When Bernd Heinrich retreated to a cabin in the mountainous forest of western Maine—a place “where the subtle matters, and the spectacular distracts”—he intended to live as close to nature as he could. He took a leave from his post as a professor of zoology at the University of Vermont so that he could take a turn as the eager pupil. He would let nature do the teaching.
The Maine woods, of course, hold an romanticized charm for most people from “away,” which native Mainers immediately dismiss because they understand the curse of blackflies and the rugged bitterness of winter. Heinrich likewise refuses to perpetuate any of that romantic bosh. The world he observes is wondrous enough on its own without being sentimentalized.
The result, A Year in the Maine Woods, is a beautiful, thoughtful meditation on his time in the wilderness. He observes nature with a scientist’s eye and intention, he understands it with a naturalist’s hearts, and he writes about it with a poet’s grace.
“Traveling around this wilderness, you see the fresh tracks of moose and deer, as well as bear-claw scratches on the smooth gray trunks of the beechnut trees,” he says, noting that “[m]ost of the lives around us go unnoticed. They leave no records. We see only bits and pieces, and then only if we look very, very close, or for very, very long.”
His year in the Maine woods gives him the chance to do both and then take scrupulous notes about what he notices, then engage in deep reflection on those experiences and observations.
One of the great treats of the book is that Heinrich always leaves himself open to wonder. “The capacity to wonder allows us to anticipate, and that is a very big adaptive step,” the biologist in him explains—but it’s also apparent that, science aside, Heinrich finds great joy through his sense of wonder.
“On a steep part of the hill there is a tiny pool fed by a spring,” he recounts, by way of illustration. “It is not the place I would expect to see a snapping turtle, but there it was, just below the surface.” The turtle, only four-inches long, has happened upon the pool far from any habitat the turtle would normally be occupying. Heinrich mulls over the surprise of it, coming to no answers but giving the reader a rich set of questions to ponder for themselves.
In fact, his ponderings give the book tremendous personal resonance, preventing it from ever being a simple nature journal. He ponders questions scientific and humanistic, from the defense mechanisms employed by various caterpillars to the nature of consciousness and conscience.
When his kids come to visit, he takes his son fishing at a spot where he and his own father had fished years and years before. Heinrich wonders if the wilderness can make the same impression in his son as it did on him. “How much of an artificial, make-believe world will have any meaning for him after he grows up?” he wonders. “I still have the fish, then and now, and the anchor to reality forged on long-ago afternoons spent in a place still intact, still moving me.”
That Heinrich is deeply affected by his surroundings shows up in the way he writes about them. For example:
The stars last night were so brilliant you’d expect them to crackle. But this morning there is a gentle fog that makes the meadow and the woods dreamlike. The sky is lead gray, and so the oranges and yellows of the maples stand out in vibrant contrast. The fog makes everything slightly out of focus, taking the edge off things, so you see only the splashes of color. The moss is luminescent green from the dripping mist, and there is a nutty smell from the decaying vegetation.
He realizes, too, that words can sometimes fail even the most deft of writers, as illustrated when he tries to take in the rush of autumn color. “The imagination cannot retain such rich, vibrant colors, and descriptions necessarily fall short,” he admits.
A Year in the Maine Woods is time well spent. I cherished the long walks in the woods, the physical labor of maintaining the cabin and its environs, the wry sense of humor, the thoughtful musings about the natural world and humankind’s interactions with it. “We need to act logically, but we also need to act bio-logically,” he concludes, urging readers to support practices that “make intelligent use of our forest resources.” Never does he come across as preachy, though. This is just a guy who loves, loves, loves the Maine woods and is glad to be immersed in them.
“I came without a schedule and without plans, hoping time would stand still,” Heinrich writes. “In a way it has. But that’s because every minute of it has been precious. When the moment arrests, then the past and the future evaporate.”