Title: Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival
Author: Bernd Heinrich
Genre: Non-fiction: Nature
From award-winning writer and biologist Bernd Heinrich, an intimate, accessible and eloquent illumination of animal survival in Winter.
From flying squirrels to grizzly bears, torpid turtles to insects with antifreeze, the animal kingdom relies on some staggering evolutionary innovations to survive winter. Unlike their human counterparts, who must alter their environment to accommodate our physical limitations, animals are adaptable to an amazing range of conditions–i.e., radical changes in a creature’s physiology take place to match the demands of the environment. Winter provides an especially remarkable situation, because of how drastically it affects the most elemental component of all life: water.
Examining everything from food sources in the extremely barren winter landscape to the chemical composition that allows certain creatures to survive, Heinrich’s “Winter World” awakens the largely undiscovered mysteries by which nature sustains herself through the harsh, cruel exigencies of winters (from Goodreads).
Thoughts: Winter World follows Bernd Heinrich as he walks through the woods during winter next to his cabin in Maine. Through his observations of beavers, insects, frogs, and the golden-crowned kinglet, among others, Heinrich tells us how these animals survive the frozen winter . While he discusses all sorts of animals, from hibernating bears and snapping turtles who spend half the year under mud in lakes completely frozen over, the kinglet is the driving force behind Heinrich’s walks; he wants to discover how such as small, light bird could possibly survive year-round in a place where each winter it can reach as low as – 30F.
I’ll be honest: for the first half of the book I found it hard going. Even now I’m not sure why, but I just couldn’t garner much interest in the book, which I thought would have been right up my alley. Winter World has some similarities to Holmes’ Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn, where she observes the wildlife of her small lawn in Maine for a year. They observe much of the same animals: ravens and crows, squirrels, and insect life. Heinrich’s observations are made entirely in winter but I couldn’t help comparing the two in the beginning and finding Heinrich’s lacking.
Part of the problem was that I simply wanted to know more information than Heinrich typically gave me. The chapters in the book are short- most of them 10-15 pages and focusing on one type of animal. In a chapter on frogs Heinrich explains how some survive the Maine winter by burying under a layer of fall leaves and then freezing completely solid. Their heart and brain waves completely stop. Heinrich considers them dead. And yet, each spring, as the temperatures warm, they thaw out and suddenly reanimate. This of course begs the question of how such a thing is possible. How does a creature, with no beating heart or brain activity, with its flesh completely frozen solid, suddenly come alive when the ice melts? Heinrich doesn’t tell us, he doesn’t even hint. Nor does he tell us how the snapping turtle survives underwater for 6 months without any access to oxygen. He describes some the adaptations they have evolved to be able to go for long periods of time without air and how they make the most of each breath, but he doesn’t explain how they survive for so long with no oxygen at all.
Some of the animals he talked about I wanted to know more of: bears, muskrats and beavers, and some others. Two of the chapters were originally magazine articles and they were adapted for this book. I’m sorry to say that it was easy for me to pick out which ones they were (he mentions which chapters these were in the introduction but I forgot which specific chapters they were in my reading); the quality of the writing was higher and I enjoyed these chapters more than then the rest.
However, about half way through I started to enjoy the book more. This wasn’t because of any changes on Heinrich’s part; I simply adjusted. I stopped becoming frustrated at the questions that went unanswered and focused on what I was learning. After that, I began to enjoy not only the book, but Heinrich’s writing a lot more. I was glad that I ended the book much happier with it then I was at the beginning, and I know it has piqued my interest in the animals of the north so I will most likely be picking up a book on a similar topic in the near future. Despite all of this, I’m not sure if I would call this book a ‘success.’ But I do feel that I am better off having read it rather then not. Overall, this book was a mixed bag for me but it opened up a lot of thoughts/questions on the topic that I am interested in exploring further in other books.