Monday Book: Home truths in a fascinating look at the natural world

The Homing Instinct, by Bernd Heinrich, William Collins, £16.99

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The Independent Culture

If you heard a yelp in Epping Forest last Sunday afternoon it was me reacting to a bee sting. The American scientist Bernd Heinrich, whose first book was Bumblebee Economics, would probably agree with my girlfriend who said I was being a drama queen.

In The Homing Instinct, Heinrich writes as both distinguished professor and rugged outdoorsman as he examines varieties of home-making and shows that having somewhere to return to is essential to almost every species.

Scientists used to paint bees’ abdomen so that they could be tracked and, while that’s not a job I’d want, Heinrich writes with enough precision about ancient cockroaches, gregarious molerats and stinking ladybugs to intrigue even squeamish readers. Accounts of cranes’ migrations and beavers’ awesome dam building enrich his study while godwits’ non-stop flight from Alaska to Australia is “a mind-boggling demonstration of the epic importance of home”.

Interesting though this material is Heinrich’s prose can lack vitality. He’s more engaging in later, autobiographical chapters where his responses to nature feel more visceral than scientific. After hibernating through protracted explanations of caterpillar silk, I awoke during a field trip to Suriname where Heinrich is attacked by poisonous flies and a viper slithers out from beneath his tent.

One of his strongest passages concerns his experiment-cum-romance with “Charlotte”, a spider which comes to live in his Maine cabin. Heinrich watches rapt as she gorges on succulent gifts. “She not only sucked out the juices but also chewed it to a pulp,” he writes while Charlotte munches a bee (just when I was warming to them). 

On hunting expeditions, Heinrich swigs Scotch and adopts a macho tone. “I wimped out,” he says after catching flu and when he eventually kills a deer: “The sadness of death made way for the joy of life.” Heinrich talks of tradition and the natural order but I’ll never understand men, armed with rifles and PhDs, running around after wide-eyed animals. More poignant is the epilogue where he connects his desire to write this book with memories of emigrating from Germany to America as a boy after the Second World War: “Home was in the future.”

Heinrich believes that for people nowadays “there is less opportunity to make a home”. This pertinent observation captures the appeal of a book that communicates something important about bonding to readers who find themselves drifting from one place to the next, always searching for somewhere better. As Heinrich says of urban pigeons: “They are free. Are we?”

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