Book Review: In a Patch of Fireweed

A while ago, Steph kindly posted her plans for biology  for next year. Her daughter is going to be beginning highschool and she posted her draft plans seeking input. I think I’ve mentioned before that one of the things I like about Steph’s plans are that she always includes reading lists for herself. On this plan I noticed the book In a Patch of Fireweed by Bernd Heinrich. Actually it was the subtitle that caught my eye — A Biologist’s Life in the Field. I figured that this might be a good introduction to the discipline of biology, in the sense of the code of behaviour by which they “do” science.

I really enjoyed this book. It is beautifully written. (The link has a “search inside” so you can even read some of the first chapter.) And though the intended audience is adult, I think it would make a great read aloud for older children and teens, particularly for those of us who choose read-alouds that might be challenging for our kids to read themselves but that we think they will get a lot out of if they are not also concentrating on try to read it. The book is illustrated by the author’s own sketches, all of which are beautiful. We haven’t been doing nature journalling but if you have, there is lots in here that would help make the link from that practice to more rigorous science.

The book is a good combination of autobiography, nature journal, and reporting of scientific experiments. It’s real value is in demonstrating some of the invisible parts of the scientific process — how did you come to ask those questions? And how did you get from a field observation to a scientific study? Why did you collect that data and what do the statistics add that field observation without counting didn’t give you? That sort of thing. As such, I would recommend this book for anyone, not just those who are homeschooling (highschool). It has often been said that public knowledge of science is woefully inadequate and this book would be a pleasant way to get a better sense of how scientists see the world, how they think, and how they “do” science.

For those who are interested in insects, the book will be even more exciting. The subject matter of many of the chapters is beetles, moths, wasps and bees. While Heinrich is clearly fascinated by the natural world in general, he focuses on insects. He asks questions that might never occur to the rest of us, though, and makes insects more interesting for those of us who have never given them much thought.

For those who are homeschooling highschool, this book would make a good transition from elementary science, where the focus is on awareness of the world, close observation, and some general knowledge of processes, to secondary science, where more rigorous scientific method should be introduced. Whether or not nature journalling has been part of your homeschool, this book suggests to me that it would be a good practice as part of a field biology course (or course component) and gives good suggestions about how you would go beyond those field observations to develop a more rigorous observational study, collect some quantitative data, and/or do more library research.

And for those whose children are attending highschool, this book might provide some useful insights into the practice of biology that would enable you to help them if they are having some difficulty. We often notice that text-books skip what seems to be important contextual information in the rush to get through the requisite topics. Heinrich’s book would be an enjoyable way of renewing a sense of what biology is about that might enable you to help your kids get over whatever conceptual hurdles they are facing. Or just give them a different take on the subject that might inspire them to struggle through.

If you need a good, short example of why we sometimes need to count things and why quantitative data and graphs can be useful, I recommend the chapter ” Counting Yellowjackets”. The main argument in this chapter is for the value of quantitative data as close observation.

And the first chapter, “Flight into the Forest”, would fit well in a history syllabus about WWII. Although it’s purpose in the book is to describe how the author developed his fascination with the natural world, a fascination that developed into a career as a field biologist, it also serves well as a story of how one particular German family survived the war. And an interesting story it is, too. (That’s why I’ve put it in the history category.)

When I first came across the reference, I was somewhat annoyed that my public library had many books by Heinrich but not this one. I am glad I was forced to purchase it. I think it may be read by everyone in the house eventually, perhaps more than once.  And I am now keen to explore some of his other works, many of which are in my library.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: In a Patch of Fireweed

  1. Thank you for reviewing this book! I was intrigued enough to put it on my list but never read it — *LOL* — Now I am really eager to get my hands on it. Your review is excellent, and I like your point about making the transition from elementary science to high school skills.

    BTW, I also appreciated the link you posted on the creative home schooling list; I bookmarked it. I have not considered the possibility of Sarah needing special accomodations for college, but it is a possibility. As I mentioned on my blog, we’re going to be spending a lot of time working on “school skills” (listening to lectures, taking notes, testing — including timed essays, etc.) I guess that will help me get a handle on what may or may not be issues four years down the road.

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  2. What perfect timing! We are headed to a week-long UU Family Conference on Star Island (off the coast of NH) in 10 days, and Bernd Heinrich is the guest speaker. I have just requested 3 of his books from the library to look over (although not this particular one) and I really look forward to hearing him give some talks on his work.

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  3. Thanks for the review! We are only doing elementary biology this autumn, but I am assembling a reading list for myself for a little self-education alongside my daughter and this sounds like a great addition to my list.

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