Why We Run: A Natural History - Bernd Heinrich (2002)

Chapter 4. Back to the Beginning

Every parting gives a foretaste of death, every reunion a hint of resurrection.

—ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER, German philosopher

How does a grown man convince himself to spend money and precious time to run himself half to death along the Chicago lakeshore? I asked myself this question during the race, even as I have probably asked it a hundred times since. I came up only with rationalizations. Now, as I look back, I know that part of the answer is that I simply love to run. Perhaps that love seeped into my bones back in my childhood, when I ran on that sandy wooded road chasing shiny, metallic-green tiger beetles. I owe much to that tranquil sylvan existence, where the forest was my playpen. I must therefore take you back there with me, to revisit my forest.

I remember a visit to that special place, touching down at daybreak on a flight from Boston, then an hour or so later, traveling on a bus toward Trittau over the flat northern German countryside. I’m returning for the first time to see a world that had for years become (or remained) a dreamlike fairyland in my memory. But Trittau does exist—I see a sign that tells me so, then some shops, linden trees, thatched roofs, bright redbrick houses, and tidy grainfields. Coming down a slight hill, I see something familiar about the curve of the road.

The bus stops. I’m in Trittau. I stand dazed, trying to get my bearings. At the corner, just across the street from the bus stop, is a Chinese restaurant, where once stood the grammar school I went to, with its dreary, bare classrooms and a big gray yard. I remember the boy on the bench next to me who had spilled some ink, who was called up in front of the class, where he had to extend his hand as the teacher whacked it repeatedly with a ruler. The boy didn’t make a sound.

The hotel across from where the school used to be is still there. Customers are sitting around tables, ordering beer already at noon. The row of horse chestnut trees along the nearby stonemasonry wall looks familiar, too. I imagine a thin, undersized boy who, from ages five to ten, had lived in a one-room cabin with his family in the adjoining large forest. To me he seems like someone else. With his sister, Marianne, who was one year younger, he daily walked or jogged by those trees, which marked the end of their morning two-mile excursion through the woods to town. Once he’d taken a train ride with his father from here to the nearby city of Hamburg. There was bombed-out rubble as far as the eye could see. Nothing green. He remembered hearing about people who, after the bombing and firestorms, got trapped underground, for years, in a storeroom containing nothing but bags of flour. They buried their dead in that flour to squelch the stink of rotting flesh, as they died one by one. He remembered the frightening sound of airplanes. Ever since, he thought that cities were targets, to be avoided at all costs. He loved the forest. Was that boy really me? If so, I would remember those woods. They would not have changed.

The forest was then called the Hahnheide (literally, Rooster’s or Fowl’s Heath), though the name would later be changed to Schwarmarner Schweiz and it would be designated a nature reserve. I am eager to revisit my old haunts, but I first walk across the once cobblestoned street, which is paved now, to have lunch first. I sit at an unoccupied table in the courtyard at the hotel, order beer, schnitzel, and fries from the busy waitress. I try to remember what the forest looked like, how it smelled, sounded, and felt.

Where is that tiny cabin hidden deep in the forest where we lived so many years when I’d been a companion to crows and a collector of carabid beetles I had called Lauf, or running, beetles? Wisps of memory come back. Like the fragmented notes of a song learned long ago, they flicker and then fade. Each wisp of memory leads on to the next stanza.

I pick up my knapsack and walk the now almost familiar route along the stone wall and the horse chestnut trees. Less than a hundred yards later, I’m at an old redbrick gristmill by the linden trees along the pond. This mill had once been powered by water from the dam with a huge wooden water-wheel. Here we sold the beechnuts we had gathered in the forest, which were later pressed into oil for margarine.

I am surprised to see the old brick mill still standing next to the pond, but in more detail and with enchantment I remember coots and gray green-footed, secretive moorhen that had nested in the dense tangle of phragmites and willows along the edge of the mill pond. Sedge warblers sang here, and I had found magic in the several kinds of bird nests that were revealed in my eager explorations.

My steps speed up as I continue up the slight rise to the Stolzenberg place. This estate had been our destination when I was a four-year-old and our family had fled the much-feared Russian troops advancing from the east. We’d miraculously arrived here unharmed, having experienced a series of the most unlikely and improbable adventures, which for decades thereafter etched and almost defined our identities.

How lucky we had been! We escaped the Russian army in a three-month journey from near Gdansk that included leaving in the night, riding in a horse-drawn sleigh and, before the end, also a wagon pulled by two horses, a truck, a cattle train, a sojourn with an outgunned and surrounded German army panzer tank unit, and escaped in the wreck of a Junker’s airplane with only one propeller that almost didn’t take off and that got shot at. We made it! Other refugees, who had flooded west earlier, when the going was easier, had arrived before us. Instead of a room at the Stolzenbergs’, who were acquaintances of my father, we got temporary shelter in an open shed in a nearby cow pasture. It was spring then, and close to the end of the war. It was from that shelter that Papa and Mamusha explored the forest and found the abandoned one-room hut that would be our home until we came to America, to settle on a decaying farm in Maine.

Back then, I had walked or jogged by the Stolzenberg mansion on the way to and from school. The place had always looked spooky and deserted, covered with ivy and surrounded by old cherry trees growing in the unkempt yard. On the second floor lived a boy slightly older than I, who scavenged pieces of lead by leaning out the top window and chewing it off the drainpipe. We used the lead to shoot birds with the slingshots we’d made from carefully selected tree limb forks and red rubber from a discarded inner tube. Frau von Gordon, who like us was also a refugee from East Prussia, had a room on the ground floor. She smoked cigars made from homegrown tobacco, and she walked in a slouch. Her three sons and her husband had all been killed in the war.

I have no idea who is living in the house now, but I’m still drawn to it. It looks even more dilapidated than I remember, not surprising for the passage of decades. I walk along the brick path under the same old cherry trees, and hesitatingly knock on the large wooden back door. There is no answer. I knock again. Slowly, laboriously, wooden-sounding steps descend stairs. A pause. The door opens a crack. An ancient woman peeks out, looking at me blankly. I tell her in German that I’m one of the five Heinriches (sometimes six) who lived for six years after the war in the one-room hut out in the Hahnheide. She stares, remains silent, and closes the door. Perhaps her life is still tinged with danger.

I walk on along the path by the old railroad tracks, toward the tiny station house where the monstrous black steam-whistling locomotive stopped. Both the track and station house are gone, but a bike path remains. I had come by here twice daily. One day I had made the round trip twice. Papa had sold some wood from pine stumps he had dug out of the ground, and I’d been given cash and told to stop and buy bread at the village bakery on my way back from school. But I came back empty-handed. Forgetting was no excuse. I had to turn around and go back again, in order to learn that if you don’t have it in your head, then you must have it in your legs—a good theory, but more running never helped me get less spacey. Just possibly it made me a better runner.

My intuition tells me that it takes no special effort of running early in life to become a great runner later. There are hardly more impressive runners than Bruce Bickford, who grew up on a farm in central Maine and who did not do much exercise beyond plenty of farm chores until he took up cross-country in his sophomore year of high school, when he immediately became a world-class runner. Similarly, Joan Benoit Samuelson of Freeport, Maine, one of the world’s greatest women marathoners in history, did not formally begin to run until high school, at age sixteen. On the other hand, Andrew Sockalexis, a famous runner in the early part of the twentieth century, took up running at age ten, when his father, on the Penobscot Indian Reservation at Old Town, Maine, built him a running track near his house to train on. Perhaps running, unlike weight events, involves relatively little restructuring of the body from what it is designed to do already, given the genetic raw material, proper nutrition, and a few simple instructions. The question is, what is the raw material and what are the environmental triggers, or “instructions”?

I don’t remember all my instructions, but I do remember one day as it was getting late when I was on my way home to our hut and I saw a man in the road up ahead of me. I bolted in fright into the woods to make a major detour because I had never seen anyone on “our” road before—it was a path leading to nowhere. I was late because I had been dawdling, gnawing off several flakes of crust from the bread I had bought. I knew this to be a lapse in morals since I was never supposed to eat anything except what I was given at meals. I was not anxious to face the consequences of having given in to temptation. It was then, with bread crust in my mouth, that I had dreamed of paradise, a place where you could eat whatever and whenever you wished. I distinctly remember the place in the road where I was thinking of fried chicken as possibly the defining ingredient of heaven, when the man in the road loomed up ahead. Ultimately, however, I remember this forest as a heaven because of its insects, plants, and animals that all became magnified in my mind, so that I saw them with wonder in their exquisite and beautiful detail.

Now I hurry up the hill past the house where Forester Grützmann used to live. Seeing Marianne and me pass by here twice a day, he used to call us Hansel and Gretel. Forester Grützmann had for many years reared caterpillars in cages in a shed by his house. Papa, whose passion was collecting parasitic ichneumon wasps (commonly called “flies”), had taken the wasps that sometimes emerged from the moth pupae and started a new collection. His old collection, representing his life work, had been left buried in metal boxes somewhere in a secret hiding place in a forest back home in East Prussia (now Poland), from which it was retrieved intact decades later. Papa later sent Forester Grützmann some moss specimens from Maine for his moss collection. The forester had been important to us because he owned a shotgun, and he took Papa out to hunt birds. I usually tagged along, and I’d sometimes act like a retriever to recover fallen birds. Mamusha then skinned the birds and made them into museum mounts. Papa then sold them to the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, and other museums. Although the war was over, Germany was still shunned by the world. No mail and no foreign travel were allowed. An intermediary, a Dutch friend, mailed our catch overseas. During these outings, I saw up close for the first time the marvel of birds, a beauty that was only suggested by seeing them from a distance. With Grützmann we also hunted caterpillars in the summer by laying a sheet under a small tree and then whacking the tree, catching whatever fell out. Surprising creatures always fell out of the trees, and what I learned in those years still enriches my life.

Herr Grützmann, being the forester, had a car. One day he drove it slowly up the sandy road toward our cabin as Marianne and I were coming home from school, and I ran eagerly alongside. It was summer, and I was barefoot as always, feeling the warmth and soft texture of the sand with my toes. I often ran on my way to and from school, although I had to stop frequently to watch ants or sand wasps, or to wait for Marianne to catch up. I always felt like running, and on that day I raced Forester Grützmann’s car. When we got to the bend in the road, where the hidden footpath led into the forest to our cabin, I was still with him. He stopped the car, got out, and seemingly surprised to see me, he made some comment about my running.

Memories flood back. Looking down, I almost expect to see bare little feet. But it’s not the late 1940s. I’m wearing my dirty Nike Mariah running shoes with dark blue trim that I wore in the 100-kilometer race in Chicago. Each shoe has three razor-cut holes I added for extra ventilation and to reduce weight at the front. Along the side, I wrote in already fading ballpoint pen the finishing times of my best races. These numbers represent important points of my life, and here I suddenly see the past and the present merge and connect.

Movement is the essence of life. I moved then because I wanted to go from one place to another. I did it with my legs. So did other creatures. My favorites, the carabids, or running beetles, ran fast in a beautiful coordinated stride, somehow making their six legs work in precise coordination. Most carabids were nocturnal predators. However, one group of them, the beautifully iridescent green cicindelids, or tiger beetles, were active in the day. They seek sunshine. I saw them in the spring on this same sandy patch of our road. There were many of them. When I came close to one, it would run so fast that its thread-thin legs were a blur. When I got closer still, it would take off, flying close over the sand down the road ahead. I’d often speed up, trying to outrun the beetle as it raced on like a bright green jewel. The beetles flew faster than I could run, landing far ahead. I would catch up and begin the chase again, but I could never quite catch one of these beetles on a warm and sunny day. On overcast days they did not generally show themselves, but if one did, it was at a disadvantage. Not heated up by the sun, it was a slow runner, and it could not fly at all. The beetle, which before had easily outdistanced me, was now suddenly within my grasp. After discovering their Achilles’ heel, I captured one for my growing beetle collection, among which the running beetles were my favorites.

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Running tiger beetle

Leg speed in beetles is, as in humans, dependent on both body build and muscle temperature. African dung beetles, in their large diversity of body build and thermal strategies, provide an excellent demonstration. There are some species that remind one of chunky, muscular weight lifters with their round bodies and thick, short legs. Their leg speed is very slow, but their strength is so great that they can tunnel through solid earth with ease. Other species have thin legs, and these gracile forms run fast, provided their leg muscles are at a high enough temperature. Running velocity increases 400 percent as temperature increases from 28°C (82°F) to 35°C (95°F) when the fastest dung beetles achieve velocities of about 25 centimeters per second. Tiger beetles run five times faster than this, even at the same body temperatures, probably because they have much longer and spindlier legs than even the fastest dung beetles. Tiger beetles stay in sunshine to maintain a high body temperature by basking, and if they are hot enough they may fly instead of run, thereby achieving another huge upgrade in speed. We, and many other beetles, stay warm by shivering, so we can move fast without depending on direct sunshine. Thus, I could catch the nonshivering tiger beetles on any cloudy day.

Now, revisiting this childhood place in Germany, I do not at first recognize the forest. The young trees have grown much. But I am surprised at how familiar the road seems. Jogging along, I see at first only a few snapshots of what the forest used to be, but the deeper I go into the forest, the more my mental images merge with the reality of the past. The wood pigeons coo, a jay screams raucously, a raven croaks. The chaffinches and the chiffchaffs sing. After I reach the small sandy road where I ran barefoot to chase tiger beetles and Grützmann’s car, I know I’ll soon be home.

I barely turn onto the sandy road when I see a large, blackish carabid beetle running along ahead of me. Strange, because this is one of the nocturnal species that fell into the pits in the ground that Papa used to dig to catch small mammals, whose meat we ate and whose skins Papa sold to museums. I didn’t recall ever seeing beetles of this particular species in the daytime, and to see one now present itself to me after all those years almost seems magical. I pick it up, smell its acrid defense secretions, put it back down to let it run on, and then continue to jog on myself.

I’m anxious to round the next curve, past the slight rise where the bees and wasps used to tunnel in the sand and where I once found a nest containing two plump young wood pigeons in the pines. These squab tasted even better than the fried chicken of my imagination. Here is the place where the small gurgling brook paved with black stones passes under the road, where I’d caught red-specked brown trout on their way up to spawn.

Is this really the brook? Where is the tiny footpath along mossy banks that led into the forest to the cabin? I suddenly recognize the alder tree where I had found a lichen-camouflaged, baglike nest of a tiny long-tailed tit. I stop. The brook and the places where Marianne found a dead elk and I a wild boar are coming into focus. I’ve found it! I see the still-faint impression of a footpath into the woods! The hut would be just around the corner, up a slight rise through some beech and pine trees.

When I saw the footpath, I came to a sudden halt. The past flashed over me like a hot breath from nowhere, and it wilted me on the spot. I stumbled, buckled over, and sobbed uncontrollably. I could not stop shuddering for a long time. Maybe I saw a stranger—of the past—on that path, and that stranger was me. But it could have been anyone. And with that second realization I saw kids everywhere, whose fates are determined so profoundly by seemingly insignificant trifles.

When we left the Hahnheide and came to America, in the early spring of 1951, it seemed to me we might as well have been departing on a one-way rocket trip to the moon rather than on a steamboat across the Atlantic. The possibility of ever coming back never occurred to me at that young age. We were alive and had lived from one day to the next. Here we’d found serenity and beauty, after escaping violence and the specter of war. We’d bypassed the mainstream, and I’d got a head start in life because I had learned basics—life cycles of moths, the needs and manners of a baby crow, and the joy of running after tiger beetles through warm sand on bare, tough-soled feet.