaciers is expensive to maintain.


The Songs of Trees: headed to press!

I’m thrilled to announce that my next book, The Songs of Trees, is scheduled for publication on April 4th, 2017. After several years of traveling and writing, the proofs are in and the book is moving into production. 


The cover art features a photograph of young, pink leaves of Lecythis pisonis, “Monkey Pot Tree,” in Yasuní Biosphere Reserve, Ecuador, the location of my opening chapter. (Pete Oxford / Minden Pictures / Getty Images.)

As publication date approaches I’ll share more stories from my journeys, including some photos and audio clips from the trees whose lives I studied. For now I’ll say that my method at each tree was simple: I sat, listened to each tree and its many neighbors, and tried to attend to the many songs wrapped into and around each tree. What is a tree song? The many harmonies, discords, and relationships — ecological, cultural, physiological, evolutionary — that give a tree its life. Through these masters of connection, we learn something of the networks that give life its substance and beauty.

The following overview from my publisher, Viking, gives a taste of the places that I visited and the songs that I heard:

The author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Forest Unseen visits with nature’s most magnificent networkers — trees 

David Haskell’s award-winning The Forest Unseen won acclaim for eloquent writing and deep engagement with the natural world. Now, Haskell brings his powers of observation to the biological networks that surround all species, including humans.

Haskell repeatedly visits a dozen trees around the world, exploring the trees’ connections with webs of fungi, bacterial communities, cooperative and destructive animals, and other plants. An Amazonian ceibo tree reveals the rich ecological turmoil of the tropical forest, along with threats from expanding oil fields. Thousands of miles away, the roots of a balsam fir in Canada survive in poor soil only with the help of fungal partners. These links are nearly two billion years old: the fir’s roots cling to rocks containing fossils of the first networked cells.

By unearthing charcoal left by Ice Age humans and petrified redwoods in the Rocky Mountains, Haskell shows how the Earth’s climate has emerged from exchanges among trees, soil communities, and the atmosphere. Now humans have transformed these networks, powering our societies with wood, tending some forests, but destroying others. Haskell also attends to trees in places where humans seem to have subdued “nature” – a pear tree on a Manhattan sidewalk, an olive tree in Jerusalem, a Japanese bonsai– demonstrating that wildness permeates every location.

Every living being is not only sustained by biological connections, but is made from these relationships. Haskell shows that this networked view of life enriches our understanding of biology, human nature, and ethics. When we listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, we learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty.”

Publication date is six months away, but pre-orders are already open:


Barnes and Noble




It is a joy and a great honor to share what I hear and learn, both in book form and here on my blog. To all who accompany me in my rambles by reading, sharing, commenting: many, many thanks.

Major bird kill at Sewanee’s Memorial Cross

A scene of bird carnage at Sewanee’s War Memorial Cross on the campus of the University of the South (photo credits: Sandy Gilliam):


The cross is a tall white structure, brightly illuminated all night by spotlights. It stands on an overlook on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, surrounded by hardwood forests, and visible from many miles away in the valley below. The night of the kill — 26/27 September — was cloudy and birds got caught in the dome of light, circling circling circling until they killed themselves by smashing into the out-sized reconstruction a Roman instrument of execution. Over 130 birds were killed.




Sora rails and American redstart


Yellow-billed cuckoos and wood thrush


Pied-billed grebes, nighthawk, and nightjar

Many bird migrate at night, avoiding predators, staying cool, and navigating by the stars. Bright electric lights disorient them and many are killed each year in collisions with communication towers, buildings, and other artificially lit structures. The numbers killed in this way are hard to know, but one recent review estimated “hundreds of millions (building and automobile collisions), tens of millions (power line collisions), millions (power line electrocutions, communication tower collisions)”.

Data from (an online database of millions of bird sightings) reveals the migration patterns of birds. The following graphs are from the “Central Hardwoods” and “Appalachian Mountains” of Tennessee (to run your own analyses, click on “explore data” at ebird). The height of the green bars on the graph indicate abundance. Each species has a different seasonal pattern (some are here only in the summer, others surge through in migratory pulses, and many are winter visitors). For many migrant songbirds, mid-September through early October are peak times for movement through our region. These migrants are often very abundant in the forests around Sewanee: every bird taking the overland route from the northern US or the the vast Canadian boreal forest is winging through the southeast.




Within a few hours of the discovery of the dead birds, staff from the University’s offices of Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability and Physical Plant Services were developing a plan to rework lighting to avoid future kills during bird migration. Many thanks to Nate Wilson, Sandy Gilliam, Greg Rollins, William Shealey, and colleagues for their rapid and proactive response.



At the confluence of six rivers and a long tidal inlet: 9000 acres of part-salted water and mud known as the Merrymeeting Bay. Forty percent of Maine’s freshwater flows to the Gulf of Maine through this inland delta. The Gulf’s waters surge into bay twice daily, pushed by oceanic tidal forces but slowed by their long passage through the rock cleft that is the lower Kennebec River. High tide here is hours later than on the coast.

For decades, the waters were so polluted that paint would peel from any building located near the bay or its upstream rivers. Great rafts of dead fish flowed out with the tides. The stink worked its ways into the growth pattern of towns. Apart from huge brick-walled mills — now shuttered or turned to self-storage units — towns and farms turned their backs on the river and bay. Only the poorest parts of town had water views. Unlike the southern Maine seacoast that is now largely encrusted with expensive houses, shores here comprise rock, poisoned mud, and a few scattered hunting lodges. This leaves room for others: Eagles are common, although their bodies are spiced with the toxic remnants of upstream industries. Signs warn humans not to consume the fish, but eagles don’t give a damn about what they read. The flow of some chemical effluent is now diverted into other rivers, other bodies, in other lands. Outsourced, to benefit America’s waters and retail outlets.

Wild rice grows in abundance on the mudflats. In late summer bobolinks flee the mown inland meadows to feast in the rice thickets and roost. Now, at the equinox, the bobolinks are winging away to try their luck in a southern continent. Ducks gather in their place to dabble at rice and aquatic insects. Below the water, endangered short-nosed and Atlantic sturgeon swim slowly upstream, nosing through a vestige.



Reminder of what flies over unseen on autumn nights

A sora, dead on the road outside the post office in Sewanee, Tennessee. These are wetland birds of the north. A dry road gutter in a town built in the southern forested uplands is a far cry from the sora’s usual marshy home.

img_20160912_133918895 This is not the first dead rail that I’ve seen on Sewanee’s roads during the autumn. Their nocturnal migratory flights carry them over the Cumberland Plateau. Perhaps they are lured then confused by the “security” lights that festoon our small downtown area. An early morning driver must have struck this bird as it wandered the road.


Those stubby wings are well adapted to movement in the dense vegetation of marshes. They’re also powerful enough to carry the birds — those that escape our lights and tires — over the Gulf of Mexico to their wintering grounds in Central and South America.

Listen as you walk in the evening: autumnal migrants are streaming through the skies every night, calling as they fly. Chirp, tzup, zzip, the sound of hundreds of thousands of memories of wetland, forest, and prairie, winging bird-thoughts south, away from the leading edge of winter. We’re hearing part of the landscape’s mind in motion. On the roads, in the morning, tiny flecks of lost understanding.



Art installation and allegory: Grimes Ave, Ocean Point.

Imagine that you own a large house overlooking one of Maine’s most scenic shorelines. You might ask yourself: How can I best honor and enjoy the privilege of owning property adjacent to this grand meeting of ocean and land?

The obvious answer: Artillery. Set up launching pad for fluorescent orange clay targets, fling them over the shoreline and ocean, then gun them down. The shrapnel falls into the commons, the sea and rocky tidal zone. People wandering on the rocks, along your property line, enjoy a bright confetti of broken clay amid the barnacles.

To crown the sport, erect a sign asking passers-by to be… respectful.

Rachel Carson’s Edge of the Sea…updated for gunners.