Bernd Heinrich opens his exploration of the natural ways of dying, “Life Everlasting,” with a quote from Khalil Gibran that sets the tone for the rest of this absorbing work:
“If you would know the secret of death you must seek it in the heart of life.”
It’s death, and its life-giving virtues, that are the focus of this 16th volume from Heinrich, a Hinesburg, Vt., resident and professor emeritus at the University of Vermont.
Heinrich is at an age where his peers are passing on. An ailing friend tells him that he’d like a “green burial” on Heinrich’s property in Maine.
“I regard death as changing into other kinds of life,” the friend writes. “Death is, among other things, also a wild celebration of renewal, with our substance hosting the party.”
So it is that the “substances hosting the party” fill this engrossing book. They come in all shapes and sizes — roadkill animals, felled maples, antelope on the African savanna, even whales at the bottom of the ocean.
It all sounds rather grim. I admit that while I loved Heinrich’s best-selling “Winter World,” I approached this book with a bit of trepidation. Did I really want to spend hours reading about dead animals?
Heinrich, though, is both an acute observer of the natural world and a good storyteller. His work is a love letter from the wild.
In some senses the subject is recycling, “the truism that life comes from other life and that individual death is a necessity for continuing life.”
Scavengers rate highly in Heinrich’s pantheon. There’s a place of honor at the table for vultures, hyenas, dung beetles, even flies. Outside his Hinesburg home, for example, he’s a built a platform 10 feet in the air where he places roadkill and kitchen scraps to fill the bellies of a pair of ravens.
Heightening the drama of recycling, he transports a roadkilled deer to his property in Maine, to watch how it’s devoured.
He’s expecting to see a “sky burial” via ravens, crows and vultures. Perhaps coyotes, the birds’ “carcass openers,” will come along first.
But in the hot summer of 2010, it’s the flies that win. Of the maggots that are soon all over the dead deer, he observes, “They thrive on the soupy byproduct of bacteria.”
Heinrich brings that kind of fascinated dispassion to his work. He came by the process as a boy.
During the aftermath of World War II, he and his family lived as refugees in northern Germany, in the Hahnheide forest. There they survived by foraging for nuts, berries and mushrooms, and by hunting small rodents and mallard ducks. And yes, by scavenging.
He recounts one incident where the barking of a dog alerted them to the presence of a small, dead roe deer, which provided dinner. They found a boar amid spruces, recently dead after having been wounded by British soldiers also hunting in the forest. “It had been partially eaten,” he recalls, “but there was still some fat on the hide.”
Those soldiers and refugees were part of a very long history of hunters. In that forest they often came upon chipped flints that may have created by humans in the long-ago Pleistocene era.
Though Vermont and Maine are Heinrich’s primary provinces, his studies range around the globe.
He ponders the mystery of the Pacific salmon’s exhausting upriver run, to die at the place of its birth; muses on microbes as undertakers for plants; and traces the development of human intelligence through the hunting practices of Homo erectus.
It’s not just dead animals that are honored here. Even dead birches are sacred “nurse trees” for new growth.
The tree work of beavers, so deplored by many, is another source of satisfaction to this “physiological ecologist.”
Along his dirt road in Hinesburg, beavers have created 15 dams that turned a small drainage into habitat for brook trout.
Just little trout? Not in Heinrich’s elegant recounting, where the brookie is “a beautiful green-marbled char, with red dots surrounded by blue halos, red-edged fins, and a pink or red belly.”
Heinrich also meditates on how humans have grossly, if unintentionally, disrupted natural cycles.
Anti-inflammatory drugs fed to cattle, he notes, have all but extinguished a species of vulture that occasionally feeds on dead livestock. Human-caused global warming threatens to unleash an environmental holocaust of carbon dioxide, which has been locked for centuries within the now-melting permafrost of the Arctic.
He’s the first person I’ve seen to get worked up about what happens to roadkill. By wrapping and then burying animals killed by vehicles, he complains, we deprive ravens and vultures of a food source.
More poignantly, he laments the unreal distance we have created between ourselves and nature:
“We deny that we are animals and part of the wheel of life, part of the food chain. We deny that we are part of the feast and seek to remove ourselves from it, even though we kill and consume animals by the billions and permanently remove the life resources for many more.”
Yet Heinrich is at times an optimist.
“The electrifying consciousness expansion” brought forth by modern technologies, he concludes, has put us “within reach of seeing and feeling the whole Earth biosphere. The world, not merely our neighborhood, is now our common reality.”
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