Fresh from the Woods
Bernd Heinrich: Writer, academic, Maine forestland owner
It’s easy to see what makes Bernd Heinrich one of America’s great nature writers: curiosity.
Strolling around his property near Weld on a late winter day he notices everything going on around him. Even as intimately as he knows this place he loves, he still picks up on tiny changes. Little escapes his eye.
He stops to examine the rings on a tree he cut while thinning his sugarbush. He points out the insect crawling across the snow. He sadly examines splits in the trunk of an American chestnut he planted a quarter century ago and speculates about the cause. He stops dead in admiration for the finely cut mare’s tails etched Bernd Heinrichacross a brilliant blue sky.
He finds endless fascination and inspiration in the natural world, and that has helped make him one of the most popular nature writers of our generation.
Heinrich grew up nearby, in Wilton. He’s owned forestland here for almost four decades. This cabin on York Hill, fairly new, and its predecessor (still standing out back) have been a refuge for him, the land a huge natural laboratory. A muse of sorts. And a wellspring of ideas for books. Many of his 15 books (so far) had their genesis here or were written here.
Heinrich is a lean, soft-spoken man who wears his 70 plus years well.
He was born in Germany. His father was Gerd Heinrich, a taxonomist and specialist in parasitoid ichneumon wasps. The family squeaked out of what would become East Germany just before the Russians moved in after the end of World War II. They lived a hand-to-mouth existence in a forest on the Elbe River before coming to the U.S. in 1951.
The Heinrichs ended up in Wilton, Maine with the family of Floyd Adams, where the young Bernd Heinrich’s education in nature, nurtured in the Poland and Germany of his youth, continued in the bucolic Maine of the 1950s. He learned to line bees from Floyd Adams and fished and hunted with the Adams kids. Jimmy Adams is still a close friend.
Heinrich went to school at Goodwill Hinckley in Fairfield, then to college at the University of Maine, and the University of California Los Angeles for a doctorate. After graduate school he became a professor of entomology at Berkeley and then a professor of biology at the University of Vermont.
The Snoring Bird: My Familiy’s Journey Through a Century of Biology is an autobiography of sorts for Heinrich, where he works out the relationship with his father and his ultimate decision to make a different sort of science his life’s work. Other works include In a Patch of Fireweed, Ravens in Winter and Mind of the Raven, The Geese of Beaver Bog, Bumblebee Economics, A Year in the Maine Woods , and The Trees in My Forest. An ultramarathoner with several records to his credit, Heinrich also wrote about his passion for running in Why We Run.
On this day in late winter, Heinrich sits in his cozy 16 by 20 foot cabin, recently built on the foundation of an old farmhouse. He’s sitting on a couch draped with a deerskin. A fire in a wood cookstove he picked up at a junk shop in Bethel keeps the place toasty on a windy day. Heinrich points out a black and white photo on the wall. It shows shows cows grazing in a pasture, and a farmhouse. Stone walls. It was taken here in the early 1900s.
Not only did the farmhouse burn, to be replaced decades later by this cabin, but the world outside the window has changed dramatically as well. Time has turned pasture to woods, with the exception of a scraggly remnant around the homesite. Heinrich, who over the decades has been regularly making the five-hour trek from his home in Burlington, Vt., has seen many of these changes himself.
In an interview with Forests for Maine’s Future writer Joe Rankin, Heinrich talked about his relationship to the 600 acres of Maine forestland he owns, and muses on the state of the forest today.
How did you come to acquire this property?
I got it because of my roommate in college, Mike Graham. He lived near here. He was a proctor in the cabins where I lived in college and I used to ride with him back and forth on vacation. When I was at Berkeley I told him, if you see a little bit of land up here I’d like to know. I’d like to build a little cabin. Mike said, there is this property on York Hill for sale. It was about 300 acres. I said, what the hell am I going to do with that? I just wanted about an acre. He said you can subdivide it and sell it. I floated a loan for $30,000 and bought the 300 acres in 1974. I hung on to it and am glad I did. I actually added to it. I bought two more parcels recently from Virginia York.
When you see this camp, your 600 acres, how do you see your relationship with this place and this land?
“I feel rooted here. I go to the York reunions and feel like I’m part of their family and the Adams family. I have my connection here with the products of the land, in the sense that I go deer hunting here. My nephew comes here. My wife would never come here. She doesn’t care about it. But my nephew does and I’m hoping my kids will grow to like it. I’m making that sugaring grove, which I hope one day will be good for subsistence living. Potentially they could make enough to live on there. It’s just a dream I had when I first got it. When I was living at the Adams farm Floyd Adams was sugaring and I got to sugaring as well. So it’s like reconnecting. I was in California for 15 years teaching at Berkeley and going to UCLA, but I was always homesick. It’s just beautiful here. I think I’m being objective, but maybe not, but I think this is the most beautiful part of the state. I’ve been all over the country, but I’ve never seen any other place I’ve found as enchanting.
You started out with 300 acres and you added to it? Why?
The additions were within the last five years. This was from Virginia York before she died. She had heavily logged it. It was adjacent. I think I felt the encroaching clearcuts and I like wilderness. Not necessarily pure wilderness, because this isn’t wilderness. I think I felt that I was trying to help maintain a little piece of the woods, especially in this area where I think it’s valuable. Because of the scenery, the mountains and the lakes, it’s a place where you expect to have nice woods. It’s a part of myself that I can leave.
You’ve logged on some of your property. What’s the difference between the type of logging you feel is responsible use of the land and the type that’s not?
For example on the other side of this hill, it used to be an old pasture 100 years ago. It’s grown up with all kinds of stuff. When I bought it it had a few pines growing in it. They were a foot and a half across, and some hardwoods. It had been growing there for 50 years. But it was pretty much a thicket. There was a lot of fir trees. Fir trees are pretty short lived. I had somebody log and I told them, instead of taking the biggest trees, leave the biggest trees. And I have some huge, huge pines now. I like the looks of them. They’re over 100 feet tall, four feet at the butt. One of the reasons they grow big was that I thinned it out. Through the logging I had accelerated the return to good forest. Basically it relates to cutting selectively and not taking everything. Also, I would maintain a diversity of species. Even if I take out some pines or maples I would leave some of the big ones to maintain diversity, except for this piece right here where I’m leaving the maples to create a sugaring grove. In terms of dollars I’ve pretty closely got back what I put in on the original piece, but that doesn’t count taxes. I don’t mind if I can support local loggers. I like the idea of giving something back, that feeds into the local economy.
This spot has figured in several of your books. A Year in the Maine Woods is based here. The Trees in My Forest was pretty much based here. Does this piece of land serve as a kind of muse for you? Or are you simply writing about what you know?
Both, I think. I know this more than any other place. Naturally you write about what you feel. What you have emotional content in. If you don’t have emotional content, what’s the sense of writing. So naturally I keep coming back here. I’ve done a lot of work with insects here, Bumblebee Economics, for instance. Certainly the ravens, the whole study area was here. Ravens in Winter was solely here. And out of that grew Mind of the Raven. That’s another reason why I want to come back here. I feel connected not just because of the trees, but the ravens, the bees. Which goes way back to Floyd Adams. Right now I’m finishing a new manuscript called The Homing Instinct and I have another manuscript which is close to being finished. It’s called Nature’s Undertakers: Life Everlasting and the Balance of Nature. That again relates to ravens. I trap the mice out of the cabin and toss the carcasses out, and I get these burying beetles coming. I put a deer carcass out, roadkill and I watched what came to eat it and I got interested in recycling and undertakers. I was in Africa for a year or two (his time there recounted in The Snoring Bird). I watched vultures there. I relate that to what I see here. What’s different with them and the ravens and beetles. Both of those books relate to here. Nature’s undertakers . . . I think about my own remains. I don’t hope to speed anything up but it’s something you start thinking about when you get over 70 years old. One of the new books is supposed to be out in the spring of next year, but I’m not certain which one it’s going to be. I’m working on both simultaneously. I often will be doing several. A lot of it relates to events and what’s happening. You can’t force things.
Do you do a lot of your writing here or back home in Vermont?
Kind of both. Usually when I come here I do some writing. I’ve been scribbling here now. I go out with my chainsaw for a couple of hours, then write for a couple of hours.
How do you choose the topics for your books?
Trees in My Forest, and A Year in the Maine Woods, I can remember almost the precise moment I decided to write them. In the case of A Year in the Maine Woods, I remember I was at the UVMstudent union having a cup of coffee and asking myself, where would I like to be right now? I’d like to be at camp in Maine. And then I thought, when I retire I want to come live up here and I ought to see what it’s like. Maybe I’ll give it a trial, see what it’s like. I got up and wrote a proposal and sent it to my agent and got an offer that paid my salary for one year. It worked out perfectly. In the case of The Trees in My Forest, I was driving here late one evening. It must have been in the spring because I remember wood frogs crossing the road at night. Suddenly it just came to me, that I should write about the trees in my forest. On these long drives, four and a half hours I try not to numb my brain with music all the time. I like to leave it idling, see what comes up. It was 9 o’clock when I got here and I wrote out the outline and that was it.
You retired from the University of Vermont about five years ago and are now a professor emeritus. Are you still teaching?
Actually I still teach the winter ecology course. I enjoy having students up here (at the cabin.) They really enjoy it. It’s a high point. There’s a lot of competition to get into the course. It’s a field course so they get to get out in the woods. They’re really enthusiastic and that rubs off on me and vice versa. This year was the twentieth time for that. I didn’t start that until I was at UVM for several years.
You’re still keeping a hand in, then. Other than that, how has retirement changed things for you?
I can do the things I want to do. I got really burned out teaching the same course, general biology or zoology, explaining every year how the lungs work and the kidneys work, mostly to pre-med students. You say some things so much you don’t think about it any more and it gets so boring. Here, it’s new every time. Every winter it’s something different. Like this year, there wasn’t a single red-breasted nuthatch. I haven’t seen once since last year. They used to be all over the place. I can notice these things. I also know which trees are producing seeds. This year there were no spruce cones, no pine seeds. Basically they depend on the conifer seeds, which is interesting in respect to the chickadees. The chickadee flocks would follow the nuthatches that spill seeds to the ground and they’d be foraging on that. This year the chickadee flocks were very, very small. You get ideas. And then you want to go back the next year to see how it’s going to be then. How things change with time makes it interesting, it adds another dimension. Not just the physical layout. There’s the past and the future.
This is the International Year of the Forest. A lot of attention is being paid to the problems and benefits of the forests all over the world. Do you think it will do any good?
I don’t think so. It seems to me there’s a great danger of it making you look like you’re doing something when you’re not. I think everyone knows that forests are important. We don’t need a special year to tell us that. All that means is that all the rest of the years are not the years of the forest. I just don’t get it. Are we going to continue with pulp plantation in Indonesia? Are we going to cut all the habitat of the orangutans? Are we going to have real woods? Let’s have a focus on the problem, the heck with the year of the forests. But there’s a million problems, pick out the most important ones.
Today there’s even more demand on the forest, not just pulp and lumber, but biomass and wood pellets. How do you feel about what we ask of the forest?
I see nothing wrong with harvesting for biomass. But it’s a matter of scale. Are you going to heat Boston with biomass? I think the forest can provide an awful lot. But I think we’ve got to have forest rather than just trees. To try get the maximum of one thing out of it, that’s going to ruin the forest. You want to have everything come out of it. Not just biomass, but good habitat for moose and deer and a semblance of real woods that is aesthetically pleasing, where people can go, where they can find edible mushrooms, say. Good forests make good watersheds, offer good trout fishing. Everything is scale. The more woods are used for different things the more they’re going to be preserved. If you concentrate only on biofuels you’re going to have only clearcuts or plantations and destroy the woods.
What do you think about “nature deficit disorder,” the idea that our children are growing up with minimal contact with nature? Do you think it’s real and what does it portend for our future as a species?
Absolutely. I just don’t know what to say. It’s like being asked if water is wet. Kids don’t get a chance to know, to value the natural world, except in sentimental ways. It’s like there is a river of culture and technology flowing in front of them and of course they are not going to ignore it. They want to go with the flow. We are genetically programmed to do so. But its not the river of life — it’s an artificial one of ultimate destruction, because it leads increasingly to divert us from the real world, and the more who go with it, the more will join, like the heat of a fire feeding the flames. But should we thus dunk our kids’ heads into what they perceive is a puddle? I’m not sure it’s that simple. I’m afraid it might engender aversion instead, unless done right.
What makes a good naturalist?
I think of someone who, first of all, has had the increasingly rare benefit of having experienced nature on intimate terms, through contact, as a child when their natural human genetic memory of ancestors spanning millions of years would have been activated to raise their senses and attention to a high alert. Because of that he/she has a sense of fit for what is right, as opposed to merely what is green or fits a specific agenda, because they will see many flows in different directions. A naturalist is by definition someone who has deep interest, and eventually knowledge, of the world as a whole.
Our forests in the U.S. Are threatened with a lot of exotic pests? The Asian longhorned beetle, brown spruce beetle, emerald ash borer. In 100 years the woods might not be anything like we’ve got now. Do you think about that?
It is already different than it was. Think about the chestnuts that used to be here before the fungus. The elms are gone too. Two species totally missing from the forest. The pines are having problems, but they’re hanging on. It’s certainly different now than it was 10,000 years ago.
Anything else you’d like to say?
I think all civilizations are built on forests, ultimately. And they’re incredibly important and potentially provide all of our needs, for meat, fiber, energy, recreation, aesthetics as long as they’re big enough and not managed too much. I see this forest here as kind of a model. I harvest trees to get some money. Not a lot. But some. I don’t manage them in a sense that I see only lumber. The more I tend to manage, the more potential dangers there are. Twenty years after I started the sugarbush here I’ve started noticing more of the sugar borer girdling the trees. I think it has to do with too many sugar maples and no firs or other trees in between. Maybe if there are too many hemlocks the adelgid would spread more easily. In the end there’s kind of an inherent wisdom in what the land wants to do.