Book Review: Life Everlasting
by Bernd Heinrich
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
The title of great nature-writer Bernd Heinrich’s latest book, Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death is ever so slightly misleading, conjuring as it does suggestions of Zen Buddhism, Taoist monasticism, Jedi Mastery and other “ways.” In that sense, there is of course no “animal way of death” – animals just stop, either through predation or natural causes. A great many species exhibit some form of the extremely complex process of mourning, but they don’t go through a “way” of death comparable to Seneca rattling off quips during a long and artful suicide.
No, what Heinrich (author of such seminal works as Bumblebee Economics and Ravens in Winter) examines in his latest book is the fast, energetic, almost seamless way living animals deal with the bodies of dead animals.
By its very nature, a living organism is a walking (or side-winding, or oozing) feast, and the bounty of that feast hardly lessens after death. Predation happens all the time – most predators exert a great deal of energy to chase and kill their prey rather than scavenge for leftovers. And the reason might very well be restaurant-seating: if you kill something, you’re in the prime spot to start eating it before the crowds arrive. This isn’t a luxury afforded to everybody, however, and Heinrich’s book is positively eye-opening on the sheer extent to which the animal world runs on carrion. He sketches out the long evolutionary history of the corpse-cleaning classes:
Undertaking surely is an ancient heritage. Although undertakers were, and still are, often not differentiated from executioners, they have always been the essential link for the continuity of life; without them, life would have come to a grinding halt. Over millions of years, through evolution, the body size of herbivores and predators and their handmaidens, the scavengers, increased. As herbivores grew larger, so could those that took advantage of their fallen bodies. For every individual that walks, one dies, an each one becomes a resource of highly concentrated food.
There’s everything to like about this book except its brevity; Heinrich’s lively, effortlessly pedagogical prose is in peak form, his vast knowledge of the animal world is on full display, and, for his long-time fans, there’s a good deal of his signature puckish even-handedness about the finer points of the Linnaean pecking order. Heinrich has been intimately studying owls, ravens, and other smart creatures far too long to sentimentalize for the benefit of his merely human readers – this is natural history as God would write it, if God were a Unitarian (and the odds of that are pretty good, all things considered). In these pages, living things sooner or later die, and their remains are processed immediately (if not daintily) into the ongoing buffet of life.
Parts of this may not sit well with his more maudlin readers, since in the modern West death has become a prettified, compartmentalized thing – and not just human death:
Most parts of any domesticated livestock are now cycled only into human consumption, with scraps converted to pet food. Thus we and our pets are vulture stand-ins. But if an animal that is deemed not suitable as food for us dies, we also deem it unsuitable for availability to others. Even the road-killed deer and other animals that the highway department picks off the roads are disposed of by burying. Vultures would do the job better if we let them.
You can see the abyss just on the other side of such observations, right? If vultures (and all the other ‘handmaidens,’ including every canine who ever drew breath) could do the job better on roadkill – an they indisputably could, since they’re capable of digesting and processing back into the natural cycle vast quantities of nutrients that are simply lost upon incineration or burial – then it follows they could do a better job on … well, on Grannie. This is where the magnificent dispassion of Life Everlasting bumps up hard against human sentimentality, and it’s the reason this book won’t be the perfect summer gift for every recipient. That aforementioned process of mourning derives entirely from an attachment for a loved one’s body that lingers after the loved one is no longer inhabiting that body. It’s fundamentally irrational, so there’s no gainsaying it.
Fortunately, Heinrich doesn’t zero in on such extensions of his subject in Life Everlasting – at least not so remorselessly that those who feel so inclined won’t still be able to think of death and decay as things that happen only to other people. So the book isn’t entirely disqualified from gift-giving! Anybody who enjoys first-rate natural history will love this book. Heinrich is our best practitioner of the art, and readers should take advantage of that – before the handmaidens get at him.