A Q-and-A with Bernd Heinrich
On Tuesday, August 21, Bernd Heinrich is coming to The Naturalist’s Notebook. The world-renowned biologist, naturalist and writer will be giving a talk and book signing at 4 p.m. and will be around the Notebook earlier in the day as well. Working in conjunction with the Schoodic Education and Research Center (SERC) Institute, we have arranged for him to also give a talk and book signing at a larger venue—the Moore Auditorium at the SERC campus in Schoodic—at 7 p.m. on Monday, August 20.
Bernd’s Aug. 20 talk at SERC will be entitled, “Decoding the Color Code of Bird’s Eggs.” Here’s Bernd’s description of it: “We all know that birds’ eggs are decorated in amazing patterns of colors and designs. What do they mean? I will talk about the problems birds face in nesting, and how the color of their eggs is part of that adaptive biology.”
His Aug. 21 talk at The Naturalist’s Notebook will be more wide-ranging and casual, and he’ll be happy to field questions about his life, his career, his books, his artwork, ravens, bumblebees and other topics. We are making Aug. 21 into our first annual Big Bang Day, with activities all day long, including an Olympic picnic on the Seal Harbor green at 11:30 a.m. with three-time Olympic runner Lynn Jennings.
But back to Bernd. He’s a rare individual, in the best sense. To fully appreciate his work, his life and his approach to studying nature, you’re best off reading some of his books. They will take you deep into the Maine woods, down into wintertime animal burrows, inside the tiny bodies of insects and to many other fascinating places. One of my favorites among his books is The Snoring Bird, the extraordinary story of his family and his life, from fleeing the Red Army in Germany in World War II to surviving in the woods for four years at war’s end to coming to America (to western Maine) as a grade-schooler and building a new and very different life. As with all of his works, the book is visual, vivid and rich with detail. “I try to use the fewest number of words with the most meaning,” Bernd told documentary filmmaker Jan Cannon in describing his writing. “In other words, vagueness is something I hate. It’s got to be specific.”
That specificity reflects Bernd’s scientific exactitude and boundless curiosity. He wants to know not just what, when and where, but also why and how. Every answer raises a new question for him to pursue—and he will never run out of questions.
Whether or not you can make it to SERC or The Naturalist’s Notebook this week to hear and meet Bernd—and to see the 80 original paintings and illustrations of Bernd’s that we are displaying all season—I hope you’ll take the time to sink into some of his writings. I asked him about his latest book (among other subjects) in a Q-and-A with him. Here are parts of that Q-and-A along with a couple of questions he answered in an interview with his publisher:
1) What was the genesis of your new book, Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death?
It started as “Nature’s Undertakers,” and “Life Everlasting” was at first the subtitle, but as it developed it became more about life than about death, and so the Life of it came up to the front. The theme of the book is that all of life is interconnected—in a natural system there is no end, just transformations from one form into others.
I decided to write the book for several reasons. First, a friend who started to have doubts about his immortality asked me if I would be willing to help facilitate his passage into ravens [to be naturally recycled]. This prompted me to begin to doubt my own longevity in human form. At the time I was at my cabin [in western Maine] doing an observational study of burying beetles, who literally bury the carcasses of mice and birds. As fas as I know, we are the only other species that does something similar, although for a different purpose. I knew what the purpose was for the beetles. It made a lot of sense. But for humans? I wasn’t so sure. Some societies do not and or had not practiced it. Then I thought of the almost total disconnect in our modern lives from any considerations of the natural world and how disastrous our cultural trajectory will be if we continue that way.
2) What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching the book?
I don’t do much “research” by Internet. What I do learn there is by definition not new. The only thing that can be new is that which comes from original observation. And the most surprising observation that I made was how a species of burying beetle, which is bright orange and black when it is on the ground burying a carcass, is “instantly” (less than a second) yellow and black, and mimics about six species of bumblebees that have a similar color pattern. Of course this is not a real transformation, which is what the book is about. It’s instead a fake transformation, one that helps to preserve the beetle in its present form on average a little longer.
3) What other observations did you draw upon?
I had a start with over 25 years of research with ravens; I still know a couple personally near my camp. As mentioned, I did an informal study of the beetles one summer, and then I saw all sorts of other animals getting in on the recycling act. I facilitated observations by putting out road-kill that was too large to be buried by the beetles. These ranged from squirrels to deer, and for something even larger, I found a moose in my woods that had been killed by the tick disease. And I reached back in my Africa experiences of seeing the often exciting quick dispositions of huge animal carcasses by lions, hyenas and vultures, and that got me to thinking of even bigger carcasses than elephants’—namely trees—which were right next to me at the cabin in the woods.
4) We have historically seen nature’s undertakers as repulsive—disgustingly living off life rather than giving new life. Yet we believed in everlasting life for ourselves, and/or in reincarnation. Where did these ideas come from?
I believe they came then, as now, from our direct observations of nature. We saw an egg turn into a bird, a grub into a beetle, a caterpillar into a butterfly, a tadpole into frog. Before we knew how that happened or even could happen, why would we not suppose that a prince could turn into a toad, or into anything else? There was no logic because we had no relevant facts, so there was no possibility for understanding either the constraints or possibilities.
5) You seem to approach life with endless curiosity and enthusiasm. How did you develop those traits?
I can only speculate, and my main thesis would be that I’m probably not much different from anyone else who has been brought up with very little except essentials, and who is then forced to concentrate on them instead of the extraneous that divert attention. Many are now diverted only by the extraneous! I had mentors who inspired me, because they gave me a vision of the beautiful and grand.
6) You’re a scientist, naturalist, writer and artist.How do those pursuits reinforce each other in your work? Do you think of yourself primarily as one of them?
I see it more in terms of metamorphosis. I started off as a “nature boy” running free in the woods. This got me interested in life, so I became at heart a naturalist, and from that I became a biologist, that is, a life scientist. As a scientist I communicate about nature by writing and by art. I am a visual person, and when I see a wonderful story in nature, it is almost always at least in part in terms of the actors, not just what they do. I had found that if I trusted someone else to tell the story I saw, with their pictures, it somehow seemed not quite right.
7) How often do you draw or paint? How and where do you like to work on pieces?
I wish I could draw a lot more than I do now, which is seldom. Ninety-five percent of my time is spent trying to “see” the story. Right now, for example, I am trying to keep track of bird pairs and their nests: Three pairs of sapsuckers, two of blue-headed vireos, two of phoebes, one of broad-wing hawk. Sometimes at critical times I’ve had to spend most of the day watching a single nest and pair, to get enough connecting facts to see a pattern. Eventually I see the subject in a situation or pose that captures the visual aspect of the story. Then when I get back to my desk I use materials collected on site, and compose along with photographs if possible.
8) What do you enjoy most about drawing and painting?
It’s kind of shamanic—I mean, here is something in nature, then it’s in your mind as a surface reality, and next it’s processed by the mind in an effort see it as it REALLY is, and then you CREATE it to show it. It’s like preserving something, passing it on, to what could be the next person, maybe removed to another place, another time.
9) How would you describe your writing process?
It tends to be episodic. I have a lot to do all the time, and so I try to get the most trivial things done first. I don’t want to have something hanging over me, but instead want to feel free, to be inspired. I make the most rapid progress where I find passion. Since I usually have a number of things going at the same time, whenever I get bored with one, I’m apt to get inspired by the other. And when with neither, then I go run. This clears my head and I’m ready to sit down and relax.
10) Do you have a favorite among the books you’ve written?
I think it would be Racing the Antelope. (I like this title better than Why We Run, which was a title chosen for the paperback, for commercial reasons.) The Snoring Bird may be a toss-up choice.
11) Do you know yet what your next book or books will be about?
Another, titled The Homing Instinct, was already in draft form before I started writing Life Everlasting, but all of my current bird-watching (as opposed to just seeing different birds) will probably also become a book.
12) What writers have influenced your writing?
As a kid I read a lot of the adventure stories of people who explored the world. The author and writing style didn’t matter to me as much as the content: What new things could they show? That was the draw. I later read a lot of John McPhee because he made the detail of “ordinary” things seem important, and hence interesting. I hesitate to start naming names, because that necessarily means a list of exclusions, and comparing apples to oranges.
13) How would you compare the young Bernd Heinrich who had just finished his Ph.D. at UCLA in 1970 with the Bernd Heinrich of today?
It is hard to be objective about oneself, although it is important that one is. I honestly am not aware of differences, except in the things I did, which are the result of circumstances.
14) What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned in that time?
I’ve learned that just about everything that I have done, even if it didn’t bear fruit, turned out to be either important and/or valued by me now, provided I’d put my best effort into it at the time. I learned that everything has consequences, and it’s best to start early. I have planted trees, literally and figuratively, every time I moved someplace, and they please me and give me satisfaction now, as they did the whole time that they grew.
15) You’ve written that your father, who was the world’s foremost expert on ichneumon wasps and one of the leading natural history specimen collectors in the great 19th century tradition, was left behind by the world of science in the mid-20th century when the focus shifted toward molecular studies and lab research. How has science evolved since you started your career?
I think there are phases, topics, or subjects, that are “in” and “out.” I think mostly they are driven by methods that open up new ways of seeing more quickly and more easily. So the hard-to-do gets left till later. I don’t think science “evolves” so much as it changes, much as art does, or other fashions.
15) How technologically plugged in are you?
I started out thinking science involved mastering specific techniques. Then I found out that almost as soon as I learned “the” technique, it became obsolete; it had all been a waste of time. This biased me. I’m only now starting to learn to use a computer. I could not even type before. I’ve had to learn to type with two fingers and do it very poorly and slowly. I’ve only recently started using Google and been flabbergasted. I’m afraid that it will become an alternate world to the real one. The ultimate consequences are a complete unknown. And I doubt that they have been thought out beyond the next few steps.
16) Do you have an all-time favorite scientist or naturalist? Or science or nature book?
No. I see many differences, and it’s the differences mostly that attract. I can no more compare any of those than whether I like an oriole better than a crow or an eagle.
17) Anyone who has read your books knows that you spend many hours in the field observing your subjects, sometimes sitting a whole day in a blind in sub-zero weather in the Maine woods near your cabin. I think you once wrote that in terms of hours, science is 99.9 percent dog work and .1 percent inspiration. What’s going on in your head as you sit through those long stretches in the field when nothing is happening?
I am no longer doing it to the extent that it was necessary before, to get the required replication for scientific publication. At this point I am more of a naturalist and can be satisfied if I see the story, and not be required to convince everyone of it with fool-proof evidence. I did it before by giving myself the justification—here I am proving something that nobody in the history of the world has ever seen before. To go through it was like running a long-distance race: Every single step was important—it all meant a lot. Now information has become so specific, so minute, that we know more and more about less and less, and often it is easily available, and masked by false claims because of the avalanche of information available via electronics rather than meticulously written in refereed journals, that my previous grand imaginings seem almost trivial.
18) You’re also a highly accomplished long-distance runner. How does running complement your work and other pursuits?
Running is a relief. It’s like I imagine a yoga exercise might be for some. Provided it is not intense, I often think of things while running that just pop up. On the other hand, when it’s intense, then the aftermath opens the floodgates to relaxation and thinking and doing.
19) You once set an American record by running 156 miles in 24 hours on the track at Bowdoin College. What inspired you to take on such an extreme physical and mental challenge? What stands out in your memory of it? How did you stay mentally fresh for so many laps?
I had the conviction at the time that I could do it—”it” meaning the American record—because I had experienced other long races and not just survived but sped up at the end. It seemed an absolutely trivial effort—just one day at the end of only two or three months of preparation. On the other hand, I had put 95 percent more effort into my science every day, over decades, and often “earned” hardly any recognition for it. To the contrary, I’d been singled out for derision [by certain political leaders opposed to government spending on what they deemed to be frivolous science] for “trying to find out how bees make honey” and “how ravens get dinner dates.”
20) As a scientist, what are your greatest concerns about the future of the Earth and its species, including humans?
Ultimately it all boils down to too many people. A few bears can shit in the woods and it fertilizes the trees and makes them grow, and all benefit, etc. But you put a million of them into a square mile, and you’ve got a problem; we’re heading that way.
21) Do you have any ideas on how to get people (especially kids) away from electronic screens and out into nature?
I wish I knew. Make someone do something and that’s what they’ll want to avoid above all else. Computer screens are here to stay, and nature is off-limits to many. The mantra is “do not touch, do not disturb, look only.” Who wants that?
22) If you could learn the answers to any three unanswered questions about science and nature, which questions would you most want answered?
It would be great to know what each of the very different calls that a raven makes, means. It would be fun to know how DNA is configured to make make a dove coo and a red-eyed vireo innately know how to find a piece of wasp paper to incorporate onto its nest, given it has never seen either that paper or a nest. I’d like to know how a logical mind “works,” as opposed to many of ours, and how it all differs from that of a computer.
23) I can’t end without one raven question. How can a person with an untrained bird-watching eye distinguish a crow from a raven?
From a distance? Forget it! You cannot tell in words. The person HAS to see both at the same time, or in a close interval and with excellent recall. Contact is essential. Given that, see the size difference, see the flapping flight of a crow vs. the gliding flight (usually) of the raven. See the “wedge-shaped” long tail of the crow vs. the shorter “square” tail of crow. From up close there are a dozen feather postures that can change over seconds in a raven. Ravens have a thicker beak (but some will say a crow beak is HUGELY thick!). Voice is hugely important, but of course which call? Ravens have some 60 or so very different odd calls, and can also improvise.