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Bernd Heinrich – Summer World

March 30, 2009

34. Summer World: A Season of Bounty by Bernd Heinrich (2009)

Length: 243 pages (ARC)

Genre: Non-fiction

Started: 23 March 2009 (it was after midnight, so technically 24 March 2009 – thanks, insomnia!)
Finished: 27 March 2009

How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 29 January 2009
Verdict? Probable keeper.

Summer World is being released by Ecco on 07 April 2009; you can pre-order a copy from Amazon.

Summer is coming
full of life’s small mysteries.
Nature is so cool!

Summary: Summer is the season of life, the season of awakening and hatching and growing and reproducing. Every species that experiences summer (and even those tropical and desert species that experience nothing but summer) has evolved a unique way to cope with the challenges of the season, and to make its way in life and make copies of itself for the next generation. Covering species from trees to beetles, from birds to wasps, from frogs to lichens, Heinrich takes us on a tour of summer, and how its inhabitants go about the all-important business of life in their unique and varied ways.

Review: To get my biases out in the open: I am a scientist. More specifically, I am a biologist who studies the hows and whys of how animals and plants make a living during the reproductive season – exactly what this book is about. I’m also very familiar with many of the species that Heinrich describes, having spent many summers conducting fieldwork in a forest very similar in ecology and species composition to the one outside his back door. I love natural history – it’s a large part of the reason I’m in the field I’m in. Stories about birds and frogs and wasps doing what they do are just fundamentally cooler (and easier to grasp, particularly to laypeople) than stories about gene regulation and protein metabolism. (Aaaand I’ve just pissed off about half of my friends. Sorry guys!) However, I’ve been trained to look at these types of nature stories through the lens of hard science.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker (<i>Sphyrapicus varius</i>) female and juvenile at a sap lick.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) female and juvenile at a sap lick.

I did my best to read this book with an open mind, to try to see it from the point-of-view of a non-scientist, and not from my eggheaded elitist ivory tower. But I can’t. I can’t turn it off. And, reading the book without having read the author blurb first, I was somewhat surprised to discover that Heinrich was a biology professor – I had assumed that he was an author first and naturalist second. The book reads as series of “look at this neat thing that I noticed”, punctuated by home “experiments” to test their causes. Maybe because it’s an ARC, but there is a surprising scarcity of primary literature cited in the text, and the “Selected References” section doesn’t contain a whole lot of works later than 1990. Not that I was expecting this to be chock-full of in-text citations, and not that there wasn’t plenty of high-quality science published in the first half of last century, but the answers to at least some of the conundrums he poses could have been found within fifteen minutes on Google Scholar, so it’s rather dissatisfying when the text just shrugs and goes “Weird, huh?” instead of providing the reader with a conclusive, scientific answer.

Spring peepers (<i>Pseudacris crucifer</i>) in amplexus.  The male is the darker frog on top; he will hold on to the female until she deposits her eggs under the vegetation in a small pond or marsh.

Spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) in amplexus. The male is the darker frog on top; he will hold on to the female until she deposits her eggs under the vegetation in a small pond or marsh.

Similarly, there’s a level of factual error that would be really difficult to justify were this a scientific publication, or even something that counted as popular science writing, instead of the more nebulous category of “nature writing.” Heinrich can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing that the distance sound travels doesn’t scale linearly with amplitude (if you can hear one calling frog from a mile away, you will NOT be able to hear 100 calling frogs from 100 miles away), or for talking of a female bird developing her “ovaries” (most species of birds only develop one side of their reproductive tract), but someone really should have caught the fact that Groundhog Day is not on February 1st. Again, these are not huge errors from a layperson’s point of view, plus they may be due to the fact that I read an ARC, and they’ll hopefully get caught in the editing process, but the fact that they’re there at all made me somewhat uneasy about the rigorousness of the science in the rest of the book.

Cecropia silkmoth (<i>Hyalophora cecropia</i>), a relative of the giant luna moth.

Cecropia silkmoth (Hyalophora cecropia), a relative of the giant luna moth.

But perhaps I’m being oversensitive here. For the most part Heinrich covers a wide variety of topics, and presents the reader with lots of fascinating tidbits about how plants and animals go about doing the things they do. The book is also filled with Heinrich’s own illustrations and field sketches (and I believe the finished edition will have a color insert as well), which are lovely, and add not only visual interest but also explanation to the stories he’s describing. He also uses tidbits of natural history storytelling to make several interesting and cogent points on life and death, morality and religion, conservation, and humankind’s place with respect to the rest of the community of Life. The best thing I can say about the book is that Heinrich writes with a clear sense of wonder and respect for the tiny miracles of life that take place all around us, and which most of us never notice. Wait, no, that’s the second best thing. The best thing was that his sense of wonder inspired me to get up and get outside, and to start paying more attention to these miracles for myself – and what more could we really ask for from our nature books?

So, basically, ignore me and my eggheaded grumping about the scientific literature. This book is geared for the lay audience, not for me, and if it inspires even a handful of that audience to be more curious about the lives of the creatures with which they share their world (and I suspect it will), then it will have done its job well. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This book is very approachable and easy to read, even for those who normally stay far away from science writing. It would be best, I think, not to be read straight through, but to be browsed a chapter at a time, preferably while sitting on one’s porch on a nice spring or summer evening.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Raging Bibliomania
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: March often brings heavy snowfalls here in Maine and Vermont.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2009 8:41 pm

    You have a very interesting sounding job.

  2. March 30, 2009 9:13 pm

    This is in my TBR pile – I’ll have to try browsing it on my front porch. I knew you were smart, but I never knew you were a scientist. How fascinating!

  3. March 30, 2009 9:25 pm

    charley – Well, I like it! :-D

    bermudaonion – I read part of it on my porch during a spate of nice weather last week, and it was neat reading about him watching the crocuses come up, and then looking out to my yard and seeing my crocuses coming up. :)

  4. March 31, 2009 10:27 pm

    Fyrefly – I’m sad to hear about the problems with this book and hopefully they will get caught in the editing process. Even if the book is for the lay person basic facts should be correct.

    I think Heinrich may be driven to get people out into the woods. He can be good at it. Mind of the Raven and Ravens in Winter are two of my favorites.

  5. April 2, 2009 4:51 pm

    I know I wouldn’t notice any of the factual errors, but just knowing they’re there bugs me :P But what I find really off-putting is this: “so it’s rather dissatisfying when the text just shrugs and goes “Weird, huh?” instead of providing the reader with a conclusive, scientific answer.” That would definitely have dissatisfied me too.

  6. April 3, 2009 8:55 am

    Gavin – I should definitely check out one of his Raven books… I did like his writing style, and I know his research is on ravens, so it’d be interesting to read something of his that’s a little more focused.

    Nymeth – I’m sure there’s probably factual errors in most non-fiction that I read… it’s just that I’m familiar with this one particular field, so I can spot them. Give me an art history book, and if it tells me that the man in the moon was painted there by Michaelangelo, I’d probably believe it. (Well, probably not, but you get my point.)

  7. April 4, 2009 8:44 pm

    Wow! Love these photos, even the ones of the creepy frogs!

  8. April 5, 2009 9:46 pm

    Ladytink – Thanks! I had a hard time picking just three… although, aww, c’mon, you don’t think the peepers are adorable?!?

  9. Dayle Ann permalink
    September 19, 2011 9:12 am

    I’m a scientist too, and a naturalist. The second part of your review I think you got the point. Too bad you didn’t foretell it in your first several paragraphs of grousing, because it appears to have called forth a mindset in your readers that might make them miss a delightful book.

    I easily distinguish between scientific writing for a professional audience and writing to share the wonder of the natural world (and of science itself) with people who are not scientists, but who may enjoy exploring their surroundings and discovering its mysteries on their own. Key to it all is a sense of wonder, and that is the message Dr. Heinrich shares, with his very personal stories of exploration and experience. The occasional (and almost irrelevant errors in facts are a result perhaps of publishers no longer hiring fact-checkers, or perhaps if you read a pre-publication copy, one that had not yet been fact-checked for minor errors. I don’t recall seeing that error in my copy, and personally I don’t care when Groundhog Day is– to me it is meaningless– and Heinrich makes his point about it quite well. Reread that section, and this time, look for what it is communicating. An old folk belief imported, and distorted, so removed from a relationship to nature that all that is left is a news story about a groundhog in Pennsylvania yanked from slumber by people wearing funny clothes. There is a message there that has nothing to do with whether it is Feb 1 or 2. For all we know, it may have originally been Feb 1. Perhaps it is we who need to do some fact-checking on the origins of the fable.

    In one of his books (may be this one, I don’t remember), Dr. Heinrich wrote of his deliberate decision to try to figure out the relationship between earth and moon phases on his own, although he knew that he could simply go to the library and look it up. His pleasure when he, after months of observation, managed to decipher what was going on was a lesson in two ways: that this is accessible to anyone, and that there is value in NOT just looking at information in books. As an aside, this reminded me of my father, who, though an honor student, never finished high school.Born in 1911, he grew up in a remote part of the interior western mountains. Late in his life, he moved to the Pacific coast to be near his children. Noticing that the tides varied in time and intensity, he undertook his own investigation to learn why. He was an inveterate reader, and knew he could just look it up (or ask me) but he enjoyed the intellectual challenge– and got it right. I will never forget his delight as he explained what he’d learned to me. Then he went to the library for books about oceanography.

    Back to Heinrich: In another book, he wrote about beginning his field investigations without first researching the literature, because he prefers to go into it without the assumptions and conclusions that others may have made. Only later, when he begins to discern some patterns that suggest questions to be explored, does he research the literature. It is a wise choice, and in the case of his raven studies, resulted in discoveries that radically changed how we think about bird communication. And perhaps our own.

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