The Snoring Bird: My Family's Journey Through a Century of Biologyby Bernd Heinrich
From Bernd Heinrich, the bestselling author of Winter World, comes the remarkable story of his father's life, his family's past, and how the forces of history and nature have shaped his own life. Although Bernd Heinrich's father, Gerd, a devoted naturalist, specialized in wasps, Bernd tried to distance himself from his “old-fashioned” father,/b>
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From Bernd Heinrich, the bestselling author of Winter World, comes the remarkable story of his father's life, his family's past, and how the forces of history and nature have shaped his own life. Although Bernd Heinrich's father, Gerd, a devoted naturalist, specialized in wasps, Bernd tried to distance himself from his “old-fashioned” father, becoming a hybrid: a modern, experimental biologist with a naturalist's sensibilities.
In this remarkable memoir, the award-winning author shares the ways in which his relationship with his father, combined with his unique childhood, molded him into the scientist, and man, he is today. From Gerd's days as a soldier in Europe to the family's daring escape from the Red Army in 1945 to the rustic Maine farm they came to call home, Heinrich relates it all in his trademark style, making science accessible and awe-inspiring.
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The Snoring Bird
My Family's Journey Through a Century of Biology
A Visit Home
When you start your journey to Ithaca
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclops and the angry Poseidon.
—"Ithaca," Constantine P. Cavafy
Mamusha is just settling down on her bed to watch the evening news when I arrive. Two cans of Coors, which she has opened with the point of a pair of scissors, are on the table next to her, along with a box of German chocolates. She used to make her own beer, but now, in her mid-eighties, she likes Coors from a can; and because her gnarled hands are too weak, she cannot pull off the tabs. Duke, the huge shepherd-hound that she rescued from the pound, is at her feet, and a one-legged chicken lies cradled in her lap. She is mildly irritated at me for arriving unannounced (I have a tendency either to just show up or to come an hour later than I've promised, which annoys her also), but soon I have placated her and she offers me a beer.
Mamusha is the Polish word for mama or mommy. Mamusha was born and raised in what is now Poland, and despite her willingness to consume Coors, she remains, in her memories and her ways, a product of the Old World. My visits to her are usually spent listening to stories about the past. We are sitting in the low-ceilinged brick room that Papa built decades earlier for the purpose of protecting his precious wasp collections from fire; the rest of the house might be consumed, but his ichneumons would be safe. When we moved to this house nearWilton, Maine, in 1951, it was a simple saltbox-style farmhouse with six rooms. Since Papa's death, Mamusha has added on haphazardly, so that the house is now a collage of thirteen rooms. The walls are decorated with pictures of flowers that she has purchased, although one wall sports a portrait of George and Laura Bush that she received free in the mail. This small brick room is her main habitation, which she shares with her dog and house chickens. I was met in the entryway by three hens, perched on the dresser. In the living room, one drawer sits partway open to accommodate a setting hen that has made her nest there. "My chickens outsmarted me again," Mamusha says. "Yesterday I found one upstairs in a corner of the bedroom. I have too many. Next time bring your shotgun and at least help me to get rid of a few roosters. They are all so pretty—brown, black, speckled, some with feathers on their toes, some without. I can't decide which ones to get rid of."
Mamusha keeps chickens in her barn and chicken house, but her house chickens are often the ill ones. Once in a while, for some reason, some of the newly hatched chicks have trouble with their legs. They splay out to the side, and the chicks can barely stand, much less walk. Mamusha has discovered that if you cradle the chick in your arms for a week or two, and sleep with it cuddled up next to you in bed, it will eventually improve and become a fully functional house pet. By the warmth of the woodstove, with feed scattered across the floor, the chickens are quite comfortable. This is Mamusha's twist on the concept of "survival of the fittest." The most afflicted chickens receive the best care, and with the warm fire nearby they breed year-round, producing more and more afflicted youngsters for Mamusha to look after. Their eggs do have the deepest-yellow yolks, which Mamusha brags about.
I was somewhat aghast at the chicken business until my wife, Rachel, pointed out that taking care of animals is good for one's mental health. OK, at least my mother is not taking antidepressants or tranquilizers. Mamusha never learned how to drive and so rarely leaves home anyway. And I'm not the one tied down every day to a clucking chicken! All I have to do is periodically bring my gun when I visit.
Papa would never have lived this way. He was a neat freak. He saved every scrap of paper, saved every receipt, kept a ledger book with every single penny accounted for. After his death in 1984 Mamusha claimed for years to be in the process of sorting through his stuff, but I never saw any signs of progress. It was of course none of my business what she saved or disposed of; she has reminded me for decades that, after all, I disagreed with Papa far more than a son should. This was taken in the family to be a sign of my disrespect. I know better than to ask Mamusha for any of Papa's scraps of paper, or to snoop around the household junk piles.
The barn, where the rest of the chickens live, along with the accumulated artifacts of decades of human activity, used to house pigeons when I was little. It began with a single bird, one that had escaped from Murray Foss. Murray was the son of Dot Foss, who owned Dot's Place, a filling station and tiny store selling cigarettes and candy at the intersection a mile up the road. Murray ran away to Los Angeles, and before he left, he gathered up each of his beloved racing pigeons and one by one broke their necks. One, however, escaped, and fled to the top of our barn. Mamusha put out some grain and it eventually fed. A while later another pigeon appeared, obviously of the opposite sex, and they began to reproduce like crazy. The grain available for the pigeons also attracted and fed the mice, chipmunks, house sparrows, and rats in the barn, all of which prospered. I remember catching twenty rats in a grain barrel in one night. Next the weasels cashed in, and a pair of goshawks . . .The Snoring Bird
My Family's Journey Through a Century of Biology. Copyright © by Bernd Heinrich. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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The author of numerous bestselling and award-winning books, Bernd Heinrich is a professor of biology at the University of Vermont. He divides his time between Vermont and the forests of western Maine.
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