Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death
New York: First Mariner Books
Paperback list: $15.95, Kindle $8.77
Original publication date: 2012, reprint date: July 13, 2013
Imagine you get an email from an old friend. Sadly, he is dying and is asking for one last favor: After I die, would you allow my corpse to decompose on your property? Hmmm, I would like to be helpful; may I suggest instead something in the way of a casserole or a donation to your favorite charity?
This seemingly bizarre request by a fellow ecologist is what prompted Bernd Heinrich to write Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death. Professor emeritus of biology at University of Vermont, Heinrich said his friend wanted a "green burial" on Heinrich's land in western Maine because the alternatives—traditional embalming with interment and cremation—were unacceptable. Burying a preserved corpse "starves the Earth of human nutrients;" cremation adds to the buildup of greenhouse gases and global warming, he said. The dying man added, "like any good ecologist, I regard death as changing into other kinds of life. Death is, among other things, also a wild celebration of renewal, with our substance hosting the party."
Though Heinrich refused his friend due to logistical and legal reasons, the request prompted the retired entomologist to ponder "the web of life and death and our relationship to it." In Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death Henrich's observations take place literally at ground level as he reports how the natural world—insects, birds, fungi, bacteria and fish, among others—disposes of its dead elegantly and horrifically, enriching ecosystems in which they lived. He calls them "nature's undertakers."
He begins with the fascinating Nicrophorus "burying beetle," which finds different dead animals (but never its own) and buries them as part of its mating and reproductive life. In what the biologist sees as a beetle love story, the male discovers a dead animal, stands on his head and emits a glandular scent from its rear to attract a female. A mate flies to him and they bury the carcass, which protects it from other scavengers. She lays her eggs there, which will become larvae. A dead mouse "nursery" will nourish a dozen plus beetle larvae, he says. What makes burying beetles especially interesting is how they transport their carcass to a suitable burying place: They lie on their backs and "walk" the body with their legs (think of crowd surfing at a rock concert, only using legs instead of arms). Henrich says the mother beetle makes squeaking noises (having no vocal chords or ears they make sounds using friction of rubbing body parts together) and the larvae raise themselves up like baby birds to be fed mouth to mouth till they are able to feed themselves. As the larval stage comes to a close, the juvenile beetles burrow into the surrounding soil and pupate—overwintering to emerge as adults the following spring or summer. The author, who studied comparative physiology and behavior of insects at UCLA and UC Berkeley, spares no stomach-turning details in his descriptions of these and other scavengers.
After looking at the burying beetles, Heinrich surveys other natural death scenes and sees patterns develop. When an animal dies, bacteria begin their part in the decomposition process, followed by various species of flies, some of which can smell a carcass from 10 miles away. The chemical released from putrefying carcasses, ethanethiol, is considered the most offensive smell on earth but plays an essential purpose in sending out news that there is a feast to be had. A blowfly can lay 150 to 200 eggs on a carcass, which hatch into maggots in as few as eight hours and feed voraciously till they too metamorphosize into flies. (He notes that one species of green fly, Lucilia sericata, is used for maggot therapy—to eat dead tissue in human wounds to speed the healing process.) Beetles and larger mammalian scavengers also do their parts in the recycling process. He remembers seeing a dead bull moose that probably succumbed to a disease a couple of days before. Coyotes had chewed through the thick hide of the animal, ravens came and picked at the hole, then came the turkey vultures and maggots. A couple weeks later all that was left was the skeleton and hide, which a black bear took away.
In the recycling world of nature, there is much redundancy and always backup. The recycling process may start with a car or ticks, then employ scavenging birds, move on to flies, then beetles, and finally bacteria. . .Had the bear not taken the. . .carcass after the flies were through, it would have been visited by swarms of dermestid beetles.Even when all soft tissue is removed, the dermestid beetles work on the remaining hair, feathers, gristle fur and skin—everything except bone. Rodents and deer gnaw on bones to get calcium, and some avian scavengers will take a bone high in the sky and drop it in order to get at the nutritious marrow inside, the author writes.
Early humans would have been competitors for a freshly dead carcass. Heinrich argues that hominids (several million years ago) probably were scavengers as well as hunters. Though they were slower and their teeth were not as sharp as lions and saber-toothed cats, hominids evolved advantages such as endurance, development of spears as weapons and cooperative hunting in packs. As their skills evolved, he said, our human ancestors turned from scavenging to become the world's premier hunters. Becoming meat eaters gave hominids a highly concentrated energy source that enabled them to grow stronger, faster and smarter (human brains use 20 percent of human caloric intake).
We are the ultimate scavengers of all time. Everything from the coal forests to a large part of the earth's animal biomass—domestic birds and mammals (and, increasingly, fish)—are cycled directly into us, instead of into a sustainable world ecosystem.This development is in Heinrich's eyes nothing less than tragic. He refers to John James Audubon's Missouri River Journals, in which the early American described seeing astonishingly large numbers of bison, elk and other species, which soon after were decimated in just a few decades by frontiersmen. For example, he says, early settlers would kill a bison and take just the brains, tongue and liver—all of which were highly nutritious. The rest of the animal they would leave to the less-evolved scavengers because the daily kill spoiled quickly. (A hunter himself, the author remembers scavenging roadkill when he was a starving student at the University of Maine.) Heinrich makes one assumption during his prolonged hunting narrative that begs for more information: He claims that the origins of human empathy lie in prehistoric hominids hunting prey. Quoting the late conservationist Laurens van der Post and others who see skillful hunting as getting "under the skin" of the prey, Heinrich seems to support a questionable hypothesis. Thinking like an animal is not the same thing as empathizing with it, which involves the capacity for compassion and care for the other. (Many scientists instead see the origins of empathy in maternal rearing habits and cooperation in mammals.)
Heinrich, who perhaps is best known for his book Mind of the Raven, points out that much of the heavy lifting in scavenging is done by birds. Ravens are the top carcass recyclers in the Northern Hemisphere. Birds are especially important in scavenging carcasses in winter, when insects are inactive and bacterial growth slows. In one experiment, he laid out two skinned Holstein cows, each weighing a ton. Approximately 500 ravens removed almost all of the flesh from the cows in two weeks. Yet they had not eaten it. The birds buried bits of it for future consumption, using their beaks to remove meat from the frozen animals and dig holes in the frozen ground to bury it. After the spring thaw, the ravens as well as other animals found the buried treasures of food necessary for their survival.
Then there are the vultures, scavengers with perhaps the worst reputation. Heinrich points out that "the undertaker has always been undifferentiated from the executioner," and perhaps vultures, with their strange bald heads and wide black wings, perfectly fit the stereotype. They are fast workers—a swarm of white-rumped vultures in Southeast Asia has been reported to have stripped the carcass of a cow in 20 minutes. However, these and other vultures worldwide are disappearing due to poisons, including drugs used to treat livestock, as well as decreasing availability of carcasses. Another scavenger, the California Condor, became extinct because of DDT and lead poisoning as well as habitat destruction. They remain endangered as biologists try to reintroduce them from breeding in captivity.
In the case of an undisturbed forest, death and new life are a beautifully woven tapestry. Heinrich explains how trees are often taken down by insects, which bore into the inner bark and sapwood and bring with them fungi, which digest the cellulose. Eventually a tree falls, where a "progression of scavengers attacks the carcass one species after another, till the feeding queue ends and the tree has returned to the soil." These decaying "nurse logs" provides habitat and space above (moss, leaf litter, fungi, etc.) for new seedlings to grow. Heinrich says we humans foolishly interrupt this natural life cycle in our own environments when we rake up leaves and other plant litter, putting them in plastic bags and sending them off to the landfill while robbing the soil of its rich leafy top layer.
When Heinrich turns his gaze from the land to the sea, we discover some of the most enthralling phenomena of nature's recycling. He tells the story of salmon, which make the seemingly impossible trek of hundreds of miles to their spawning grounds. One in a hundred of the salmon survive the arduous journey; many of them are eaten by bears and other predators before they arrive to reproduce. Heinrich points out that the successful salmon after mating return to their ecosystems of origin to die, where their lifeless bodies are recycled for new generations of salmon to develop and begin the amazing odyssey again. Those eaten along the way become "packets of salmon scat" that are scattered by the bears and other predators in surrounding forests to help nourish the trees.
One part of the book you will not want to skim over has to do with the marvelous ways whale carcasses are recycled in the ocean deeps. The "whale fall" process begins near the surface of the water when a whale, weakened by disease or age, might become prey to orcas, Heinrich says. The blood in the water attracts large sharks, like the Great White, as well as smaller ones. When the whale body cavity is opened, the organs are removed and lungs deflated. Then the carcass sinks to dark, oxygen-poor depths where there are other scavengers adapted to the harsh environment, including chemotrophic bacteria that live in geothermic vents at the ocean bottom. Some of the creatures are truly alien, like anglerfish, which have enormous jaws and stomachs that can expand to swallow food twice as large as them. Perhaps my favorite are the Osedax "zombie worms" which, having no digestive tract, tunnel into the carcass and use symbiotic bacteria to feed on fats, which the worms absorb into their bodies. More than 400 species of macrofauna (excluding bacteria) are involved in whale falls, Heinrich reports. In contrast to the elegant ways of nature, he tells a humorous (and repulsive) tale of human ineptitude in dealing with a whale carcass that washed up on a beach in Oregon in 1970. The community, worried about the stench from the rotting whale, decided to use a half-ton of dynamite to blow it up. Heinrich reports that after the explosion a rain of blubber fell down over an 800-foot radius, flattening a car in the process.
Heinrich argues that human folly when faced with death in the nature world is rooted in superstition. The ancient Egyptians worshipped the sacred scarab beetle, Khepri, which they believed rolled the sun god Ra from darkness into light each day. The scarab beetle is truly a fitting metaphor for the cycle of death and new life. It rolls its dung ball to a place in darkness where its larvae feed until they pupate. Ancient people, the author surmises, found the white, seemingly lifeless pupae of the beetles in the ground, which then burst from their enclosure to be "reborn" as the same scarab beetle that died in the earth. Likewise, the ancients wrapped their dead in shrouds and provided food for their journey to the afterlife, believing they would be born again like the scarabs.
We moderns have nothing on the ancients when it comes to irrational beliefs driving our human burial practices. Heinrich reports in the United States alone, burials in 22,500 active cemeteries annually use up 30 million board feet of lumber, more than 100,000 tons of steel, 1,600 tons of reinforced concrete, and nearly one million gallons of embalming fluid. Preserving a human corpse with chemicals that stop decomposition, putting it into a steel capsule and sealing it inside a concrete vault is about as far from natural recycling as one can imagine. Cremation also is not ecologically sound—vaporizing a body by fire emits toxic chemicals into the atmosphere and contribute to greenhouse gases.
Heinrich offers no ideas as to how we might evolve from these unsustainable practices. However, he does refer to the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Jhator, sky burial, in which corpses are dismembered on high places so that birds of prey and other recyclers can dispose of bodies in nature's ways. Buddhist monks use sky burial as a living meditation on death, contemplating the dissolution of the body as a reminder that all life is impermanent and freeing them up to be alive in the present moment. Trying to dispose of our dead in more sustainable, eco-friendly ways will bring us face to face with deep-seated taboos. While I doubt there will be sky burials in the suburbs any time soon, there surely will be increasing pressure for our burials practices to become more green as our planet's billions continue to multiply.
Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death is a great read; it will inform and amuse as well as more than occasionally disgust and perhaps rile you. Reading Heinrich's book brings the reader face to face with his or her own death, which is perhaps the most challenging taboo of all. If we can entertain the truth of our own mortality, perhaps we can discover hidden wisdom as we contemplate the terrible and lovely process of death becoming life anew.