In 2012, University of the South biology professor David G. Haskell published “The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature” after spending 12 months looking at a square meter of woodland near the Sewanee campus.
His examination may have been up close, but the attention he has received over the book has been from much farther away and from important observers.
His latest honor came on April 15, when he was named a prestigious 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist in the General Non-Fiction category. It was an accomplishment that has apparently received little attention in Southeast Tennessee outside his personal circle and among interested followers of the book.
“I was delighted by that recognition and was very happy,” he said over the telephone from Sewanee earlier this week over hearing the news. “I was also very surprised. There are a lot of great books out there, so it was an honor to have my work recognized from among all the great books that have come out.”
Winning was “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America,” by Gilbert King, while Katherine Boo was also a finalist for her book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.”
The Pulitzer organization has publicly named finalists only since 1980, and the honor is considered as prestigious for journalists and book authors as being nominated for Oscars, Emmys and Tonys is for performing artists. Clay Bennett, the editorial cartoonist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and a past Pulitzer Prize winner, was also named a finalist this year.
Dr. Haskell, who will speak on Friday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m. at UTC’s Benwood Auditorium in a talk co-sponsored by the Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center at Reflection Riding, previously saw his book recognized when he won the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award in the Natural History Literature category last fall.
He said he found out he had been named a Pulitzer finalist after receiving a call from his book agent. He then checked the New York Times and Pulitzer Prize web sites and saw his name.
This year’s Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists did not receive as much attention as in past years because the names of the recipients were made public within minutes of when the tragic Boston Marathon bombings took place. As a result, media coverage of the awards was scaled back or even eliminated in some cases to devote more space or time to the bombing.
Dr. Haskell said he certainly had mixed emotions over getting such exciting news on a day that the country and world were collectively mourning.
“I was sickened by what happened in Boston but honored to have been named by the Pulitzer judges,” he said.
Dr. Haskell, a native of London who has been at Sewanee for 17 years, actually began his yearlong observations that formed the basis of his book roughly 10 years ago, he said, adding that he thinks it was 2003.
He simply wanted to find a small area and observe the workings of nature, particularly the minute aspects.
The spot the professor-turned-student chose is about a five-minute bike ride from campus in some woods that are part of the large land holdings of the Episcopal Church-operated college. The exact square meter – which he said he does not keep as a secret -- was chosen not only for its offerings, but also for its surroundings.
Specifically, a sandstone rock suitable for sitting on and observing nature for lengthy periods was located there.
“That area became my focus of study for years,” he said. “I spent hundreds of hours watching that one square meter just sitting and paying attention. I did not wander around.”
After seeing some aspect of nature and taking brief notes, he often would go to the library or do more academic research to become even more knowledgeable about the topic, he said.
The area he was examining may have been old-growth woods, but it offered him a new experience – that of being a published book author. Although he early on hoped the work might lead to some medium to share his stories, this was actually his first book, although he had previously written a number of articles for scientific and academic journals.
The 44-year-old – who was raised in France, went to undergraduate college in England, and did graduate work at Cornell University – said he has been touched by the correspondence he has received both since the book came out and after he was named a Pulitzer finalist.
“I owe a lot of people emails,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been great. I’ll get to the emails eventually, but it has been a little overwhelming and very gratifying. People are connecting with the book.”
In fact, although he did not win the Pulitzer, he feels he has still received quite an award in figuring out how to give people a slightly new way of looking at nature.
“It changes people’s look at the world and enriches it,” he said. “There’s just a lot of interesting stories about the species we share the world with. Science has discovered a lot of how the world works ecologically, and what I wanted to do was tell those stories.”
And tell them he does. Although he was the one examining nature more closely, a reader of his book might be inclined to start examining his writing more closely as well looking for the next metaphor or other creative figure of speech.
In fact, while the book is full of information, it is equally full of entertainment, as lichens and snowflakes become like lead characters that the reader is interested in following.
Dr. Haskell – who also keeps a blog that has developed some followers and plans to write his next book about communication in the natural world – said he has enjoyed becoming a professional writer along with his other teaching duties.
“I didn’t consider myself a writer, although I did enjoy writing,” he said. “But there’s a real pleasure in that. It’s hard work, but it’s something that’s quite satisfying.”
For Dr. Haskell, it was all about attention to details, in writing and especially in looking at the world of nature in a makeshift outdoor Sewanee lab.
“What I got from the process is how much of the world is run by little things,” he said with satisfaction.