One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives
The Wood for the Trees: One Man’s Long View of Nature
In nature writing, the role of science has often been a source of tension, overt or sublimated. Perhaps it was particularly an issue in the 19th century as professionals increasingly squeezed out amateurs in the various sciences, but it’s a thread that remains alive in this literature. At times, science emerges as a villain in the piece, seen as the province of a lab coat-wearing cadre focusing an impersonal and moral-less eye on nature, deconstructing away its beauty and deeper meaning. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), one of our foremost nature writers, made clear that it was living in nature, not studying it, that engendered the knowledge he sought. The academic world, he wrote in Walden, is inhabited by professors in whose proximity “any thing is professed and practised but the art of life; – to survey the world through a telescope or microscope, and never with his natural eye; . . . .” (Walden, Concord Library edition with an introduction by Bill McKibben copyrighted 1997)
One of my literary heroes, Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892), wrote passionately and perceptively about nature, and he, too, struck the same note. In the poem When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, he recounted sitting through a lecture on astronomy, replete with proofs, figures, charts, and diagrams, until, “tired and sick,” he . . .
wander’d off by myself,Later, naturalist John Burroughs (1837 – 1921), in his essay The Gospel of Nature, excoriated academic “nature-study” as an assault which “is likely to rub the bloom off Nature. . . . I myself have never made a dead set at studying Nature with notebook and fieldglass in hand. I have rather visited with her.” (The Gospel of Nature, from The Norton Book of Nature Writing, edited by Robert Finch and John Elder, 1990.)
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
(Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, The “Death-Bed” Edition, Modern Library edition, 1993)
It’s somewhat unfair to identify this tension and its anti-science stance, and not acknowledge how it has been reconciled by many of our nature writers. Finch and Elder write in their introduction to The Norton Book of Nature Writing, “Even if nature writers have often resisted the model of impersonal and specialized science, though, it is also important to note how many of them have been influenced by its concepts, from genetics to molecular biology, from plate tectonics to quantum physics, from population ecology to cognitive theory.” Evolution, above all of these, has most influenced nature writers.
Burroughs, in the very same essay where he asserted that science could rob nature of its freshness and splendor, acknowledged the importance of what science had to offer and, in the following passage, reached what I consider to be the happy and, perhaps, the best resolution of this tension:
I know it is one thing to go forth as a nature-lover, and quite another to go forth in a spirit of cold, calculating, exact science. I call myself a nature-lover and not a scientific naturalist. All that science has to tell me is welcome, is, indeed eagerly sought for. I must know as well as feel. (Gospel of Nature, emphasis added.)I must know as well as feel captures the essence of what I, personally, look for in nature writing. Nature writing, firmly grounded in science, can be personal and passionate. I am particularly drawn to works in the genre penned by practicing scientists who immerse themselves in nature. Last year saw the publication of two examples of the best that recent nature writing has to offer: biologist Bernd Heinrich’s One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives, and paleontologist Richard Fortey’s The Wood For The Trees: One Man’s Long View of Nature. Neither of these authors has a romanticized view of nature, nor are they clinical in their approach. Rather, they offer a heady blend of solid science enriched with an appreciation of the wonder they find in nature.
At the outset of his new book, Heinrich, author of a host of superb, popular books principally about the flora and fauna in his neck of the woods in Maine and Vermont, addresses a challenging aspect of scientism. Randomness and individual idiosyncrasies are anathema to purely scientific research, but “both of these are important parts of life, not peripheral to it and the goal of biology is to understand life in nature. In this book I hope to celebrate individuals as they presented themselves during my encounters with them in the wild.” This extends so far as to giving names to several of the birds whose stories he tells, such as Slick, the singing starling, and Pipsqueak, the struggling baby flicker. Still, in no way is science set aside. Indeed, the essays on specific individual birds or groups of birds are more often than not engaging accounts of his efforts to answer scientific questions about their behavior.
His essays typically open with a description of some behavior by a bird or group of birds that prompts one of those most scientific of biological questions: Why? In search of an answer, Heinrich observes, takes notes, hypothesizes, frequently experiments, tests, and, only sometimes, reaches a conclusion. The reader accompanies the biologist each step of the way, a most genial journey. Most essays offer some sense of what the bird behavior described might suggest for us humans.
The range of avian characters that inhabit this volume is broad. Some are tragic like the red-breasted nuthatch pair that successfully makes a “house” in which to raise a family only to be unable to overcome a lack of food, or Pipsqueak, the runt of a brood of baby flickers that probably did not make it. Others are inspiring, such as the male eastern phoebe that loses his mate but, through persistent effort, manages to finally attract another mate; it is a romantic drama that plays out over three years. Slick, the starling, offers comic relief, even as he reveals the beautiful singing and mimicking abilities of this much vilified species. Alone, apparently, starlings are delightful; in their usual hoards, obnoxious.
One of my favorite essays in this volume, titled Blue Jays in Touch, offers much of what attracts me to Heinrich’s nature writing. It’s an exemplar of applying the scientific method in a personal setting.
What blue jays mean by their vocalizations becomes an open question for Heinrich when, while seated on a branch up in a pine tree several years ago (clearly he goes anywhere and everywhere in his woods), he observes a blue jay pair interacting as they build a nest. They make “soft calls” clearly directed solely to each other; the nature of these specific subdued vocalizations is evident. But, ponders Heinrich, what of the so dramatically different blue jay screams that loudly crackle through woods and suburban neighborhoods? These screaming calls are assumed to be a form of scolding or warning, though Heinrich admits he doesn’t know that for a fact. “Having no idea what most of the blue jays’ screams meant but suspecting they must mean something beyond attracting other jays to mob an owl or a hawk, I tried to get clues by looking systematically as occasions presented themselves.”
Over several years, as he takes notes during walks in his woods or elsewhere, he finds that blue jays are typically not in flight when they scream and that the vast majority of these calls are made by solitary birds. This latter finding challenges the common understanding of these calls – they are not primarily a mob scene phenomenon. His experimenting includes monitoring the response from other blue jays to the screams from a pair of blue jay parents he provokes (at first, accidentally) when he comes upon its nest and subsequently when he touches the babies. (No harm is done to the babies as Heinrich reports it’s a myth that birds abandon their babies if they’re touched.)
Ultimately, he concludes that most of those brash screams from solitary blue jays are not typically a warning, but quite possibly a statement to unseen jays in the far surrounding area: “Here I am. How are you?” In vocalizing this way, the caller may mostly be announcing his or her presence, making contact with perhaps little to say. Heinrich muses,
After realizing the likely nonspecific but nevertheless meaningful social nature of the blue jay screams, I thought that now I might be less hesitant to call, e-mail, or send a letter or a hello, even when, as almost always, I had nothing important to say.In 2011, paleontologist Richard Fortey and his spouse Jackie bought Grim’s Dyke Wood, “four acres of ancient beech-and-bluebell woodland, buried deeply inside a greater stretch of stately trees.” This “greater stretch of stately trees” is the Lambridge Wood which lies southeast of Oxford, England, in the Chiltern Hills, a high chalk escarpment. Fortey, an expert on trilobites and author of numerous popular science books, including the superb Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution (2000), an engrossing foray into the world of those extinct arthropods, sees the acquisition of Grim’s Dyke Wood as an opportunity. “I spent years handling fossils of extinct animals; now, the inner naturalist needed to touch living animals and plants.” The Wood for the Trees emerges from that impulse.
Though these woods do merit the label ancient, they are not wild, untamed remnants of woodland dating back many, many millennia. Rather, Fortey’s wood and the larger Lambridge Wood are actually the managed product of a longstanding give-and-take involving economic, social, and political forces using or, at times, neglecting these woods (for much of the latter we may give thanks). “I cannot say exactly when the wildwood was erased, never to return. We do not even know exactly what the wildwood looked like.” Fortey traces the roots of Grim’s Dyke Wood in something like its current guise to Anglo-Saxon times, asserting that it’s older than the poem Beowulf (though that’s not actually too much help since we don’t know when this epic poem was actually composed nor when the earliest extant handwritten copy was drafted). Suffice to say, the woods are very old.
The Wood for the Trees offers a generic year in the life of Grim’s Dyke Wood beginning in “exuberant” April with a flood of bluebells on the floor of this beech dominated wood. Across the year in the course of the book, as the flora and fauna of the wood respond to the changing seasons, Fortey skillfully interweaves the histories of the economic, social, and political forces that have affected his wood over the past many centuries. On occasion, he turns to ancient time and draws out the geological history of the area, allowing it take its proper place undergirding (literally) the entire history of the wood. Through the course of the year, Fortey introduces the reader to the wood’s flora and fauna, including its wild flowers, its avian population, its insects, its mammals, its reptiles (only toads make an appearance), its fungi, and, of course, its trees. He describes many of the species that inhabit his wood in rich detail, rounding out their portraits with accounts of their life cycles.
Grim’s Dyke Wood is, to my mind, surprisingly fecund. Many of Fortey’s colleagues from the Natural History Museum, London, descend at times on the wood, each pursuing his or her scientific specialty. They hunt through every nook and cranny; at times, they even perch high in cherry-pickers to gather specimens from the leafy canopy. These forays help reveal just how diverse the ecology of this four-acre parcel is, particularly with regard to its fauna. So, we learn, for example, that there are 6 different bat species using the wood, along with 3 species of deer, over 100 species of beetles, 16 crane fly species, at least 30 species of spiders, over 150 moth species, and more than 300 species of fungi. And all of this is in a woodland that humans have managed for many centuries with myriad economic and social objectives, such as the harvesting of certain types of trees (hence the paucity of oaks), supporting pheasant-shooting by setting aside some beech woods, and creating visually appealing landscapes. As Fortey notes, keeping human hands off Grim’s Dyke Wood may not be a good thing. Indeed, “’Crop rotation’ and selection of trees for felling in the sustainable way that happened over past centuries is better for biological richness.”
In one of the few references in his book to climate change, Fortey acknowledges that rising temperatures may spell the doom of his beech woods and the rest of those of the Chiltern Hills. It’s actually quite surprising how little attention he pays to this threat to our environment. Heinrich, as far as I can recollect, pays no attention to it at all in his.
Though it's probably one of the lesser examples of the connections that Fortey makes among the flora and fauna of his wood and the myriad forces that have shaped it, I was quite taken by his tale of the near absence of snails in this wood. Slug species abound in Grim’s Dyke Wood, but only eight very small, thin-shelled snail species live here. The question for Fortey is: Why?
The answer emerges from his consideration of the geological foundation of his wood. Although the Chiltern Hills are underlain by white chalk (limestone) formed from the precipitation of countless calcium carbonate shells in an ancient sea, Grim’s Dyke Wood on its hilltop, in contrast, sits principally on an ancient lens of hard flint. The flint here is, itself, the product of a biogenic deposit, owing its existence to that ancient sea and the abundance of sponges that lived in it. The accumulated sponges’ silica-based spicules (internal struts) over time were transformed into this flint, far harder than the white chalk.
Relevance of this geology to the scarcity of snails? Snail shells, as Fortey notes, are composed of calcium carbonate and, sadly, his wood offers very little in its soil for its denizens to absorb and put to use. Slugs, mollusks that have jettisoned their shells through evolution, find the lime-poor soil to be no issue. To test his hypothesis, Fortey visits a nearby area with a “lovely chalky landscape” and large snail shells are everywhere as are myriad plants that thrive in chalky soil.
The mystery of the rarity of shells in our wood is really no enigma: lime is just one of the hidden controls on what lives where. Grim’s Dyke Wood simply does not have enough of it to make big snails.A small story, almost an aside, but a fascinating excursion. The Wood for the Trees offers many.
In these two books, practicing scientists write with understanding about, and genuine love for, the natural world. In shaping their stories, these writers offer a tapestry of details that, sometimes, only a scientist can assemble and explain. Fortey observes:
Some contemporary nature writing is rich in the details of the author sympathising in some fuzzy way with the totality of nature and the interconnectedness of things, but engagement with the nitty-gritty details of living animals and plants is not on the literary agenda. I prefer the eloquence of detail. I believe that all organisms are as interesting as human beings, and certainly no less important than the observer.