Book Notes: 'Life Everlasting,' by Bernd Heinrich

Rae Padilla Francoeur

“Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death,” by Bernd Heinrich. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston/New York, 2012. 236 pages. $25.

To write about death, Vermont scientist Bernd Heinrich had to write about life. To write about mankind, he had to consider the broadest universe, to which mankind is connected as intimately as mother to fetus.

Heinrich, a physiological ecologist with a poet’s ear, writes in his broadly considered, richly detailed, beautifully written new book, “Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death”:

“The carbon building blocks that make a daisy or a tree come from millions of sources: a decaying elephant in Africa a week ago, an extinct cycad of the Carboniferous age, an Arctic poppy returning to the earth a month ago. Even if those molecules were released into the air the previous day, they came from plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. All of life is linked through a physical exchange on the cellular level.”

The molecular building blocks of life, Heinrich writes, “are exchanged freely from one to all and all to one daily on a global scale, wafted and stirred throughout the atmosphere by the trade winds, by hurricanes and breezes.”

Heinrich, a relentlessly curious scientist, began to focus his attention on the way recycling works in nature after receiving a very interesting letter. An ailing friend who had spent time on Heinrich’s forestland in western Maine asked whether he could have his body deposited there. He wanted to be naturally recycled, as are most other animal carcasses. His friend wanted to participate in the “wild celebration of renewal” that happens so naturally on earth — with his “substance hosting the party.” You will have to read to the end of this moving, informative and intellectual exploration of the life-death cycles here on earth to find out what Heinrich decides, not just for his friend, but upon further consideration, for himself. We learn, in the process, that burials and cremations are toxic and destructive to the environment. It takes three hours to cremate a human body, for instance. Cremations are the cause of the second-largest source of airborne mercury in Europe and they require vast quantities of fossil fuel.

In his exploration of recycling and perpetuation of life, Heinrich turns his attention to a number of animals from ravens to sexton or burying beetles and dung beetles, to elephants and whales. He realizes that the distinction between scavenger and predator is blurred, and that animals that scavenge in one season behave as predators in another. His observations and anecdotes, when taken as a whole, lend a new level of understanding to the very forest in which we stroll.

Botflies, for example, can smell a carcass from a distance of 10 miles. We learn as well that putrefaction, which creates the vile-smelling chemical ethanethiol, is perhaps the most unpleasant of all smells for human beings. Ethanethiol is added to odorless propane to alert people to leaks. As for the maggots we associate with reeking, rotting flesh, the botfly lays about 150 to 200 eggs in each “clutch.” These white, squirmy things hatch eight hours later. The flies reach full growth in three days, and the whole cycle is just one week long.

The deaths of trees and plants and their subsequent return to nature, aided by fungi and bacteria and all manner of animals, also perpetuate life. Nesting woodpeckers, mushrooms and mosses all contribute to the recycling forest.

Heinrich is, himself, fascinating. He was (and perhaps still is) a runner who studied the metabolism of hummingbirds to learn more about efficiencies of long-distance running (see his book, “Why We Run”). He and his family had to subsist, for a time, on foraging in a forest in Germany after World War II, to survive. When he moved to the United States and attended college at the University of Maine, he took advantage of road kill to feed himself and lower expenses. He hunts, lives in temperatures most would find unbearably cold, and investigates in depth what he sees but doesn’t understand. He takes the temperature of a beetle and once raised and developed a relationship with a raven he named Goliath.

Nature, he concludes, is the ultimate standard of reality. While true for a man who studies beetles and ravens and who is extremely comfortable in the northern woods, it is true as well for those of us who’ve lost touch with nature. To turn our backs on this truth is to endanger our great world and our future.

Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at Or read her blog at or follow her @RaeAF.