Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich

Up until December, 2007, I thought that the blogosphere was a place for people to discuss their political interests or their health concerns and since I had neither, I had never ventured in. But, a conversation one night at a dinner party with Amity peaked my interest. The next day, I discovered that I could search for blogs through igoogle using keywords. Well, I had just finished reading The Winter World for the third time and decided to search blogs using the author's name. I typed in Bernd Heinrich and found Jennifer's blog A Passion for Nature and from there links to many other wonderful nature blogs and with a sigh of relief, found the place in cyberspace where I belong.

Bernd Heirnrich is one of my favorite authors for many reasons, chiefly, he is a good story teller and is able to explain scientific processes so that a lawyer with an undergraduate degree in math can understand. His explanations and descriptions of the natural world don't simply satisfy curiosity, they stoke it.

From reading many of his books, I have found places where our lives have kind of been tangent lines and that lends an interesting piece, too. In the early 1980's, I was working my way through the University of Vermont as a secretary in the Microbiology and Biochemistry Department. One of my duties was to make coffee at 10:00 every morning because many of the professors and researchers in life sciences would get together for a forum and discussion over coffee in our conference room. Whether my memory has invented it after reading so many of his books or whether he really was occasionally part of that coffee group, I'm not really sure. But, I think he was and how I wish that I had paid more attention to the conversations in that group and less attention to whether or not it was an infringement of my rights to be expected to make coffee.

The cabin in Weld, Maine, that Bernd often writes about is up the road from me and, in fact, when he was training for the ultra marathon that he wrote about in Why We Run, he used to run right by our house and turn around at the corner of Route 2 and Weld Street. That was long before I lived here but he told me about it in an e-mail correspondence.

As a teenager, Bernd spent many years living at Good Will Hinkley, a place where I spend a fair amount of time because of the young people that I work with who are in foster care and placed there.

But, aside from those superficial tangential connections, I cannot claim any similarity to Bernd Henrich. He is a rare genius with a gift for sharing his genius with the common man and his most recent book does just that by combining natural history, European history, scientific discovery, family dynamics, the will to survive and the desire to excel into a fascinating read.

A few months ago, Charlie bought me The Snoring Bird: My Family's Journey Through a Century of Biology and, honestly, I feel that any description that I can give of this book is such a vast oversimplification that it might be better to not even try. But, I will.

The book starts out with the history of the Henrich family on their estate in Germany/Poland. Bernd's father Gerd has the heart and mind of a naturalist and a passion for collecting ichneumon wasps but his genteel life as a collector is interrupted by first one world war and then another. In between the wars, he travels the world collecting birds and mammals for museum collections. As World War II draws to a close, the family must flee the encroaching Russian Army and four year old Bernd along with an assortment of family members take refuge for five years in the Hohenwald Forest. It is here that Bernd discovers his own passion for the natural world. Eventually the family makes their way to the United States and to Maine.

The ichneumon wasps are as much a character of this book as any of the people and the creation, burial and resurrection of the collection is as dramatic as any rescue that Hollywood could cook up. The coincidences and serendiptous discoveries that allow Bernd Henrich to discover so much of his family's history are almost incredulous but are actually the result of a dilligent and disciplined researcher.

The book is written honestly, no one, including the author, is spared from a realistic portrayal. The book is full of real people with passions, energy, curiousity and flaws.

If I was a reviewer with a rating system, I would give it 5 stars and tell some smart producer to buy the movie rights. It is truly a story with an appeal that goes beyond the community of nature bloggers and right to the essence of the 20th century.


Ruth said...

Thanks for introducing a new author. I find the subject matter of The Snoring Bird particularly interesting. So you have been blogging just over a year...where does time go?

beckie said...

Beth, this is a new author to me. I am always on the look out for books which combine history with a good story. And I particulaly admire those set in Europe during the wars. I find these people to be so heoric.

Aren't you glad you found your niche? This world of blogging has opened a whole new world to me where I have met some of the most interesting people. It's like having a coffee clutch world wide. I am so grateful to have found and gotten to know you. I always enjoy visits with you!

Weather Boy said...

I've only read "A Year in the Maine Woods" as yet, but I love it. Many of the locales he describes are familiar to me, and I love his vision of what goes on in the natural world.

Thanks for reminding me to read some of his other things.

Mary said...

Thanks, Beth. If you say it's worth reading, I'll put him on my wish list.


Jayne said...

It's so neat to find an author whose work, regardless of what it is, resonates with you so much. I'll also have to check out Mr. Heinrich. :c)

Beth said...

Ruth and Beckie, I feel certain that you will enjoy his writing, he answers all sorts of questions about nature, many that I had never even thought to ask. Yes, the blogging has done wonders for me and opened up a new circle of friends. Thank you for being among them.

Weather Boy, that one is good, too. I wrote about it several months ago. It would be so awesome to get him to come talk to the kids at school. Maybe we should work on that.

Mary, I think you will enjoy his writing. Very readable yet still technical enough to make you feel smart for understanding.

Jayne, you are right. It's good to have an author who you like so much that any book by him/her is one that you know is worth the risk of purchasing.

sarah said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Beth said...

Sarah, welcome. I'm glad that you enjoy visiting. Thanks for your kind comments.

Kathiesbirds said...

Beth, an excellent review! I have to read some of his books now.

Larry said...

You sure captured my curiosity.Im going to try to ge a copy of this book through my library.