Summer World came my way just in time. Biologist Bernd Heinrich shares his observations of Maine’s natural world with an infectious sense of wonder and delight that sustained me through the last few days before our final frost date, and even gave me some new reasons to look forward to summer. His detailed and exuberant accounts of stalking red ants and wood frog mating rituals are so entertaining, in fact, that I’ve added both of these to my yearly to-do list.
This book follows Heinrich’s highly popular Winter World and grew from his decision “to live two summers actively observant.” Those two years of plant and animal activity during the warmer months are recorded here for armchair naturalists like me. A lifelong nature lover, Heinrich often draws on his experiences and observations from previous years to fill in gaps or to add greater perspective to some of the events chronicled in Summer World.
This is not a dry lecture about red-eyed fruit flies, but a colorful and eye-opening journey into the foreign (to many) world we generally ignore: “I wanted to pursue the interesting and often puzzling, without taking the seemingly prosaic for granted.” In Heinrich’s kingdom, nothing is prosaic, and his appreciative eye captures well the magic that exists all around us, largely unnoticed.
Anyone with such an intimate connection to the natural world can’t help but ponder what humans lost by moving in to ‘civilized,’ climate-controlled environments. “The perceived gulf of separation of ‘us’ from ‘them,’” Heinrich writes, “resulted in spiritual isolation from our ecology and our birthright…. Morality, it seems to me, concerns not only doing unto others, but also being unto other.” A friend’s impending death and request to have his corpse returned to the earth without the barrier of a coffin leads to Heinrich’s further musing on the way “[w]e draw lines and make boundaries.” There is no heavy-handed sermon in Summer World, however. Heinrich’s conclusions about our responsibility to the earth and its creatures, including humans, are food for thought and are drawn from his keen observation of successful behaviors in other species.
Heinrich has a deep awareness of and curiosity about all life; beyond that, he has reverence for the connection and structure of the complex ecosystem that sustains us. Readers will be as intrigued and enchanted as the author when learning about the encoding in the soul of plants that tells them when it’s safe to put forth leaves or in the minds of hummingbirds urging them to fly across vast bodies of water to obey a biological imperative.
Heinrich has the gift of enchantment, telling his stories like a wise, if somewhat eccentric, backwoodsman. He knows how to sift his knowledge, extracting the truly important details, and he does so with such wonder and awe for life that even squeamish readers will find themselves entranced by the bugs in the backyard.