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'Life Everlasting:' Death as nature's ultimate recycling agent
Naturalist Bernd Heinrich's new book "Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death" examines how death contributes to the cycle of birth and regeneration in nature.
Special to The Seattle Times
The Animal Way of Death'
by Bernd Heinrich
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
256 pp., $25
Bernd Heinrich is a classic naturalist. When he wants to study the natural world, he goes out in the field and observes with great patience, care and insight. For example, Heinrich recently decided to study a fascinating group of beetles, the Nicrophorus, or death-loving beetles, famous for carrying off dead animals and burying them.
In one experiment he put a dead rooster out in a field. By the next day, it was covered in green botflies and thousands of white eggs. Under it were a dozen Nicrophorus beetles, which, although they couldn't carry away the rooster, still came to dine.
Over the next five days, Heinrich continued to return to the carcass, watching as the maggots all died and the burying beetles consumed their meal. Finally on the sixth night, some other large mammal carried away Heinrich's experiment, leading him to write "There were more mysteries here than I could ever solve, making these results all the more exciting."
An emeritus professor at the University of Vermont and author of numerous books including the wonderful "Mind of the Raven," Heinrich has made a career studying and writing about his observations. His newest book, which includes the Nicrophorus field work, is "Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death." Prompted by a friend's interest in a "green burial," Heinrich explores death and the life after death that carcasses provide.
Ranging from the importance of ravens and vultures as "undertakers" to how dead salmon lead to the great forests of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, "Life Everlasting" is a worldwide tour of the role of death in nature that is consistently fascinating and fun to read.
Not always for the faint of stomach (the best parts are his evocative descriptions of decomposing beasts and the bugs, birds, and mammals who consume the putrescent corpses), "Life Everlasting" is paean to the ultimate in recycling.
But it is also a tribute to the majesty, wonder and beauty of the natural world. Heinrich writes, "I see the whole world as an organism with no truly separate parts. I want to be connected to the grandest, biggest, most real and most beautiful thing in the universe as we know it: the life of earth's nature. I want to join in the party of the greatest show on earth, life everlasting."