Monday, September 3, 2012

Book Review: Bernd Heinrich's Life Everlasting

I'd like to start featuring reviews of books relevant to this project, perhaps as a monthly or bi-monthly affair. There are many great books out there, both new and old, that delve into the topics explored in this blog. As public interest shifts and talk about dead animals becomes more mainstream, there are, notably, quite a few recent titles that discuss subjects such as animal death, taxidermy, and recycling in the ecosystem. I haven't written a book review since middle school, so the first couple of reviews may be a little bit rocky – bear with me!

First up is Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, a new book put out this year by biologist and author Bernd Heinrich. The narrative is divided into five distinct sections, each dealing – sometimes, only distantly – with a different aspect of death, decay, and rebirth in the ecosystem. As I soon found out, the "animal" and "death" part of the title is a little misleading, but not in a necessarily negative way.

In part one, Small to Large, Heinrich opens with discussion and notes from his observations of the habits of burying beetles. This was one of my favorite sections of the book, as I'm a sucker for insects, and I learned quite a bit about burying beetles and other insect decomposers. The author then moves on to other familiar scavengers: ravens and coyotes, for instance, and their roles in the recycling of larger animals, such as deer, before tackling the subject of humans and our history of hunting, scavenging, and foraging, and what it means as we use more than our share of what the earth can provide.

The second part of the book, North to South, discusses scavenger birds: the common raven from the northwoods of the United States, and the various species of vultures distributed throughout the world. I found the anecdotes and information about the vultures to be of particular interest; I'm familiar mostly with our native turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), but reading about swarms of vultures descending upon a giraffe corpse on the African veldt was absolutely fascinating.

The importance of dead trees in a forest ecosystem is explored in the third section of the book, Plant Undertakers. Also discussed are the habits of dung beetles. At first glance, neither subject seems to be directly related to The Animal Way of Death – least of all, the feeding behaviors of dung beetles – but this part of the book is an interesting read, nevertheless. Dead trees are just as under-appreciated as dead animals, but they provide for a wealth of biodiversity – as Bernd Heinrich outlines in the chapter Trees of Life.

The fourth segment of the book, Watery Deaths, was a section that I wish had been developed further. For the most part, the author discusses two aspects of aquatic death: the salmon life cycle (I enjoyed this chapter immensely) and the deep-sea decomposition of whales, which was also fascinating. I would have liked to read more, however, about other animals that meet their end in the water. Aquatic decomposition is a mysterious and widely-misunderstood phenomenon; as someone who lives along the shore of Lake Superior, I see my fair share of decayed creatures, many of which do not live in the water but end up there nonetheless.

Changes, the fifth and final section of the book, wraps up a few loose ends – relating the dung beetle life cycle to human beliefs in death and the afterlife, for example – while also bringing up insect metamorphosis, something that, while interesting, I didn't think fit very well with the rest of the text.

Heinrich's narrative is a joy to read, and his observations about various animal undertakers – from the burying beetle to the common raven – are fascinating. Life Everlasting is unique in that it focuses on decomposition at a tiny level (Nicrophorus beetles on a shrew), while simultaneously outlining a worldview, as well (the ramifications of animal agriculture practices in respect to vulture populations). Despite a few chapters that seem to clash with the overall theme of the book, Life Everlasting is a good, thought-provoking read filled with fascinating facts, both humorous and sobering anecdotes, and, a pleasant surprise, some illustrations from the author.

There were many parts of the book that I'd love to repeat here, but I'll choose only one. In closing, here is a small passage from page 77, in the chapter The Vulture Crowd:
"Most parts of any domesticated livestock are now cycled only into human consumption, with scraps converted to pet food. Thus we and our pets are vulture stand-ins. But if an animal that is deemed not suitable as food for us dies, we also deem it unsuitable for availability to others. Even the road-killed deer and other animals that the highway department pick off the roads are disposed of by burying. Vultures would do the job better if we let them."


  1. You should send a copy of your review to Bernd. I met him briefly at RDA's retirement party. He married Rachel Smolker, who was a grad student at UM.
    Certainly send a version of this to the MES for the journal. They would publish it.