Rossdavidh's Reviews > The Snoring Bird: My Family's Journey Through a Century of Biology

The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich
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really liked it
bookshelves: brown

When reading "Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death", one of Heinrich's earlier books, he mentions in passing things he saw or did in the forest shortly after World War 2, when his family was living there and had to scavenge food. He does not elaborate, as his topic then was more nature and less humanity. But, it did pique one's interest. Here he gives us the rest of the story, and it is a whopper.

Heinrich begins near the end, with a visit to his mother ("mamushka"), living alone as an old lady (well, she has cats and other animals). In the barn, he comes across possessions of his now-deceased father, and it inspires him to write his father's life story. Heinrich the Elder was, among other things:

1) one of the world's experts on ichneumon wasps
2) a WW1 fighter pilot
3) a WW2 veteran
4) an immigrant who had to sneak out of Poland and back into Germany, with his family, evading both the retreating Nazis, the very-angry-at-Germans Poles, the also-angry-at-Germans Soviets, and find a way to get himself and his family to America
5) a grumpy old man who did not entirely approve of the turn of late 20th century biology from field research into mathematically-oriented lab work

But this, of course, leaves out a great deal, and it takes over 400 well-written pages for Heinrich the Younger to do it so I won't try to summarize more here. It is, of course, also the tale of the author's life, and in particular the ways in which it paralleled and diverged from his father's. There is a point, often around middle-age, when a man often starts to think differently about his parents. Instead of being an authoritative and often unreasonable source of frustration, you are more able to see them as people who are often just making it up as they go along, just like you.

Heinrich the Elder managed to survive a very turbulent part of the 20th century, in the part of Europe where it was at its most turbulent, and brought his wife (or more than one, it's kind of complicated) and several children alive with him. Some of this was good luck. Some of this was good planning. Some of it was things like using his position to rescue a Polish welder from a concentration camp, and discovering later that people can be very grateful for that kind of thing, and you may find their help immensely useful when the tables are turned. The story, or several parallel ones, are told skillfully and with a great combination of humor and empathy, both honest and forgiving about flaws (his father's or his own or anyone else's).

Equally interesting is the enormous contrast between the pre-war Poland and Germany which the story begins in, and the post-WW2 America (especially Maine) which it ends up in. The contrast between the two worlds is enormous, and the ability of anyone who manages to live life in both of them is to be admired. There is also a similar distance between the earlier world of biology in which hunting (literally) for new species in the remotest wildernesses of the world, was what was called for (and paid for), and the later portion in which lab analysis was instead. Here, the author made the leap better than his father, and it adds a very human touch to the scientific part of the tale. It is said sometimes that science advances one tombstone at a time, as the opponents of new ideas are not so much convinced as outlasted. There is some truth to it, but it adds a new dimension to the saying, to read the story of one scientist, never at home in the new world, who was nevertheless (like all the scientists of his generation) a necessary precondition for it.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
January 11, 2019 – Shelved
January 11, 2019 – Shelved as: brown

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