The Homing Instinct

flock of birds flying

The Homing Instinct by Bernd Heinrich is a collection of essays on animal migration and home-building and what it means to be at home.

Today’s blog post is the third in my bibliotherapy/self-development series. The idea of home resonated with me when I saw this book at the library because I have moved a fair amount of times between my and my parents’ military relocations, and last year I ended up moving back home to finish my graduate degree. Selling my house was hard, but I am thankful for the support I have here. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make this area feel like home again, now that I am a different stage of life.

So how different is our idea of home from any other animal’s notion? It’s just as different as my idea of home versus yours versus anyone else’s.

Heinrich references many animals who journey great distances between where they live or find food or give birth. So, which is their home – the place they return to, or the place they spend the most time?

The answer becomes more muddled when we realize that home isn’t just where we live.

My idea of home has been less about where it is and more about who it is with. My child, dog, and cats are all part of my family. Growing up, we moved around a few times, so home was where my parents and siblings were.

What does it mean to be home? To have a home and build a home?

“Beaver home-building reminds us that home doesn’t stop at the door of the dwelling. It includes the area from where we secure our resources to live on. The larger the area of their pond, the farther the beavers can range to reach more food in safety. The more the animal can do to make its place habitable, the large the range of habitats it can use.” (p 148)

The concept of home as the entire area where we work, play, and live is important when considering our duties to community and environment. Is our home the house itself, our city, our neighborhood, our state? When we say humans are global citizens, does that have a different connotation than global residents? Does home include where consumables are made, even if we don’t reside there?

It was in the chapter “Architectures of Home” that I made a realization about the word “precocious”. Heinrich doesn’t use that word, but precocial and altricial were new terms to me, and in Googling the word “precocious” to see if they were related, realized I had a misconception of the definition. The below definitions are from Merriam-Webster online.

  • Precocial: capable of a high degree of independent activity from birth
  • Altricial: being hatched or born or having young that are hatched or born in a very immature and helpless condition so as to require care for some time
  • Precocious: 1) exceptionally early in development or occurrence 2) exhibiting mature qualities at an unusually early age

While I appreciated that the ending read like a memoir, I felt like Heinrich’s idea of home left out the women in his life. His mother cooked at the deer camp, and his first wife was not from the area he returned to for permanent residence. (It’s unclear whether his second wife is from that area.) In situations where one party has to give up their childhood home to be at the other person’s, is the idea of “home is where the heart is” enough to make a new house feel like home? How much and in what ways do we have to connect with an area for it to feel like home? How do/did his spouses feel about their “home” that Heinrich recalls so fondly? Undoubtedly, they will not experience it the same way he does. It’s not possible to; they don’t have his memories, only his memoirs.

Human ideas of relationships and family building are not the same as other animals, such as the birds and spiders Heinrich is so rightfully fond of. I recognize the differences of cultures, but his Western idea of human home neglects to reference the homemaking roles that are traditionally supported by women in the house and men outside the house. I can’t assume Heinrich always did/does his own laundry. There are more layers to human’s making a house into a home and the comparison of a man returning to his family’s homestead to the migration of animals returning somewhere to give birth feels a little flat to me.

That is my main criticism of the book, that the author could have written more on how humans’ ideas of home are so different from each other, let alone the rest of the animal world.

Otherwise, the book is very interesting. If you love birds, fish, and/or spiders, this is definitely a book for you. If you have fond memories of deer camp and hunting, you will enjoy his essays towards the end of the book. (Forewarning: there is a little deer gutting scene towards the end, for anyone who may be squeamish.)

The science is there. Heinrich is an accomplished researcher and the way he presents information and shares stories is very engaging. One thing I really appreciated was that Heinrich seems to like the discovery process of knowledge as much as the knowledge itself.

The Homing Instinct has a 3.71 Goodreads rating and a 4.5 Amazon rating. I would say it is worth reading, and (perhaps it goes without saying) I preferred the chapters about other animals over the ones at the end. But his time at that cabin has greatly informed him as a person and a writer; it cannot be discounted. I am interested in Heinrich’s works about ravens, Mind of the Raven and Raven in Winter – which I think sound like great companions to Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt – as well as Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death.

Learn more about Bernd Heinrich and his work at the following:

  • PBS Interview: Bernd Heinrich on his ‘unusual’ life as a runner and biologist in Maine
  • Outside: Seeking the Lost Art of Growing Old with Intention
  • Books on Goodreads
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On a mission to explore the relationship between literature and nature.

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