Heinrich (Biology Emeritus/Univ. of Vermont; The Nesting Season: Cuckoos, Cuckolds and the Invention of Monogamy, 2010, etc.) explores the taboos and relevance of scavengers, the “life-giving links that keep nature’s systems humming along smoothly.”
After a friend asked if he could be buried on the author’s woodland property in Maine, he reexamined his curiosity with the natural world: watching burying beetles for hours, sawing through a log to track the progress of beetle larvae, tracking and feeding local ravens. Heinrich presents five major sections outlining how bodies and plants are recycled and broken down: small to large (beetles to raptors and ravens to humans, the ultimate recyclers), north to south (ravens to vultures and condors), plant undertakers (tree borers to dung beetles), watery deaths (salmon, whales and other marine species) and changes (metamorphosis and death rituals). Above all, temperature affects how and what breaks down carrion as the flies and insects of summer are replaced by various birds in the winter. The author also tracks how trees decompose, a process that often begins before they die. Heinrich’s main strength is his narration of the small stories—e.g., whale falls, dung beetles and ravens feeding. As a warning, he notes that extinctions have hit animal undertakers especially hard since vast herds of ungulates (deer, elk, bison) are no longer available. Heinrich maintains a conversational tone, but some of the chapters seem disparate, written at different times with different audiences in mind. Helpful author illustrations pepper the book.
If you can’t spend an afternoon watching beetles and hearing Heinrich’s stories on how nature recycles its dead, this book is the next best thing.