August 25, 2012

"We’re the only animal with the knowledge that we’re part of something else."

Bernd Heinrich and our Journey — from Life to Life

I went out to the wild woods of western Maine in the late summer to inhale the biologist Bernd Heinrich‘s experience of Life Everlasting — and just to behold a modern man in a cabin he built himself, almost as simple as Thoreau’s. Of course I am wondering: how many of us could learn to live as Bernd Heinrich does for months at a stretch? Could he teach me to see what he’s been watching in this wilderness for 60 years?

Bernd Heinrich made his professional reputation getting to know ravens and bees the way his friend Edward O. Wilson got to know ants. They are among the great naturalists surviving in the DNA era when, as Wilson has remarked, big-time science has little time for anything larger than a cell. Heinrich is an all-round woods watcher of birds and plants. He can place us on the calender, within a day or two (as Emerson observed of Thoreau) just by looking — in this case, at the goldenrod coming into bloom. “The nights are getting colder. The fireweed is fading out. Spirea is coming in. You can see the color fading in the birches…”

Bernd Heinrich hooked me five years ago with his autobiography, about himself as a 10 year old German immgrant boy running wild in these same Maine woods. And he’s hooked me again with his reflection on The Animal Way of Death in the subtitle of Life Everlasting. The short form is the notion that it’s not from dust we come, to dust we shall return. It’s life all the way, unless we bury ourselves in metal caskets. The trick in grasping the point is to watch animal recycling in nature.

So we spend the afternoon looking at what vultures have done to a fallen porcupine in the woods, and what maggots are doing to a road-kill squirrel that Bernd has brought back to his cabin. “Icky stuff,” as Bernd says. The trick is to rethink the “Nevermore!” from Poe’s Raven. He might have said: “Ever after!” If a raven’s beak gets our remains, we’ll be on the wing, literally, almost immediately.

I’m reminded specially of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John 12:24, which Dostoevsky fixed as an epigraph at the start of The Brothers Karamazov: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

So we are watching something very grand going on and reflecting on big ideas of life through death — of resurrection, perhaps, and the reincarnation of bodies and ideas. “Without recycling,” Bernd Heinrich remarks, “all life would grind to a halt.” And I’m observing that death and recycling, as in the kernel that falls to the ground, may be the only route to immortality.

A week later I’m loving Bernd Heinrich’s train of thought. His implication, for starters, of a natural religion based our physical links to an unimaginably vast network — and of a moral obligation to all living things. “Not just to your neighbor,” he is saying, “but to the whole ecosystem.”

We’re the only animal with the knowledge that we’re part of something else… this knowledge of a physical connection with the rest of life; and it’s not a belief, it’s a knowledge…

We’re speaking of physical immortality. In the book I was also thinking of reincarnations, not only from physical to physical, but also in the case of humans especially, we are each seeded by ideas. We talked about Ed Wilson. He said: Bernd, you could run a marathon in two and a half hours. And that planted a seed in my mind, and I got out and started training, and I became an ultramarathoner and I ran also a marathon in two hours and twenty-two minutes. And in 24 hours I ran 156 miles, and it was a national record. So our immortality is not just physical. We are one of the few species who have immortality that is transmitted mentally, through ideas…

As Ed said, you know, the interest is more and more in the cell rather than in the organism.
Fewer and fewer people are actually in contact with the nature around us that really affects us. In other words, you can’t really know, for example, the plight of the ravens or the vultures unless you are out in nature… We don’t have enough naturalists… I am afraid of our power to cause damage. I see us as a plague who overruns our whole planet and upends the balance and creates an ecosystem that’s very, very simple where we don’t have this recycling, for one thing. And just the buildup of toxic effects, ad infinitum. It just seems like: when I was a kid nobody ever really thought about it. The idea that you could destroy the wilderness was just unthinkable. But now we’re thinking about it… because it’s actually happening.

Bernd Heinrich at his wilderness camp in Western Maine with Chris Lydon, August 2012

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