Friday, March 7, 2014
By Ken Allen
Bernd Heinrich, a popular science-nature writer, has written 16 intriguing books that have fascinated me enough to write reviews on some of them -- a must-read for outdoors folks who not only want to look at the natural world around them but also want to see it.
This gifted naturalist pokes around the woods, observing and pondering deeply, reminding many of us of ourselves. We engage in the same activity but arrive at less provoking, powerful thoughts.
One of Heinrich's appeals strikes me as obvious. At times it's OK to bushwhack lightly, walking around forests or waters without a firearm, fishing rod, camera, or even binoculars or a magnifying glass. In short, he makes me feel less guilty of doing what may appear to others as loafing.
Heinrich lives in Vermont but owns a second home in Maine in the rugged hills north of Route 2 between Farmington and Dixfield. He attended the Goodwill-Hinckley School in Hinckley and the University of Maine, so his affiliation with this state goes back a long way.
In short, the man has strong ties to Maine, a small, rural state where folks just love our luminaries. This notable figure will grow in stature as years pass.
His recent work, "Life Everlasting," ranks as my favorite in his long list of works, probably for the wrong reason. I have felt strongly about a hypothesis through my adult life, and a passage in the book agrees with it. Early humans hunted game rather than scavenged off kills, often by stronger predators -- a logical conclusion that flies against a dominating theory by scientists. They claim our ancestors sneaked onto recent kills by predators and grabbed meat and bones (for marrow) off carcasses.
On Page 43, Heinrich mentions two researchers, who thought our ancestors hunted live game from the start. In short, when powerful predators killed prey, humans had little opportunity to use the newly available food. They feared a dominant carnivore lurked near its fresh kill, and that's not even considering other powerful carnivores that might show up.
When reading "Life Everlasting," three points impressed me:
n Parts of it reminded me of the "Naked Ape" by Desmond Morris, high praise from me. Morris' book came out in 1967, but in the 1980s -- in my circle anyway -- the inexpensive paperback gained a following. Folks talked about it where I visited -- coffee shops, campfires and dinner tables.
n Heinrich's passages about early man being a hunter delved into the naked-ape concept of how losing long, dense body hair made us better able to follow prey for long distances without our bodies overheating, an evolutionary change needed for long-distance tracking.
n Heinrich hunts deer, so he knows chase-and-kill firsthand. He has turned living creatures into sustenance, a firsthand experience with food gathering to help his understanding during more academic research.
An anecdote at the end of "Life Everlasting" offered a great metaphor on modern humans committing rash, and yes, stupid acts, despite all our technological knowledge.
Heinrich touched upon one that began in 1970 when a sperm whale carcass drifted onto a beach in Florence, Ore.
The incredibly pungent stench from decay worried tourism officials, who thought it would last for a year or so. So they piled a half-ton of dynamite around the whale, hoping to break it into smaller pieces to aid scavengers in the removal.
After the enormous ka-boom, a rain of blubber fell as far away as 800 feet and also damaged a car a quarter-mile from the blast. The odd ending bothered people far more than it did any whale.
That's the thread of "Life Everlasting," following how animals deal with the death side of the life cycle. Like a 19th-century transcendentalist, Heinrich's studies the process by highlighting examples in nature, such as carrion bees burying a field mouse and other processes that show humans the more base side of life and death.
Because Heinrich has studied ravens considerably, readers associate this species with Heinrich, who calls the big, black bird the "premiere northern undertaker."
Humans have long associated ravens with death. In my opinion, Edgar Allen Poe particularly gave this creature a bad rap in his poem, "The Raven," which most of us read in high-school English. But these days we love "Corvus corax."
Before leaving the topic of ravens, I must mention a point that crosses my mind each football season. Does the average pro football fan catch the literary allusion associated with the Baltimore Ravens? The franchise resides in Poe's hometown, where the great 19th-century writer highlighted a fictional raven that portended doom.
Deer hunters also have a growing affinity for ravens -- the big black symbol of the north woods that thoroughly cleans up after a successful hunter leaves a pile of viscera. Yes, outdoors wanderers surely notice this bird with the 2-foot body and 53-inch wingspan. That's a lot of bird with a legendary brain.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at: