Thursday, October 01, 2009

What We're Reading: Summer World

Summer World: A Season of Bounty
Bernd Heinrich

I have always looked forward with anticipation to the publication of a new book by Bernd Heinrich, certainly one of the finest natural history writers of the last twenty years or so. The genre may vary, but his books are always interesting reading, whether the focus is on a single species, like Mind of the Raven, the Geese of Beaver Bog, and Bumblebee Economics, his family memoirs, or the volumes that are miscellanies, like A Year in the Maine Woods and Winter World. Summer World is much like Winter World, an exploration of the life and behavior of various species made over a number of years during the summer season.

Whatever the natural history subject, you can expect a familiar combination of characteristics in Heinrich’s writing that make his approach original and unique. Stephan Jay Gould’s essays had their own distinct appeal, but they were far ranging topically, something to be expected in light of their periodic origins. In contrast, Heinrich groups related subjects and themes. While the location of his studies is always the area around his home in New England, and the subjects are species in what is his own backyard, so to speak, his inquiry cannot be dismissed as homespun charm or country lore. He is a field naturalist, the questions he poses are scientific, the specific answers he proposes are those founded in observation of a particular species in a given habitat over a long period of time, and they are elucidated by reference to classic evolutionary theory.

The major attraction of Heinrich’s writing, however, is in the way in which he allows his readers to be part of the process of scientific inquiry. You feel like you are walking the woods with him, patiently sitting on a branch of the same tree with him, and that the particular problem to be studied, the why to be answered about some observed natural phenomenon, is one that is companionable with your own sense of curiosity, however rusty that may be compared to Heinrich’s restless delight in wanting to know the answer to some unexplained natural mystery. A journey with Heinrich is about curiosity for its own sake, about the pleasure of knowing as an end in itself, a reconnection with an important and characteristic human faculty that seems less frequently a source of intellectual frisson for us these days. He is able to lead you to the same sense of wonder he feels in the answer, the discovery of yet another ingenious adaptation or strategy of life

While the demonstration of some fundamental principal of natural history often comes in a surprising manner, it never fails to come without reference to the fundamental physical laws that inform Heinrich’s view of nature, chiefly the small and unforgiving margins of nature’s economy, and the sense of the complex hyper-interdependence and vulnerability of species as they are shadowed by the remarkable resilience of life itself.

Heinrich accompanies his text with his own skilled drawings in a way that reminds me much of the way the early 19th century naturalists like Thomas Huxley or Joseph Dalton Hooker would sketch their discoveries of new species. He employs a time honored antiquarian approach with contemporary scientific insights and applies it to fresh inquiries in natural history. It is a combination that works well. In his hands the natural world we take for granted, more closely observed and queried, becomes richer and yet more spare, plastic but implacably circumscribed.

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