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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  • William E. Shaddock IV

    I am so thankful to have discovered you more than a few years ago, like an Uncle at Christmas letting me in on something he thought I would think was interesting. We have men like Heinrich in Texas too, being buried in a pine box w/holes in it, under a Live Oak seemed a good idea to my Grandfather for that very reason I love that you are raising the subject.

    You are a treasure.


  • nother

    By Walt Whitman
    Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,
    No birth, identity, form–no object of the world,
    Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing;
    Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy
    Ample are time and space–ample the fields of Nature.
    The body, sluggish, aged, cold–the embers left from earlier
    The light in the eye grown dim, shall duly flame again;
    The sun now low in the west rises for mornings and for noons
    To frozen clods ever the spring’s invisible law returns,
    With grass and flowers and summer fruits and corn.

  • Robert Zucchi

    A very welcome, relaxed and pleasant excursion into the natural world by a cultivated seeker, and a sagacious teacher.

    I have to wonder now at my youthful naiveté in considering the native peoples of this land as deficient somehow because it was Europeans who had invented machines. Too late, I realize the “savages” lightly trod the land in moccasins, while we “civilized” Europeans tromped the ground into dust, wearing combat boots. (I would have used a more colorful term for the latter footwear, but it seems to be copyrighted, would you believe.)

    Of course I don’t mean to sentimentalize either the natives or nature in saying this. Especially nature. I remember the filmmaker John Sayles saying, after shooting a movie in Alaska, “People are romantic about nature, but nature is not romantic about people.” That is the point, I think, of this interview, and I believe it carries a powerful (if literally countercultural), liberating, and reassuring insight. People are part of the animal “kingdom,” too. So unstress a little about blowflies and worms and decomposition and the elevation of your headstone. What is it, 1.6 million years of humanoid development (during the Pleistocene)? … 80 thousand generations of Alley Oops and wooly mammoth flensers and necromancers and saints and freebooters and humanitarians and lying, snot-spewing pols. So, just who do we think WE are?

    A squirrel is mentioned at the start of the podcast. I hate to run over a squirrel … invariably it shows up in the rearview, in high res, every death spasm an IMAX experience. I genuinely feel bad, until a little distance on I spot another one. And another one. This interview illuminates nature’s workings here too, I think.

    I’m told the squirrel hasn’t changed much in 20 million years. Evidently, it does its job in this world well enough just as it is. Not so for humans: 200 thousand years of distinctly human beings are plainly not years enough. Which is why civilization is so critical: historically, when some of our number have been truly civilized, they seem to have put themselves some little distance ahead on the evolutionary curve through culture alone. (No, I wouldn’t venture to say whether or not this describes our country and its people at this time. But I have no doubt it does describe Messrs. Lydon and Heinrich in this podcast.)

  • I was raised in the country, though I always ached to be in the big city. I recognised much of myself and my parents in that conversation.

    As a photographer, this passage really resonated with me: “It starts from curiosity. There are new things I see all the time. But basically it starts from being one place for a long time. Where you see changes from hour to hour, from day to day, from week to week, month to month, from year to year. I would train you to be in one spot and really get to know it and feel at home there. Once you do feel at home you’ll want to know more and more […] that’s where I think it really starts, not understanding everything.”

    That’s precisely what I try and do with my photography – examine, consider, scrutinise, explore, circle back and grasp ever so haltingly toward some greater truth. I think I shall spend my Bank Holiday Monday revisiting my beloved Hampstead Heath.

    Thank you for these conversations, Chris.

  • Sean McElroy

    It must be in some way paradoxical to say, as a human myself, that humans have over many years and will for many years hence continue on the path that only humans can bestow, in the only cosmos available to humans. In a part of my imagination, I see this as a positive thing in spite of natural reservations to the contrary.

    Whether that path has any impact at any moment or in the eternity that has been or that will be, is any human’s guess at best. More likely, humans, like all living creatures here on Earth, or anywhere else for that matter, will find a cosmos that at best ignores them and at worst is orchestrated chaos.

    There is solace in the thought that somehow the constituents of this human body were once a part of something else and will anon be part of something else and that here, now, they are conscious enough to be enscribing these words, perhaps to be ignored, or perhaps something else.

  • Potter

    All of a sudden, after pouring pounds of sunflower seed into our bird feeder over that last few weeks, silence. I only see hummingbirds and dragon flies darting around.

    As I was walking my cat the other day (he’s on a harness!) he came upon a dead bird with yellow jackets feeding off it’s flesh. Today again, we came upon a dead titmouse with yellow jackets all over it.

    The season is changing.

    Years ago ( many) a friend said with firmness, that we humans are a plague upon the earth. This shocked me- but I have come to believe it. And so I hear it in this interview. I am completely in tune with Bernd Heinrich’s sentiment. I thought of Gaia, the Gaia principle, popular in the 1970’s.

    We can’t keep on and on consuming and yet this is the engine that drives the whole planet, what every “developed” nation depends on. Maybe economic recovery is not what we need.

    Refreshing, very related and thank you!

  • Potter

    Here again- to thank Nother for that Whitman poem. To give this link:

    And to give a hat tip to my compost pile!

  • The Parrot

    Thank you Messrs. Lydon and Heinrich. I’ve been carrying this conversation around with me as I walk through the approaching autumn here in the mountains (which turns from an horizonless sea of green mush to an amazing show of color force). My home is autumn, a season, not a place nor tick of clock. That is where my eternal moment lives. The air and light are a feast. The seasonal shift is the ever present moribund, the omnipresent entropy, and it is a welcome partner in my strolls. Thanks again, best to one and all.

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