Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature - David Quammen (1996)


Learning Curve

THIS BOOK AS YOU HOLD IT is a chimerical creature, like a griffin, bird-shaped in front with a mammalian caboose. It consists of two asymmetrical but, I hope, complementary halves: a selection of what I take to be the most durable of my recent shorter nonfiction (in the fourth section, titled “After Thoughts”) and a selection of my earliest work in roughly the same vein (sections one through three), most of which appeared in the first edition of Natural Acts, published in 1985. Combining them now in one volume is probably risky, and perhaps presumptuous, but I’d like to think it serves three modest purposes: 1) reviving the best parts of a book that is otherwise out of print, 2) putting back into circulation some recent essays on subjects about which I have strong convictions (such as “Planet of Weeds”), and 3) offering readers evidence by juxtaposition of how one writer might have changed and developed over a period of twenty-six years.

Once I was a young man so blithe and unfettered that I could write the sentence “Biology has great potential as vulgar entertainment.” (See the following “Old, Ingenuous Introduction.”) It was like being a sleek juvenile shark before the remoras of sophistication and judiciousness attached themselves. I had, in those years, only recently blundered into the craft of science journalism. I was unencumbered by experience, professional qualifications, broad knowledge, or a sense of decorum. I had no training in science, but then again I had no training in journalism either.

It all began in the winter of 1980-81, when I wrote a short essay for Outside magazine on the redeeming merits, insofar as there are any, of mosquitoes. I had pitched the idea to the magazine’s editor, John Rasmus, after a long day of fly-fishing in the small Montana town where I then lived. Mr. Rasmus, an august figure (it seemed to me) but even younger than I, was visiting Montana to find and cultivate new voices. Along with Rasmus and a close friend (Stephen Byers, nowadays a New York editor himself), I took off in a johnboat to torment trout on our local stretch of river. After the big rainbows had been subdued and released and the sun had set behind the Gravelly Mountains, Steve and his wife of the time (E. Jean Carroll, now a columnist for Elle) and I softened John up with a ranch-kitchen dinner of whiskey and steak and whiskey. Then I made my pitch: What about a piece on mosquitoes? The upside! The counterintuitive, good things to be said for those noxious insects! Um, okay, said poor Rasmus. Although the whiskey wore off within a day or two, the deal stuck.

My mosquito paean was intended to be a one-off piece. But sometime that winter, after receiving a draft, John called me with an unexpected proposition: Would I be interested in becoming a columnist for Outside, writing regularly on nature and science under the column title (already deployed in the magazine by a previous writer) “Natural Acts”? The mosquito piece, he suggested, could run as the first of my columns and I could follow in the same vein, with whatever nature-related expository and opinionated jive I cared to offer. At that moment, just beginning my efforts at free-lancing, I could scarcely go to the grocery store and buy hamburger without first balancing my checkbook to see exactly where I stood. Yes, I said. Yes, absolutely, I’ll be glad to do it…for a year or two.

Fifteen years passed and, son of a gun, I found I had written about 160 columns. During that time I had been given extraordinary freedom and trust by John Rasmus and his successors, indulged to follow my curiosity virtually wherever it led (so long as each monthly essay had some connection to nature or science) and to educate myself somewhat in the fields of ecology, field biology, and evolutionary theory. I was still an outsider to the biological sciences, a nonexpert with a noneducation, but those areas had become familiar to me as a journalistic beat. You don’t have to be a cop or a burglar to cover the crime stories down at the courthouse, and you don’t have to be a biologist to write about biology. My lack of formal scientific training may even have been an advantage in some ways, leaving me with a fresh eye and an ingenuous ignorance similar to those of the general readers as whose proxy I tried to serve.

My style of research for the early columns, partly conditioned by the fact that I’d never darkened the door of a school of journalism, was roundabout, unsystematic, ruminative as a feral goat, highly dependent on arcane printed materials and personal experience, and, some might say, unprofessional. That is, I didn’t choose a subject, then choose an angle, then call experts on the phone and ask for quotes. Instead, I wandered amid obscure sources (old books, back issues of scientific journals, newspaper clippings, classic texts, fragments of remembered literature) and, whenever possible, wild places (the Amazon headwaters, the Sonoran Desert, the rivers of western Montana) until my attention seized on a fact or a creature that seemed to me both interesting and important. I researched outward from that point, trying to find a broader cultural context, and also downward, more deeply into it; then, usually under severe deadline pressure, I wrote a short essay in a tone of voice meant to seem as immediate and informal as a telephone harangue to my best friend. By embracing the results, the readers of Outside during those years subsidized and encouraged my overdue scientific education. I take this chance to thank them again.

The book Natural Acts, as originally published in 1985, collected about two dozen of those early columns, along with a few longer pieces I had written for Esquire, Audubon, and other magazines. The good people at Nick Lyons Books (and that company’s successor, Lyons and Burford) kept it available in hardback over the years, while a couple of paperback editions came and went. Meanwhile, as I continued writing columns, the character of those short essays gradually changed, becoming (for better or worse) more careful of fact and complexity, more deeply informed by the main themes and principles of ecology and evolutionary biology, possibly more shapely, definitely less naive and blunt. Some of them are gathered in my later collections, such as The Boilerplate Rhino. In 1995, I resigned from the columnist’s role when I reached such a point of exhaustion—exhaustion not with science or with nonfiction, just with that jaunty little form, the column-length essay—that I felt I might start repeating or imitating myself. I hadn’t seen the end coming. I just realized one day, suddenly, as I rewrote a troublesome column, that this was it.

Since then I’ve divided my working time between nonfiction books and magazine pieces of a sort that wasn’t possible within the constraints of a monthly column. Most of the latter have been written for National Geographic and Harper’s, two very different magazines, with very different readerships, that have offered me very different opportunities and satisfactions. One blessing they have both provided is the freedom to spend much more time gathering raw material from the field—out amid the equatorial forests, the snowy mountainsides, and the laboratories where some biologists (see “Clone Your Troubles Away”) do their work. Related to that is another enlarged opportunity: to follow a subject much further and deeper, either in terms of sheer miles walked (“The Megatransect”) or in terms of complexity, than a column allows. In an extended essay or feature-length story, a writer isn’t forced so sternly toward neatness, toward the elliptical comment as opposed to the unfolded thought, toward lapidary concision and punch lines. He has space to walk around a subject, not just up to it.

In the years since I quit the column, I have never regretted ending that hectic and privileged duty. Then again, though, there is something special about a columnist’s ongoing relationship with his audience. Almost necessarily, it becomes personal, at least in its one-sided way. Readers turn to a certain page of the magazine month after month, by habit and affinity, expecting not just information but a familiar human voice. They begin to feel that they know you. They want to hear what you’ve got to say about whatever subject may be in question. This invites an intimacy of tone and an occasional unguarded revelation, a showing of authorial ankle, that can be put to some good uses beyond the legitimate (but perilous) use of sheer autobiography. I accepted that invitation often enough when I was a columnist, maybe too often, and I’ve intruded myself as a major character in a few of the longer pieces here also. Never mind which; you’ll know me when you see me. Whatever those pieces may try to say or whatever they may inadvertently reveal, I hope they’ll suggest that I’ve learned at least a little something over the years besides science.

One truth I’ve learned—big surprise—is that magazine writing comes and goes. Most magazines (even those with august histories, such as Harper’s and National Geographic) have an issue-by-issue hold on our attention that’s shorter than the refrigerator life of an opened jar of mayonnaise. But where else can short nonfiction—the essay, the profile, the adventure narrative, the thoughtful investigation—find its first existence but in magazines? That’s why magazine writers, at least the more presumptuous of us, harbor an unspoken division of purpose: We’re writing for the subscribers, yes, and the people in the barbershops and the dental waiting rooms, yes, but we’re also writing for time, posterity, the shelf. We’re writing for you, who will find us later between stiff covers, without the glossy ads and the resubscription cards.

And that’s why I’m gratified to introduce, for your kindly attention, a book of short nonfiction pieces that in large part I introduced once before, twenty-two years ago. I haven’t entirely expunged the youthful bumptiousness, but this edition is older and at least a little wiser.