May 2009

D. Richard Scannell

nonfiction

Summer World: A Season of Bounty by Bernd Heinrich

Summer World is a celebration of the warm seasons from chlorophyll and foliation to abscisic acid and fall. It’s a study of life and its adaptations, including mosses and larches, beetles and butterflies, grackles and phoebes. Like the book’s 2003 companion, Winter World, it is a survey, constructing a mosaic from snapshots, discussions, and investigations. It reads like a collection of themed essays on evolution and adaptation. Memories and observations culled from decades of the author’s journals lead to brief reflections on the methods of nature and the state of natural science today. It’s a satisfying format, well-suited to lunch breaks on a park bench.

What makes Bernd Heinrich a writer to be trusted is his ability to involve the reader in his investigations. The book’s strongest impressions stem not from remarkable trivia, of which there is plenty, but rather from the questions asked and the methods by which Heinrich penetrates his immediate surroundings. One feels invited into the author’s private world in which he is surrounded by mysteries awaiting his scrutiny. He keeps the pace steady, always conscious of the dangers of anthropomorphization, oversimplification, and technical tedium.

The book first takes off with a chapter examining the peculiar mating rituals of wood frogs. A serenaded female jumps into a pool of standing water and is immediately assaulted by dozens of males frantically trying to get her into a Heimlich-like grasp. In the scope of frogdom, this is strange behavior. Heinrich brings the reader with him as he pieces together the evolutionary development that would have led to such a unique adaptation. The section reads like biological detective fiction in miniature, and with answers that include both πr2 and cannibalism, this reviewer finds it considerably more piquant.

Though birds and mammals are easily related to humans, Heinrich stresses the importance of insects with their extremely diverse specializations. Inspection of a wasp nest in which pupae are carefully deposited with live, paralyzed spiders leads Heinrich to contemplate the remarkably complicated and precise activities that genetics manage to pass on, no learning required.

Consider also one species of butterfly from the azure family that utilizes ants to protect their pupae in exchange for edible secretions. When the period of development has ended, though, the pupae thanklessly eat their protectors in what Heinrich calls “a result of a long evolutionary arms race, a contest that these caterpillars have apparently won.” Intertwined evolutions such as these excite Heinrich, and he conveys that passion in an engaging, concentrated style. In fact, one must at times step back to appreciate the seasons and decades that have gone into each of these investigations.

That said, one of the beauties of general interest science writing is that we, the readers, can benefit from the author’s disappointments. Over the course of several summers in the early 1980s, for instance, Heinrich observed the behavior of the ants near a shack in the Maine woods. What puzzled him was what appeared to be red ants raiding a black ant nest for slaves. No fighting seemed to be occurring, though, and healthy black ants meekly allowed their red conquerors to carry them off. After several experiments and more confusion, Heinrich consulted an ant expert and learned that what he’d observed were in fact nest emigrations, a common occurrence in the ant world. What he’d assumed from appearance were black ants were actually the same species as the red ants.

To have several seasons of thought and observation yield no publishable scientific material must have been disappointing. Two and a half decades later, though, it makes for an entertaining and edifying story. Accepting form as content, what we have here are more than facts concerning ants, just as this book is more than a gallery of natural curiosities. It is a literary condensation of the occupation and passion of a field biologist. It is memoir and natural history inextricably bound. A book from Bernd Heinrich is a pleasure not to be passed up.

Summer World: A Season of Bounty by Bernd Heinrich
Ecco
ISBN: 0060742178
272 pages