The Winter World is one of challenges due to cold coupled with lack of food and energy resources. I had written about this world because I wanted to highlight the amazing solutions animals have devised to survive and sometimes even to live embracing it. Summer, in contrast, is the time of warmth and plenty, and the contrast with winter seemed like an inviting topic to think and write about. However, I did not know how to approach it. My first thought was to contrast the evolved adaptations to cold and scarcity of energy in winter with those of life in the heat with a super-abundance of energy but with a severe scarcity of water. Such summer almost defines deserts, where animals and plants have amazingly found ways to allow them to survive and prosper. But deserts are the home of only a minority of people, animals, and plants. Most of us experience a different summer. I decided to take a closer look in my own backyard and to view summer from there.
Summer as I experienced it is not just one time. In terms of living, it is a time of courting, birthing, foraging and feeding, avoiding being eaten, growing, and lastly preparing for winter. Furthermore, unlike in winter or life under severe desert conditions, nothing is static. Most of us live in a world where "timing is everything." Here in Vermont and Maine where I live, there is about a week to prepare the soil, another to plant the peas, another to put in the tomato plants. There is a week where the bees pollinate the apple trees, a week for us to harvest the fruit, and another to dig the potatoes. All nature is on a tight schedule. The wood frogs mate in mid April, the robins return late April, the blueberries bloom in May, and the geese migrate north the second week in October. Summer as we know it is not a uniform struggle against excessive heat and lack of water. It is instead a continually shifting schedule of living where the lives of one species adjust to those of others. So my focus changed. With pen, pencil, and watercolor brush, I wanted to bring to life some of the Life that is all around in my yard as well as in most others' yards.
One potential approach was to discuss the various topics such as mating, nesting, feeding, predator avoidance, etc. Instead, it seemed possibly more engaging to concentrate on conspicuous aspects of the lives of specific, common, everyday animals and plants that we tend to take for granted but that are marvelous because of their hidden agendas and concealed complexities.
It seems to me that we are in a perpetual crisis mode where attention is rightly focused on what is wrong with the world, although too little appreciation is given to what is right with it. Nature is always right. It always bats last; it is the final arbiter of all things that concern every living thing. So I focused on the first thing I saw that captured my attention: mating wood frogs. This species breeds in large crowds that gather for a one- to several-day orgy in almost every temporary little pool, of which there are more that a dozen within my neighborhood. It was a joy to watch the frogs' antics, and I tried to trick them to find out what they respond to, and to then contemplate and figure out their various stratagems. The frogs were strange, comical and counterintuitive. The noisy males were not only competing fiercely to catch any female they could but also unknowingly, I presume, cooperating in attracting them. Nothing that they did was obvious to me without first delving into their detailed life histories.
The frogs' antics were, for awhile, by far the best entertainment in town, although the mating dances of a crowd of long-legged flies in my outhouse shed in Maine may have vied for that distinction. These flies, unless one looked closely, were easy to miss, but they shouldn't be missed.
These and many other wonders directly under my nose seemed endlessly entertaining and possibly instructive. I felt joy to be alive and in touch with the often secret spectacles of wasps that made clay pots that they stuffed with live drugged spiders, and woodpeckers that inadvertently provided at that season the only food around for hummingbirds, and supplemented that of hornets, butterflies, and squirrels. I was stunned by caterpillars that had devised ways that fooled predatory birds and ants to either ignore them or even to take care of them. They used disguises that no rational human being could possibly invent in their wildest, most imaginative moments. They can only be seen to be believed, and I delved into hornets that had it in for me, but whose entertainment was worth every sting that I got, and I got plenty.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I came to realize from my observations that many of the fundamental problems animals face in the summer are the same ones that we face for living, also.Living beyond our ecological carrying capacity and outside the orbit of close contact with nature is the most significant problem threatening the whole nature of our planet. The ecosystems of plants and animals have draconian measures that solve these problems. These natural measures are not those we could or would want to apply to ourselves, but they must and can be addressed.
Although the focus of this book is simply on enjoying the Summer World, I did not shy from considering our predicament. We have, in the past, mastered living in the "extreme summer" of desert environments, as well as surviving in extreme winter. There is no doubt that the human race will long continue to do so. The only question is if it will be possible with all of our numbers now, or require an eventual hundred- or maybe thousand-fold decrease (at the present levels of consumption and pollution), without taking the wonders of creation that make the summer world worth living down with us.
Our past was natural and right and perhaps inevitable. Like the seasons that come and go, there is a time when one thing is right, which is followed by a time when something else is necessary. We cannot be wise unless we heed the seasons of the long as well as the short cycles of Life.
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Bernd Heinrich is the author of numerous award-winning books, including the bestselling Winter World, Mind of the Raven, and Why We Run, and has received countless honors for his scientific work. He also writes for Scientific American, Outside, American Scientist, and Audubon, and has published book reviews and op-eds for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He studied at the University of Maine and UCLA, and is professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont. Heinrich divides his time between Vermont and the forests of western Maine.
Books mentioned in this post
Bernd Heinrich is the author of Summer World: A Season of Bounty