A Trip to Vermont to See Bernd Heinrich
Bernd Heinrich is one of the world’s foremost naturalists, biologists and science and nature writers. He is the subject of an inspiring documentary by filmmaker Jan Cannon called An Uncommon Curiosity. Having read many of Bernd’s books (some of them New York Times bestsellers), including Mind of the Raven, Ravens in Winter, Winter World (about how animals survive in snow and cold), the Thoreau-esue A Year In the Maine Woods and The Snoring Bird (a can’t-put-it-down account of the extraordinary, war-torn saga of his family, especially his father, Gerd, himself a great naturalist and a world-traveling museum-specimen collector), I often find myself trying to think like him when I walk through the woods—observing extra closely, looking for clues, posing questions to myself about what I see and hear.
One of the highlights at The Naturalist’s Notebook this summer will be an August visit from Bernd. He will give a talk, sign books and take part in some fun activities that, in the tradition of the Notebook, combine nature, science and art. This week Pamelia and I drove to Burlington, Vermont, to talk to Bernd and look at his exceptional body of drawings and paintings of the natural world. We’ll be presenting a major show of his work all summer.
Pamelia and I took a triangulated route to Burlington by way of southern New Hampshire, where we made another Notebook-related stop. After seven-and-a-half hours on the road—through the White Mountains and the Green Mountains and past lovely stands of birch, their new leaves billowing in ephemeral clouds of light yellow-green—we pulled into Burlington, one of the country’s most progressive and environmentally minded cities, set on Lake Champlain. As we ate dinner that night, discussing how fortunate we were to be meeting with a naturalist known as (among other distinctions) the world’s leading raven expert, I glanced up at a TV above the bar and saw an ad for a new movie: The Raven. Good omen.
Our five hours with Bernd the next day were memorable indeed. His home is set in beautiful countryside overlooking a beaver pond with a lodge in the middle. A goose nests on top of the beaver lodge. In his kitchen Bernd poured me a cup of coffee from a Mason jar on the stove and added milk and honey, a tasty combination I’d never tried before. (Bernd, the author of Bumblebee Economics, is also a beekeeper, though his bees mysteriously died over the winter, perhaps as part of the widespread colony-collapse phenomenon.) After chatting about birds for a while, we retreated to his detached studio, where Bernd started pulling out boxes and file folders full of wonderful sketches, drawings and paintings of plants, fungi and wildlife. Some dated back to his days as a PhD. student at UCLA and even to his childhood. “You don’t know it until you draw it,” Bernd said with a smile.
I don’t want to leak too much of what happened after that—you’ll be able to see the results if you come to The Naturalist’s Notebook this summer—but I will note that Bernd, ever the enthusiastic scientist, excused himself a couple of times to go watch sapsuckers. He has observed some fascinating behavior involving sapsuckers recently and he can’t wait to figure out answers to some of the questions he has about the birds.
You’ll hear me say this more than once before the year is through, but take the time to read some of Bernd’s books if you want to deepen your appreciation of the world around you. And come to the Notebook this summer if you’d like to see a show of truly remarkable naturalist art (and buy more of of his books). Thank you, Bernd, for giving us a day we’ll never forget.
Fern Fact (er, Fun Fact) of the Day
Part of Pamelia’s research for a very colorful 2012-13 installation at The Naturalist’s Notebook has taken her deep into the history of the Earth and the universe. This week, as often happens, she mentioned to me something amazing: Most of the coal in the world today comes from ferns that grew between 360 million and 300 million years ago, during the Carboniferous period, a time in our planetary history that saw amphibians and land plants prosper and that derives its name from a Latin term meaning “coal-bearing.” Most of the land back then was warm and swampy, so that the continents were covered with forests of ferns. When these ferns died, they formed thick layers of dead plants, sank into the ground, and were transformed by heat and pressure into the form of carbon that we know as coal—and call, appropriately, a fossil fuel.
Answer to the Last Puzzler
One reason that many birds’ eggs evolved as oval shaped rather than round is that oval eggs don’t roll off flat surfaces on which birds would lay them. (Try rolling an egg and you’ll see that it doesn’t move in a straight line, it traces a circle and comes back to where it started.) More birds survive if eggs don’t roll off, fall to the ground and break. Any cook who’s ever set an chicken’s egg on a kitchen countertop should be grateful.
1) How many octopus species are there?
2) How tall is the tallest tree on Earth (a redwood)?
a) 298 feet
b) 379 feet
c) 415 feet
—Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood