A Biologist's Tale
One Mainer's memoir of the natural world.
Bernd Heinrich, Maine- educated and an emeritus professor of biology at the University of Vermont, is the author of several bestselling nature books such as Winter World, a book about the ingenuity of animal survival; Mind of the Raven, subtitled Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds; and A Year in the Maine Woods. He has also written about long distance running (he is a record-setting marathoner), bumblebees, wasps, antelope, owls, and geese.
His latest, a fun, sprawling, and edifying memoir, may be titled The Snoring Bird (Ecco, New York, New York; hardcover; 461 pages; $29.95), referencing a small winged, short-billed creature known as a rail, captured for posterity by his naturalist father in the snake- and leech-infested Celebes, east of Java in the Pacific, but this is a warm-hearted, family memoir with plenty of surprises. Though the story may range the whole world, its heart is in Maine, Heinrich's beloved home.
It was in spring 1951, when young Bernd was turning eleven, that his family of German nationals fled the rubble and poverty of postwar Europe for a new start in America - in particular, in sparsely populated Maine country with the nearest hamlet, Wilton, miles away. Bernd's father was a freelance naturalist well known to the museums and universities of Europe, whose exploits in the South Pacific, Burma, India, Persia, and Armenia had spread his reputation all the way to America.
The elder Heinrich, Berlin born, lived much of his life on an estate in Poland, and it was in those fields and forests that he became so enamored of nature, a passion he passed on to his son on that same estate. As the German army began its collapse in early 1945, the Heinrichs fled by canvas-topped wagon, sleigh, airplane, and even a repossessed tank across five hundred miles of Poland and Germany, eating trapped mice that they fried when they couldn't find any food at all. Between the ages of five and eleven, young Bernd and his family lived formatively in an isolated cottage in the German forest. While the father tried to rebuild his naturalist's career, the son, with his pet crow, prepared to follow in his father's large footsteps.
Once in Maine, the Heinrichs were truly free to flourish, and the teenaged Bernd continued his vector into biology. Ultimately, he was educated at the University of Maine at Orono. "I could hardly begin to imagine something so huge, grand, and magnificent devoted solely to learning and unbiased by religious, national, or other prejudices," he remembers. He struggled with English, excelled in science, lettered in cross-country, worked summers in the northern forests for International Paper, and then took a year off to follow his father and mother on a birding expedition to African jungles beyond Dar es Salaam and the mountains of Tanganyika (now Tanzania).
The author's account of their adventures with local tribes, hunters, and the broad range of wildlife is as vivid as it is instructive, testifying to his great talent as a writer and an educator. "Entering the dense growth," he writes of his first time in the jungle, "I felt entirely swallowed up. The trees were covered with vines. The forest floor was bare. By lying on my belly I could see a dik-dik (a type of tiny antelope) grazing here, a rat scurrying there, a thrush scratching in the fallen leaves. I crawled and encountered a troupe of birds in the lower branches and vines. . . . I was hot, and the humid air smelled musty. Sweat dripped off my back in rivulets, and my khaki shirt was quickly soaked through. I heard a crashing above me - monkeys flinging themselves through the green sea above. The bird I had been trying to follow vanished."
Back home, finishing college at the University of Maine, and earning a PhD at UCLA, Heinrich continued to honor his father's legacy by leaving an even stronger mark behind as a longtime professor at the University of Vermont, as a writer of scientific treatises and bestselling books, and as a very at-home denizen of the northern forests of Vermont and western Maine. Now retired, he can spend even more time in his beloved Maine while he can complete other works like The Snoring Bird, an elegant, riveting, instructive memoir that is sumptuously designed and augmented with numerous maps, drawings, and photos.
In A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants (Da Capo Press, New York, New York; paperback; 205 pages; $16), Jaed Coffin captures his journey from growing up in Brunswick, Maine, to becoming ordained as a Buddhist monk in his mother's native village in Thailand. While living at the local monastery, where among other rules he was required to not eat after eleven in the morning, Coffin faces tough questions of ethnic identity and cultural belonging.
Get an insider's view of the Maine Legislature; In The Shadow of the Eagle (Tilbury House, Gardiner, Maine; paperback; 304 pages; $20) is a day-by-day account by Penobscot Nation representative Donna Loring of her experience representing Maine's indigenous people in the State House.
- By: David Haward Bain