Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

The Snoring Bird

tags: , , , , , ,

I remember that I felt very cold when I read Bernd Heinrich’s book, Ravens in Winter, even though it was a hot summer day. That was the first of Heinrich’s books that I read, but it definitely wasn’t the last. I just finished reading his most recent book, The Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through a Century of Biology (NYC: HarperCollins; 2007) and just as I wore a sweater while I finished his Ravens in Winter, I found that my normally routine daily subway rides to and from the library were magically transformed into a century-long series of breathtaking adventures, thanks to this book.


This absorbing book tells the remarkable story of the author’s father, Gerd; his life, his family’s past, and how the forces of history and nature united to shape both his father’s life as well as his own. Even though this book is primarily about science and natural history, it tells about much more than collecting and identifying new species animals, as you will quickly discover. You will learn about Gerd’s life; his military service during WWI and WWII as a German calvary soldier, pilot and Luftwaffe officer, his marriages, divorces and lovers — several of which produced children (one of which was the author), the family’s amazing and hair-raising escapes at the end of WWII, first from the Nazis and then later, from the invading Red Army in 1945 (when Bernd was just a child), followed by immigration to the United States and the family eventually settling down on a rustic Maine farm that they came to call home. Yet at the end of the book, after all his adventures and struggles, Gerd faces old age, declining health and his eventual death with a clear disappointment that his productive life was never adequately recognized by the scientific community.

It would have been easy to remember him that way, but instead, as soon as the author is presented with the opportunity to learn more about his father, he does so. One day, years after his father’s death, the author was cleaning the attic in the family barn and discovered a crate filled with some of his father’s important papers, books, letters and journals describing his personal and professional history. Inspired by what he read there, the author began investigating his father’s life by corresponding with Gerd’s many friends and colleagues, eventually coming to an understanding and respectful acceptance of his father. To this end, the author writes;

I remember my father mostly as an old man. When we immigrated to the United States in 1951 he was already fifty-five years old. He spent hours hunched over his collections, his eyesight failing. Soon his mental faculties would follow. It was not until I was at least as old as he that I came to appreciate the long journey that had brought him to this place. He had not begun life as a rather eccentric, bitter old man. What I would have seen was the remarkable strength and perseverance and passion that had imbued his life, one of great losses, with adventure and accomplishment.

Early in the book, you learn that Gerd never managed to go to college, even though he certainly had the intellectual capacity to do so, but he didn’t let that stop him. Because of the encouragement and at the suggestion of a naturalist-friend of his, he began collecting and naming parasitic wasps. These wasps, of the family Ichneumonidae (subfamily; Ichneumoninae), are small and easily overlooked, and thus, they were poorly known. (Interestingly, because of their habit of laying their developing eggs inside the bodies of still-living caterpillars so the young wasps would later emerge from the unlucky host’s dried husk, a horrified Charles Darwin rejected the notion of a “loving God”). Yet, despite his lack of formal scientific training, Gerd came to be widely recognized as the world’s authority on the taxonomy of the mysterious Ichneumoninae. This wasp collecting passion was woven throughout every aspect of his life, serving as an anchor while everything around him was heaved around by world events beyond his control.

Because no one would pay him to collect ichneumons, Gerd hired himself out as an animal collector and thus, was able to travel to many exotic locales around the world, where he collected a variety of new animal species as well as new ichneumons. In fact, the book gets its name from one of these exotic birds that Gerd collected: the snoring bird was an elusive rail (a ground-dwelling bird that is very difficult to find or see) that could only be found on the Celebes islands of the South Pacific Ocean. It took Gerd two long and adventure-filled years to finally locate and collect this bird, a specimen that is presently located in the ornithology collections at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Gerd’s wives and lovers also participated in collecting animals, and sometimes even his son accompanied him into the field (Gerd was very critical and neglectful of his unfortunate daughters). Anneliese (Gerd’s first wife), Lotte (Anneliese’s younger sister and one of Gerd’s lovers) and later, Hilde (Gerd’s lover and eventually, his second wife), were all gifted preparators and taxidermists who prepared all Gerd’s “collected” animals for the museums that hired him. Even though most of Gerd’s collected animals were stuffed by “his women”, he also brought back a few live specimens, including a tame panther that rode the train with him through Russia.

Despite his father’s powerful influence, the author realized that birds were “my ichneumon wasps” while still a boy living in Hahnheide, near Hamburg, Germany. But despite his passion for birds, it was insects that provided the author with a scientific quest of his own when he was a university student in the United States. But instead of following in his father’s old-fashioned footsteps (much to his father’s disappointment), the author focused on modern research themes and became a world-renowned biologist noted for his studies of natural history, ecology, physiology and animal behavior. His dissertation project worked out the incredibly complex mechanism of heat control in moths. After completing his dissertation, the author then studied bumblebees to provide new insights into the coevolutionary relationship between pollinating insects and their host plants.

But besides being a noted scientist, Bernd Heinrich is also a fine nature writer with many well-received books to his credit. Thus, he is specially qualified to write this fine story that details major changes that have occured over the last century in the biological sciences.

Even though this meaty book is 461 pages long, it is not daunting in the least. It will appeal to a wide audience; of course, scientists will enjoy it, but so will those who enjoy reading European and family histories and adventures as well as those who are interested in understanding the often complicated bond that exists between fathers and their sons.

Bernd Heinrich is the author of numerous award-winning books, including bestsellers Winter World, The Geese of Beaver Bog, Why We Run, along with several of my personal favorites, Ravens in Winter and Bumblebee Economics and, most recently, his memoir, The Snoring Bird. He has also written for Scientific American, Outside, American Scientist and Audubon as well as writing book reviews and op-eds for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He has also received numerous honors for his scientific work. He studied at the University of Maine and at UCLA and is professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont. He divides his time between Vermont and the forests of western Maine.

Comments

  1. #1 biosparite
    December 20, 2007

    I first encountered Heinrich’s work when I browsed the Paulina Springs Bookstore while vacationing in Sisters, Oregon two summers ago. I found his book BUMBLEBEE ECONOMICS on a shelf and purchased it immediately. What a clever and informative read it was. Had I not already been a bumblebee enthusiast, I would have been transformed into one by his sparkling prose. Thank you, G/S, for bringing this latest work by Heinrich to my attention. Can you set it up so my purchase will garner you Amazon credit?

  2. #2 Writersgroupblog
    January 6, 2008

    Thanks for submitting this to The Writers’ Block carnival, and thanks for all your submissions in the past. There’s some really sharp content here.

    Happy New Year!

  3. #3 Renata
    January 12, 2008

    Great news! you article was accepted for our Natural Science Carnival! Visit the Carnival here and don’t forget to comment, link back, spread the word!

  4. #4 Corey
    January 21, 2008

    I loved this book (and all of Heinrich’s works) and think your review did it justice. I couldn’t put it down when I read it. Perhaps his best work yet…

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.