REVIEW: "Winter World" by Bernd Heinrich

  • Posted on: 16 February 2015
  • By: TedG

2/16/15, 2:36 PM. Thanks to Emily Stone for correcting some of my attributions and for expanding on some points.

Subnivean: “Beneath the snow.” From the Latin “nivalis” or “niveus” for “snow.” I love that word. I meant to ask the group if they knew what it meant after having read the book. I forgot to do that, so I’ll just write it here. Subnivean. Go forth and use the world wisely and well.


A common first impression among the eight people who gathered to discuss Winter World was, “Why would we read a reference book?” Irv, as he was nearing the end of the book and his wife asked how it was replied, “It’s a really enjoyable text book.” However, to a man, everyone found the book to be more enjoyable and more interesting than they were expecting.

Jack was the one who ran counter to the text book impression, as this was the fourth time he’s read the book! “It’s not spoon-fed science,” he said, “It’s based on Heinrich’s personal experience.” And Heinrich writes in a way that draws the reader in to the mysteries that he is probing, investigations that he does simply and elegantly and then relates to the page in clean, crisp language.

Ted (who did not read the book, but is a fan of Heinrich’s) offered Ravens in Winter (1991) as another great example of Heinrich’s mind at work as well as his writing. Jack agreed, saying that Mind of the Raven (1999) is also good, perhaps his best book.

In a stunning break from our tradition of manly solidarity, we invited a woman to our meeting. Emily Stone is the Naturalist/Education Director at the Cable Natural History Museum, which by itself is credential enough to help a group like us appreciate a book about how the natural world deals with winter. But Emily was also a student of Bernd Heinrich’s when she attended the University of Vermont, so she has unique and personal insights to share about Heinrich’s writing and the way he approaches science.

“He’s not sentimental in the least,” Jack noted. Emily agreed, saying that, for all his obvious love of the natural world, Heinrich does not hesitate to freeze cluster flies, thaw them out, and then freeze them again, just to measure their physiological responses to hot and cold. Nor did he shy away from criticism over shooting golden-crowned kinglets so he could measure their rectal temperatures and discover the contents of their stomachs.

He’s also an athlete with an unstoppable mind (“Some people say Bernd only drinks beer and coffee”), which was the subject of another book––Why We Run (2002), and which Emily recommended to the group. In it, Heinrich, who is training for an ultramarathon at the time, delves into animal physiology and how it applies to the training he is doing.

A Year in the Maine Woods (1994) was also noted as a good read.

Emily did note that Heinrich may not be as passionate about his most recent books as what he was writing in Winter World. The science in Winter World was gathered over years of romping around his cabin, often with students like Emily herself in tow. Some newer books tend to focus more on far-away places, and other people’s research instead of his own observations. She thought this might have to do with a writing schedule imposed on him by the publisher, which might be much more rushed than Heinrich would prefer. She is quick to add that this does not detract from the quality of his books overall. Heinrich’s observations are still sharp, and his writing is still outstanding.

As we wound up our discussion, it was suggested that we might read this book’s companion volume, Summer World (2009), and invite Emily back. We also enthused over her own writing project, (a compilation of her Natural Connections newspaper columns) which we look forward to seeing on the shelf someday.

Interest in Winter World averaged 4.75 (out of 5), and Readability averaged 4.3. Everyone said they would read another book by Heinrich, with Jack giving the first ever “Absolutely,” foregoing the simple Yes or No answer.

Our next meeting is Thursday, 12 March, at which we will discuss The Circle by Dave Eggers. Be warned, though, Ron is already grumping about the book, saying he doesn’t look forward to it. He had a seriously skeptical look on his face when I told him that I think Bev had suggested it. Emily left quickly thereafter. Our manly solidarity was restored.