Discussion questions

The stories and ideas in The Forest Unseen make great places to start conversations. The following questions are intended to stimulate fruitful discussions in book clubs and classes.

1. Two of the recurring themes in The Forest Unseen are that small, obscure creatures rule the world and that we ignore them at our peril. For example, the future of the world’s climate depends on the particularities of how twigs grow. What other examples are found in the book? How does the book’s attention to seemingly insignificant species contrast with the way that nature is usually portrayed in the media or in science classes?

2. The Forest Unseen views humans as part of nature, animals whose bodies and minds evolved through the same processes that produced the rest of the community of life. The book uses this continuity to offer what might be called a Darwinian approach to empathy; “If we accept the evolutionary continu­ity of life, we can no longer close the door to empathy with other ani­mals. Our flesh is their flesh.” How does this view differ from other applications of the evolutionary perspective, such as those of the “social Darwinists,” who see Darwinism as a reason to narrow, not widen, our empathetic impulses? Does our kinship with other species make any ethical demands on us?

 3. Lately, electronic social networks have changed how we humans relate to each other. In what ways can the chemical, acoustic, and bodily connections among the forest’s inhabitants be seen as a natural social network through which animals, plants, fungi, and microbes communicate? How can we become more aware of this network?

4. The forest ecosystem has many examples of both competition and cooperation among species. The traditional view of ecology has emphasized competitive interactions, but we now know that the “struggle for existence” is often won through teamwork. What are some examples of these cooperative partnerships? Is the line between “plunder and solidarity” easily drawn?

5. After stripping naked on the coldest day of winter to experience the cold as the forest’s birds and mammals do, Haskell concludes that, because human physiology is so different from that of native animals, “any fully shared experience … was impossible.” Much of the rest of the book can be read as an attempt to overcome these sensory and mental limitations to better experience and understand the forest. In what ways do the particularities of our own situation make it hard to fully understand other species? What are the most fruitful ways to transcend these limits?

6. Nature is an ancient, epic poem; we’ve recovered only small fragments of the manuscript. We’ve discovered just one percent of the species that live around us. The Forest Unseen presents the case that to better understand the natural world, we need to integrate the powerful techniques of science with the sensory awareness and imaginative capacity of poetry. Which unknown or poorly understood parts of nature seem to you to be compelling areas for further investigation? How could you start this exploration?

7. We create wonderful places by giving them our attention.” Have you ever watched one place closely for an extended stretch of time? How might you use insights from The Forest Unseen to deepen your experience of the world?