“The Vast Miracle of Living”
A Review of
Summer World: A Season of Bounty.
by Bernd Heinrich.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich
It is the beginning of May as I am writing, with the last frost date here in Indiana next week, and plans for planting all of the summer crops this weekend in the gardens. The weeks leading up to this time have involved sorting through last year’s saved seeds, starting some plants indoors, turning over the plots from last year, and breaking some new ground. There has been more rain than dry, so the ground has been soft, sometimes to the point of standing in mud and attempting to remove the sod. Along with this preparation for the garden, there are other events I mark the beginning of summer with, notably the first mow of the year, and the dropping of flowers from the Tulip trees which should happen in about two weeks (I actually observed a tree full of leaves earlier this morning). Marking the passage of time with the natural rhythms of seasons, weather, and plants may be one of the first and most substantial ways to connect with our local places; as the summer begins, Bernd Heinrich’s new book Summer World: A Season of Bounty describes this biologist’s engagement with the season, focused most specifically around two summers at his home in Vermont and cabin in Maine.
Heinrich begins looking “at the ingenuity of life more locally, as life-forms interact with one another … I wanted to pursue the interesting and often puzzling, without taking the seemingly prosaic for granted.” These observations play out through the book through a diversity of life, several species of insects and birds, as well as plants, toads, and beavers. One of the joys of this book is the acuity with which Heinrich describes what Wendell Berry has called “the nearness / of the world, its vastness, / its vast variousness, far and near” (“Words” from Given).
The book is structured primarily around various species of animals, “Wood Frogs,” “Cecropia Moths,” or “Flies,” for example, and the book is roughly chronological from the beginning thaws of spring, to the leaves dropping and caterpillars cocooning in the fall. Consider the wonder with which Heinrich describes the local life: “Insects show us how much can be done with a pinpoint-size brain, and they therefore seem magical. If so much can be programmed into such a small brain, how much more is possible with a brain like a bird’s, which is hundreds or thousands of times larger?” Heinrich goes on to describe the diversified methods and forms of nest-building for birds and wasps, as well as the dances of flies, and claims that “flies give me hope.” And then consider the irony of a phrase like “bird-brain,” disparagingly used in our technological society. He reminds, “blackflies effectively do more to fulfill the promise of the well-known state slogan to ‘Keep Maine green’ than anything government ever would or could do.”
Observing caterpillars and their eventual transformation into butterflies, complicated by adaptation to their local environment and climate, Heinrich is amazed at the “miracle on the miracle,” and this is perhaps the most helpful way to begin to enter into the wonder of the Creation. It is engaging to read Heinrich, a biologist, describe the commonplace happenings in nature, and then he often continues to conduct experiments of sorts to attempt to understand and decode what he is watching. His engagement with nature is direct, and is substantial, asking many questions of it because of his inherent amazement. The poet Wislawa Szymborska describes the same fascination in “Miracle Fair:” “A run-of-the-mill miracle: / winds mild to moderate / turning gusty in storms” (from Miracle Fair). All of the living and dying around is taken as part of the miracle.
Summer World is also illustrated throughout with Heinrich’s drawings of many of the plants and animals that he is observing; the desire to record in drawings as a process of understanding and preserving adds yet another layer of detailed observation and commitment to his place. Perhaps the most telling recommendation of reading through Summer World is that it encourages, even enthuses, the desire to experience this season (and the others) deeply and thoroughly; it excites the urge to participate with and learn from the least of the creatures, even, to see them in their fullness as part of the wonder of this season.