From Books

Heinrich’s World

Winter World book coverI’m running behind on my critically-panned Ten Books series, a crime for which my readers will readily forgive me. As a sleek preview of a tedious ten-pack at least two such posts distant, I offer here an enthusiastic recommendation of Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival.

Only the late, great biologist and writer Stephen J Gould has grabbed and kept me in thrall on the subject of life in nature as has Heinrich. I’ve failed to discover or have short-changed many, many others. Thoreau’s Walden and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac certainly are favorites. I am aware of Rachel Carson’s monumental achievements–but haven’t read her, nor have I read Muir, Audubon, or my home state’s own Sigurd F Olson. Darwin is the writer on the subject, but what I know of his (voluminous!) works has come almost exclusively through the writings and interpretations of others (Gould, for one).

Bernd Heinrich is a keen observer of nature with a knack for asking interesting questions about it. He doesn’t just ask interesting questions, he works hard to answer them. His combination of curiosity, drive, and a commitment to empiricism are impressive and inspiring. That he is also an effective communicator, writing books that offer compelling insights into nature and the science of biology to a general audience, makes him a treasure.

The Snoring Bird book coverI have effused about Heinrich before: his Ravens in Winter and The Snoring Bird here on my blog, and what is probably his best-known book, Mind of the Raven, to various (bemused?) captive audiences. Now I want to encourage everyone I know–all of those, at least, having even a smidgen of interest in the natural world–to read Winter World.

I won’t try to offer a proper book review or insightful analysis of the book. A sort of fuzzy enthusiasm is more my style. The harder I might try to write up a “smart” appreciation of it, the less likely I will be to persuade anyone to read this book. Just some quick observations:

– I love his “always on” curiosity and commitment to the importance of empirical data. See a dead chipmunk on the side of a road? Heinrich seizes upon the opportunity to learn from it. Almost in passing he writes, “I easily inserted sixty black sunflower seeds through the mouth into just one pouch of a roadkill.” This tendency is much in evidence in the two excerpts available below and throughout his books.

– The author makes use of Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire” throughout to make his points about the critical importance of the various and novel solutions employed in nature to sustain life in harsh winter conditions.

– The Golden-crowned Kinglet is the “star” of the book in many ways, but this book is not all, or even mostly about birds. Its twenty-five chapters highlight a diverse collection of animals from bears, beavers and voles to turtles, snakes, honeybees and more.

– You might expect Winter World (published 2003) to have a lot to say about climate change. Not so. A sentence here and there alludes matter-of-factly to observed changes, but the author’s attention is focused elsewhere. One brief passage sounds an ominous note.[1] His treatment of the issue in this book (I can’t speak to what he may have written elsewhere) reminds me of listening four years ago to a presentation given by forest ecologist Dr Lee Frelich to a group of Minnesota Master Naturalists. Frelich and so many scientists who see changes occurring before their eyes have long accepted what observations and analyses tell us about the causes and effects of what is happening, and have scant interest in debating scientific-illiterates whose voices get so much undeserved attention. They are busy grappling with reality.

Bonus content

I am likely going beyond what fair use allows by posting two lengthy PDF-formatted excerpts from this book (roughly 4% of its text). My motives, at least, are pure. I want to persuade friends and family (and those who may have landed on my blog after an unfortunate Google glitch) to read–and pay for–good science writing in general and the books of Bernd Heinrich in particular. To that end I pledge to give away at least three paperback copies of Winter World to readers of my blog. Those of you wanting more can visit your local bookstore or Amazon.com.

First excerpt is from chapter three, “A Late Winter Walk”; the second from chapter nine, “The Kinglet’s Winter Fuel”.

Link to PDFLink to PDF

As an added bonus, relevant NPR audio from 2003:

Notes

  1. Heinrich writes, after a reference to Milankovitch cycles (which tell us that because of a regular change in Earth’s tilt, we are seven thousand years into a natural cooling cycle):
     
    “But at the present time we are experiencing global warming instead, because the cooling effect of the astronomical cycle is being overridden by a human-induced climate change. The burning of fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide gas that is accumulating in the atmosphere at a greater rate than it is being absorbed by forest trees and other plants. The carbon dioxide acts as a thermal blanket, trapping solar heat. Unlike the astronomical cycle, which is gradual and permits evolutionary adaptations, this new phenomenon in the history of planet earth is sudden. It will affect kinglets, and us.” [^]