am 17. Juni 2007
In September, 1959, in utter disregard of the strictures of the Cold War, one Gerd Heinrich - then living in Maine - posted a letter to the Warsaw Institute of Zoology. The note was accompanied by a map of a location in the Polish countryside. What the map would restore to light was the key to a lifetime's work. Attempting to complete a manuscript on wasps, Heinrich needed the "type specimens" collected over decades of work in locations around the world. In his quest, Gerd had scoured Europe, Persia, Africa and eastern Asia. He brought along wives, lovers, and children. Bernd Heinrich, of bumblebee and raven fame, here wonderfully recounts his father's many adventures and accomplishments. As well as a few of his own.
An attic cleanup confronted Bernd Heinrich with papers and journals - records of his father's complex personal history. Gerd Heinrich's home was a 1300 hectare estate in northwestern Poland - Borowke. Of German heritage, he would endure the many shifts of loyalties that location would suffer. He lacked formal academic education, although he'd done well in secondary school. However, he brought a sense of dedication to collecting and identifying specimens many establishment scientists would envy. His speciality was the ichneumon wasp, that creature that led Charles Darwin away from the notion of a "loving God". Ichneumons, which total more than ten thousand species, lay their eggs in living caterpillars. They are "parasitoid" - they don't live off caterpillars as prey.
Gerd's collection excursions were long and arduous. He spent two years in Celebese seeking a bird specimen, but gathered up wasp samples while doing so. His work was interrupted by two wars, in both of which he served with distinction. Along the way, he also gathered wives - the first of which was briefer than the "marriage" of himself as a pilot with his observer in the early Luftwaffe. Between the wars he managed Borowke and married again. Bernd, however, was the product of a love match, later legalised by circumstances. The driving circumstance was World War II and the need to give Bernd proper status as a German boy. The invasion of Reich territory by the Soviet Army led Gerd to bury the most important specimens, leading to the letter to the Polish Academy many years later. Then, he arranged for wives - past and present - and his children to flee to the West and sanctuary.
Bernd's own story begins with that flight and resettlement in a forest hut in Hahnheide, near Hamberg. For Bernd, Hahnheide was "a child's paradise" - a forest inhabited by a wealth of creatures, including many types of birds. Birds became "my ichneumon wasps", as his corvid books ably demonstrate. The family, although severed by the flight, all managed to reach the US, where life never achieved that known at Borowke. Bernd and his sister were sent to a "school for deprived children" - hardly a pleasant education - while his father and mother continued the quest for wasps. During these latter years, Bernd learns of yet another half-sister, again the result of one of Gerd's liaisons. Ultimately, while birds may have been "my ichneumon wasps", it was insects that gave Bernd a quest of his own. He worked out an incredibly complex mechanism of heat control in moths. He later studied bumblebees to provide new insights in the workings of coevolution between insects and plants.
No work of fiction can stand successfully against this account of human ingenuity, dedication and accomplishment. Gerd's influence on his son is beyond measure, and Bernd reviews the many [but never enough!] exchanges the two had over the years. "Duty" was a major foundation of Gerd's personality, yet the move to the US ultimately brought on a clash over just what that meant. "Discipline" was an equally potent force, and what Bernd learned from his father carried him through his own research programme - and cost him two wives of his own in the bargain. Bernd Heinrich lays this all out with welcome candour, conveyed to the rest of us in engaging style. There are few "family" histories that match this epic for capturing and holding the reader's attention. It is a stunning accomplishment. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]