Cover image for A naturalist at large : the best essays of Bernd Heinrich
A naturalist at large : the best essays of Bernd Heinrich
Uniform Title:
Essays. Selections.
Physical Description:
xiii, 288 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
"From the acclaimed scientist and writer, essays collected for the first time in book form, on ravens and other birds, insects, trees, elephants, and more: once again 'passionate observations [that] superbly mix memoir and science.'(New York Times)" --


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book 508 HEI 0 1

On Order



Some of the world's greatest writings on ravens and other birds, insects, trees, elephants, and more, collected for the first time in book form showing why Bernd Heinrich is so beloved for his "passionate observations [that] superbly mix memoir and science" ( New York Times )

From one of the finest scientist/writers of our time comes an engaging record of a life spent in close observation of the natural world, one that has yielded "marvelous, mind-altering" (Los Angeles Times) insight and discoveries. In essays that span several decades, Heinrich finds himself at home in Maine, where he plays host to visitors from Europe (the cluster flies) and more welcome guests from Asia (ladybugs); and as far away as Botswana, where he unravels the far-reaching ecological consequences of elephants' bruising treatment of mopane trees. The many fascinating discoveries in Naturalist at Large include the maple sap harvesting habits of red squirrels, and the "instant" flower-opening in the yellow iris as a way of ensuring potent pollination. Heinrich turns to his great love, the ravens, some of them close companions for years, as he designs a unique experiment to tease out the fascinating parameters of raven intelligence. Finally, he asks "Where does a biologist find hope?" while delivering an answer that informs and inspires.

Author Notes

BERND HEINRICH is an acclaimed scientist and the author of numerous books, including the best-selling Winter World, Mind of the Raven, Why We Run, The Homing Instinct, and One Wild Bird at a Time. Among Heinrich's many honors is the 2013 PEN New England Award in nonfiction for Life Everlasting. He resides in Maine.

Reviews 2

Kirkus Review

A collection of essays on plants and animal biology and behavior by a scientist who is also a prolific, prize-winning author.Heinrich (Emeritus, Biology/Univ. of Vermont; One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives, 2016, etc.) writes engagingly about soil, trees, insects, birds, and mammals, all of which he has observed closely for years. All the included essays, ranging in date from 1974 to 2017, have been previously published, many in Natural History magazine and Orion. The author is no casual observer of the world around him. When something catches his eye, he studies it intensely, counting, measuring, and dissecting. Many of his observations are made inside and outside his cabin in the Maine woods, where he now lives. However, during his long career, he has also studied trees, elephants, and predators in Africa, bees in the Arctic, flowers in Israel, and caterpillars in California. Among other tidbits, readers will learn how red squirrels tap maple trees, how a raven notifies other ravens of the location of a dead animal, and how beetles cooperate to bury a mouse. Heinrich wants to know how vines twist and turn, why trees have certain shapes, and how animals survive fierce heat and intense cold. At times, the author provides more detail than many general readers will require--e.g., a comparison between Thoreau's bean- patch expenses and his own. More often, however, he illustrates just what the work of a dedicated biologist entails. Where necessary, he appends codas to bring certain essays up to date. To accompany his investigations into the natural world, the author also provides includes two -dozen appealing line drawings revealing structural details of plants and close-ups of insects and tiny creatures that would escape most casual observers.Heinrich's personal touch and breadth of knowledge make this a satisfying outing for armchair naturalists.

Library Journal Review

Maine resident, prolific author, and behavioral ecologist Heinrich (emeritus, biology, Univ. of Vermont; One Wild Bird at a Time) presents 35 previously published essays, illustrated by his own sketches. He recounts experiences ranging from collecting insects during his childhood in Germany to postretirement African safari tourism, emphasizing his fieldwork in multiple North American habitats and observations of the forest surrounding his western Maine cabin. About half of the work focus on insects and birds, reflecting Heinrich's primary professional interests. But this compilation also reveals the role of serendipity in the conduct of natural history, as the author applies systematic observation to other phenomena piquing his interest-the sudden transition of iris buds to open flowers or the resilience of trees subjected to severe ice storms. Since many of the stories collected here first appeared in Natural History magazine, regular readers of that publication will be familiar with this work. VERDICT This compelling collection will appeal to those interested in natural history or the environment of northern New England, with the caveat that Heinrich focuses on the inland, forested part of the region, rather than the coast.-Nancy R. Curtis, Univ. of Maine Lib., Orono © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Life in the Soil (Adapted from "Life in the Soil," Natural History Magazine (NHM) , November 2014, pp. 13-15) Papa, Mamusha, and my sisters Ulla and Marianne, and I (the latter two of us age five and almost eleven) were quartered in a one-room hut in a dark forest in northern Germany right after World War II. Towering pines, spruce, and beech shaded the ground except for a small sloping patch in front of the cabin. Light snow had recently covered the ground, and now, after a warm spring rain, it had become black, and that made me notice something marvelous by our doorstep. From one day to the next, I saw a small patch of the dirt turning a luminous green. Perhaps the next day or so after that, the patch of dirt had expanded over the black ground: I was mesmerized by this verdant, magically spreading circle of grass blades. This was, as far as I can remember, my earliest moment of wonder. Had grass been underfoot before, I would have hardly noticed it, from seeing it all the time. But watching that single patch expand from one day to the next was a moment of magic and mystery, maybe even of ecstasy, forever stamped into my memory. Even so, for a long time the dirt the grass had spawned from remained for me merely something crumbly under the soles of my feet and between my toes. It was the sand on a mile or so of the wooded road between our hut and the village school. Shiny green beetles flashed in front of me on my walks, and after a brief zigzagging flight, where they glinted like jewels in the sun, they landed a few yards ahead. We called them "sand beetles," and later I knew them as tiger beetles. Although I couldn't fly, I could run, and it felt good to be on par with such gorgeous company. Tiger beetles (of the family Cicindelidae) are related to carabids, which are commonly called ground beetles, or Laufkäfer. " Ground beetles do not fly, but they all run (which is reflected in their German name, derived from laufen, "to run"). These earthbound beetles soon became my passion, to have and to hold. It came through the influence of my father, a biologist. In order to get some cash he was now digging tree stumps out of the ground that had been left by the occupying British soldiers who had harvested the trees. He earned a few pfennigs selling the wood. But he decided the pits he was digging might be adapted to serve as traps to catch mice and shrews. It was exciting for me to accompany him, ever more so because ground beetles fell into the pits too, and he showed me how to preserve and thus to collect them like some other kids then collected stamps. He gave me a field guide to identify those that I had and those I might someday find. I soon knew them by name: the giant black Carabus coriaceus , the dark-bluish C. intricatus , the shiny copper C. cancellatus (and its look-alike, C. concolor ), and the deep-green C. auratus . The merit of those intricately sculpted beetles was not simply that they were beautiful, but also that I could find them merely by scanning the ground wherever I walked. Even more merrily, I could catch them. I thought of these, my old carabids, with a start, with a nostalgic recognition, when recently ​-- ​now in Maine, on a new continent ​-- ​I dug out the pit for my privy. There, several feet down in the dirt, I unearthed a Carabus . It was metallic black, sculpted in lines and pits, and its edges glistened deep purple. Not having collected these beetles for a long time, I did not know the name of this species nor what it was doing underground, but I captured it in a photograph. Perhaps as a larva it had burrowed in that spot and metamorphosed to become an adult, or maybe it had hibernated there in the winter, or was attempting to escape heat or drought. But in any case, it had likely fed on snails, and the snails on grass. It was of the soil, which I was preparing to receive my wastes. And this same receptive soil would also receive all of me, eventually, to convert me to grass, tress, flowers, and more. For the time being, though, an American chestnut tree I had planted years earlier, as well as nearby sugar maples, would grow well because of their proximity to the privy. I used the dirt from the pit excavation to make a raised garden bed in which I planted potatoes. I stuck several of them into this dirt, and presto, come fall ​-- ​it seemed too good to be true ​-- ​there were perfect and delicious Yukon Golds. My partner, Lynn, saw the magic, and before I knew it we had an even bigger bed of potatoes, beans claiming a pole, snap peas growing on a chicken-wire fence, and little green sprouts of kale, carrots, and lettuce. We watched with eager participation as the emerging green dots in the dark dirt first turned into shoots, and we would harvest potatoes in August for eating in winter. There is more to be had from dirt than food. I think Thoreau knew this well and maybe said it better 175 years ago. Old Henry (if he'd excuse me for being familiar) was "determined to know beans," and having made himself a two-and-a-half acre bean field, he tended and hoed it daily from "five o'clock in the morning till noon." He came to "love" and "cherish" his beans and wrote, "they attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus." Working alone and with his hands, he became, as he said, "much more intimate with my beans than usual." Along the way he concluded that "labor of the hands, even when pursued to the verge of drudgery, is perhaps never the worst form of idleness." And he told the reasons why. When tending his bean field, Thoreau was "attracted by the passage of wild pigeons"; he sometimes "watched a pair of hen-hawks circling high in the sky," heard the brown thrasher sing, and with his hoe "turned up a sluggish portentous and outlandish spotted salamander." His enterprise was "not that I wanted beans to eat," nor was it likely for "leaving a pecuniary profit." I'm in rapport with his romantic ideal and with his statement that when he "paused to lean on my hoe, these sounds and sights I heard and saw anywhere in the row became part of the inexhaustible entertainment which the country offers" ​-- ​as opposed, I suppose, to those summer days "which some of my contemporaries devoted to the fine arts in Boston and Rome" as entertainment, instead. Perhaps this vibrant "idleness" is what Thoreau cherished most. Most would, however, want to "get real" when it comes to dirt and work. We do not generally hoe beans in order to hear the brown thrasher, or to exhume a spotted salamander as an end in itself. Thoreau gets real by giving an exact economic enumeration of his work. He itemizes monetary costs and profits, in which overall bean-patch costs added up in his accounting to $14.72 and 1/2 cent, with a profit of $8.71 and 1/2 cent. To our ears now, old Henry pretty much worked that summer in his two-and-a-half-acre bean patch for nothing. The garden patch that Lynn and I worked on sporadically our first summer, making a garden from what was before only a brushy rock-filled field, allows for some comparisons. We saw no passenger pigeons but we got pleasures from our garden similar to what Henry got from his. Plus, we enjoy companionship, which old Henry did not appear to pursue. So for us it was a win-win situation with the dirt, in more ways than two. But I also suspect our dirt will before the start of winter become a winning economic proposition as well. And so was Henry's, despite what he may have implied, and we inferred. Our dirt patch is sixteen hundred square feet (0.037 acres); his was about 70 times larger. He spent $3.12 on seed, and we spent $94. Thus, overall, in terms of our money, he paid about 30 times less overall, but on a per-acre basis, in dollar amount, he paid 2,100 times less. Take outside labor: his "ploughing/harrowing/farrowing" cost him $7.50. (This amount irked him, because in Walden , he added a comment ​-- ​"Too much" ​-- ​for emphasis next to it.) How much is his "Too much"?   Excerpted from A Naturalist at Large: The Best of Bernd Heinrich by Bernd Heinrich All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. xi
From the Earth Up
Life in the Soilp. 3
Rock-Solid Foundationp. 10
The Spreading Chestnut Treep. 18
When the Bough Bendsp. 32
O Tannenbaump. 38
Reading Tree Leavesp. 45
Hot- and Cold-Blooded Mothsp. 56
Woolly and Wondrousp. 64
Winter Guestsp. 69
Arctic Bumblebeesp. 75
Beating the Heat, and Killing with Heatp. 85
Bee-Lining vs. Bee Homingp. 90
Beetles and Bloomsp. 99
Cooperative Undertaking: Teaming with Mitesp. 107
Whirligig Beetles: Quick Paddlersp. 116
Ravens and Other Birds
Ravens on My Mindp. 125
A Birdbrain Nevermorep. 134
Ravens and the Inaccessiblep. 145
Phoebe Diaryp. 151
Conversation with a Sapsuckerp. 156
Hawk Watchingp. 164
Kinglets' Realm of Coldp. 167
The Diabolical Nightjarp. 178
Hidden Sweetsp. 187
Hibernation, Insulation, and Caffeinationp. 197
Cohabiting with Elephants: A Browsing Relationshipp. 201
The Hunt: A Matter of Perspectivep. 207
Endurance Predatorp. 216
Strategies for Life
Synchronicity: Amplifying the Signalp. 227
What Bees and Flowers Knowp. 235
Curious Yellow: A Foray into Iris Behaviorp. 239
Twists and Turnsp. 246
Birds Coloring Their Eggsp. 255
Birds, Bees, and Beauty: Adaptive Aestheticsp. 267
Seeing the Light in the Forestp. 275
Indexp. 279