30 September 2013

Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, by Bernd Heinrich

Posted by Callan Bentley

indexA few weeks back, when I posted a few book reviews in a post on this blog, a reader recommended a book by Bernd Heinrich, The Snoring Bird. I checked my local library, which did not have it, and so I requested that they buy a copy. In the meantime, I thought back to the two other books by Heinrich I had read: Mind of the Raven, and Ravens in Winter. Both are excellent, thoughtful, insightful examination of the biology, ecology, and psychology of big corvids. I had enjoyed reading them, and my hunger had now been whetted for a new Heinrich book. So I checked out Life Everlasting instead.

It’s about death in nature – the subtitle focuses on animals, but plant death is explored too, and a section of the book is devoted to “watery deaths” – whale falls and suchlike.

I found the chapter on metamorphosis fascinating, and even enjoyed Heinrich’s analogy of animal metamorphosis to reincarnation – the transformation of a caterpillar to a moth is so fundamental, it’s like dying and being reborn in a totally different form. The final chapter left a weird taste in my mouth – it’s about his own search for spirituality and ultimately and embrace of a naturalistic version of Pascal’s wager. Need I say that I didn’t find that argument very compelling?

Heinrich is at his best when describing his simple, thoughtful experiments in behavioral ecology. It’s astonishing how much fun a person can have watching, for instance, “undertaker” beetles work with a dead mouse. By periodically altering variables, Heinrich gains insight into the beetles’ methodology. It made me fervently wish for more free time, so I could “play” with a dead animal’s decomposition in my own yard – watching the various organisms that visit it and partake of its nutritious body, and their strategies for maximizing gain and minimizing risk. In another chapter, he takes a road-killed deer out to his land and waits for the vultures to redistribute its mass into the air, turning hooves into feathers…

The “Life Everlasting” of the title is a homage to the continual cycling of nutrients from one organism to the next. Death happens to every organism, and when it does, others move in to make the most of it. The same atoms get used, over and over and over again, in a chain of living biomass that stretches back to the origin of life on Earth, and stretches forward into the foreseeable future. That strikes Heinrich, and me, as quite beautiful and worthy of contemplation.