Full disclosure: the following interview is completely skewed and was conducted with sincere reverence and admiration. The interviewee is David George Haskell, author of my favorite book of 2012, “The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature.”
Here’s the book’s description from Amazon:
A biologist reveals the secret world hidden in a single square meter of forest.
Written with remarkable grace and empathy, The Forest Unseen is a grand tour of nature in all its profundity. Biologist David George Haskell uses a one-square-meter patch of old-growth Tennessee forest as a window onto the entire natural world. Visiting it almost daily for one year to trace nature’s path through the seasons, he brings the forest and its inhabitants to vivid life. Beginning with simple observations–a salamander scuttling across the leaf litter, the first blossom of spring wildflowers–Haskell spins a brilliant web of biology, ecology, and poetry, explaining the science binding together ecosystems that have cycled for thousands—sometimes millions—of years.
The book was a finalist for 2013 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, winner of the 2013 Reed Environmental Writing Award, and winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award for Natural History Literature.
So what’s the connection to agriculture? Well, Haskell’s wife runs an organic goat farm, called Cudzoo Farm, which sells hand-made, small batch soaps and organic goat milk. Haskell’s knowledge about the natural world is so comprehensive, and his observations, as you’ll see even in this short interview below, mine the deep connection between everything natural, including the way humans farm.
I spend a lot of time in the North Georgia mountains at a secret spot that is very similar to the spot that Haskell wrote about. I go up there to reconnect with the web of life. I call it The Source. It’s near a stream where I sometimes fly fish, but mostly I just go to sit, be still, breathe in the quiet, and feel the power and wonder of all the life around me. You can’t see it at first, but every square inch is crawling with life. Just like on a farm.
I go there because when I’m outdoors, I’m in my church, and Haskell articulated the deep connections I feel at a perfect time, in a perfect way. He calls his patch of Tennessee woods a mandala, and I got the idea for the mandala on the Georgia Organics t-shirts we sold at conference last year, designed by Cubby West, from Haskell.
Anyway, we are deeply honored Haskell took the time to respond to some of our questions.
How much do you help out at Cudzoo Farm, and what kind of work do you enjoy there?
Cudzoo Farm is Sarah’s work – a combination of animal agrarianism and art – and she’s the creative director and the producer of the farm’s products. She makes goat milk soaps with goat milk from our herd (Hazel, Foxglove, Arum, Cassia, Snapdragon, Willow, and Fern), organic oils and, for some soaps, natural colorings. Preservatives and synthetic chemicals are common skin irritants. The skin is the largest organ of the body and deserves to be treated well; these soaps are especially great for people with sensitive skin. The “Dirty Pig Special” soap is specially developed to be great at shifting garden soil from hard-working hands.
I help a little with projects as needed, but my main work on our homestead is collaborating with Sarah in the garden and with the bees. I enjoy growing good food and getting to know the personalities of crop plants. In particular, I find it rewarding to connect to stories hidden in the crops: the wild plant species from which they came, the human ancestors whose work gave us the crops, the myriad of fungi and other animals who interact with each plant. I’m also strongly motivated by my taste buds and stomach: by good food, in other words.
In a sense, your book is a wake up call to inspire people to reconnect with nature. Why do you think that’s important?
The book is, in part, a celebration of the amazing lives of other species. If there is a “call” embedded within it, it is a call to realize what a remarkable and complex world we’re part of. Humans are just as much part of nature as any other species, so it is not possible for us to be disconnected from nature – every breath, every bite is an ecological connection. What we’ve lost, in part, is an awareness of this reality. That lost awareness is an aesthetic. Lost awareness is also a poor way to go about being responsible member of the community of life.
Your book goes up to the edge, but never over, a line that shows you have an almost spiritual connection to the natural world. Would you characterize your feelings for nature as spiritual, religious, or anything like that?
I don’t really think or feel in those terms. “Spiritual” implies, to me, the presence of spirits and I’m agnostic about the various hypotheses of supernatural entities in this world. At best, the supernatural is – almost by definition – unknowable. The forest strikes me most as an incredibly real place: sensual, physical, incarnate, almost overwhelmingly so. A place of rich reality. That said, I’d add that the book is inspired by contemplative practices from religious traditions: I think those traditions have much to teach us about the need for silence and listening, and about the various ways in which humans have thought about ethics.
More and more Americans are joining what we call the local food movement. Farmers markets are thriving, the organic industry is thriving, and we’re seeing for the first time in almost a century increases in beginning small family farm operations. Do you have any theories about what’s fueling this reconnection to a more localized food system?
I have no theories, just opinions. One is that people seek out good local food when they finally wake up to what their taste buds are telling them. Why eat blah when you can experience wow? The media and publishing world’s increased attention to the downsides of the industrial food system is also a motivator for many people. Once you know how factory farms work, understand the injustices of the migrant labor system, and become aware of the drugs and poisons in the food supply, opening your mouth to the processed extrusions of the industrial food system is an unattractive proposition. On the other hand, I don’t think that “local” is always superior. Small farmers can abuse animals and massively overspray their crops too. So continued emphasis on how we grow, as well as where we grow, seems important to me.
At one point in the book (see below), you caution the reader about industrial agriculture, and hint that being out of step with nature is questionable. Will you please expand on that?
“Nature seldom throws rapid dietary change at ruminants, but when humans feed domesticated cows, goats, or sheep, they must address the rumen’s needs. These needs do not necessarily conform to the desires of human commodity markets, so the rumen’s balance is the bane of industrial agriculture. When cows are taken from pasture and suddenly confined to feedlots to be fattened on corn, they must be medicated to pacify the rumen community. Only by stamping down the microbial helpers can we try to impose our will on the cow’s flesh.
Fifty-five million years of rumen design versus fifty years of industrial agriculture: we face questionable odds.”
Pumping antibiotics into animal feed is almost guaranteed to cause the evolution of resistance in bacteria. This will cause medical problems for humans as well as agricultural ones for meat producers. It also causes unnecessary suffering in the animals whose lives we are controlling. So the current system seems improvident and evinces poor husbandry. We’re swimming hard upstream against some fundamental biological rules. It does not have to be this way. We can have good, plentiful food without the extreme industrialization that we’re currently operating with.