Friday, May 2, 2014


Once upon a time kids had the freedom to roam.  Now everything is structured and 'play-dates' have to be scheduled and fun must to be planned ahead of time.  When I was a kid I spent most days outside and at friend's homes.  My mom usually knew sort-of where I was, but often when I left the house I was simply going "bike riding."  Even with such vague destinations she could still track me down with a phone call or two - even without the tether of cell phones.  And although I spent plenty of time each day out and away, I always felt the pull of home and would have to come back periodically.  Not because it was mom's rule or anything; I just felt that need to touch base at "home" for a few minutes or an hour, then I could head back out into the neighborhood and whatever fun or trouble (yeah, right!) I could find.

Interestingly enough, there are corollaries with the idea of "home" in the animal world.  It's pretty well-known that salmon are able to find their way back from the ocean to the exact stream or lake where they were born.  Eels do the opposite: they're born in the ocean but spend their lives in freshwater streams or lakes before returning to a (still undiscovered, I think) central location in the ocean where they spawn and die.  Many birds migrate thousands of miles each year, returning not just to the same general areas but oftentimes to the same exact locations.  Bernd Heinrich discusses this phenomenon in The Homing Instinct: Meaning and Mystery in Animal Migration (which I received from Amazon Vine), and it's a lot more prevalent than you might realize.

Birds and fish aren't the only ones.  Sea turtles migrate as do some butterflies, and although with their short lifespan they may not complete a round-trip journey themselves, their offspring will pick up the same route.  Bees find their way back to the hive, and ants return to the nest.  Heinrich explains that a variety of methods are employed - sometimes animals use polar magnetics to orient themselves (like pigeons) and other times it's the sun and stars.  Sometimes it's visual cues (bees) or scents (ants) or even just the influence of the crowd (grasshoppers, schooling fish, and even passenger pigeons), but frequently our understanding of it all falls a little short.  He takes the concept further, though, and discusses how birds and bees decide upon where to build their nests and hives - and there's a lot more to it than just chance.  He even discusses his own "homing" instincts in returning to the Maine woods where he grew up, and the activities that draw him there.

This is a wide-ranging book that looks at the science behind many of these behaviors and it's so much more than just migration.  But while it's sometimes a fascinating book, it's not always the most compelling and probably won't appeal to everyone.  Heinrich has an easy and poetic style, but parts of it ramble excessively into memoir and I felt the book bogged down a little as he went into unusual detail about his own "homing" and deer hunting each year.  Still, his experiments with planting chestnut trees near his cabin and even the spider living over his cabin desk were interesting, and I mostly found it an inspiring read that made me marvel even more at the wonders of nature.  (And his own illustrations are a nice bonus.)

Maddie liked the painting on the cover so much she painted her own.  I think we've got a budding little artist at our house.

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