Places Wilder and Less Traveled
Interview by Simmons B. Buntin
About Author David Quammen
DDavid Quammen is the author of eleven books including, most recently, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of his Theory of Evolution. His 1996 book, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, won the John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing and several other awards, and he has three times received the National Magazine Award for his essays and other short work. He is a Contributing Writer for National Geographic Magazine, and presently holds the Wallace Stegner Chair in Western American Studies at Montana State University. He lives in Bozeman, Montana, with his wife, Betsy Gaines, a conservationist.
Terrain.org: The award-winning Natural Acts column appeared in Outside magazine from 1981 to 1996, totaling 160 essays. How did the columns get started? What does it mean to have the essays serialized in books (Natural Acts and The Flight of the Iguana)? Do you have “favorites” from those columns, and if so, which essays?
David Quammen: It began when I met John Rasmus, then editor of Outside, during a summer visit he made to Montana. Two friends and I, all three of us starving freelancers just trying to get started, entertained John for a day of fishing, then an evening of steaks and whiskey in their farmhouse. (The two friends, married then, were E. Jean Carroll—now a columnist for Elle—and Steve Byers, now an editor at National Geographic Adventure.) By the end of the evening we were all great pals. That didn’t get me into Outside but gave me the opportunity to pitch an idea to John. The idea was: an essay on the theme “What’s good about mosquitoes?” I wrote it, John loved it and asked me to take over the Natural Acts column. The mosquito piece became my first column, under the title “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Collecting magazine essays into books gives the writer the best of two formats: the large audience of the magazine, the long shelf life of the book. Also, in the book version, you can give credit to the various sources, bibliographical and human, that have made the piece possible. Can’t do that much in a magazine.
My favorites? They would probably include “The Same River Twice,” about those years when I lived in a small river town, with Steve and Jean my two closest friends, and maybe “Love in the Age of Relativity,” a piece on clocks and Einsteinian ideas that revolves around my parents’ 50th anniversary. “Chambers of Memory” is another for which my affection has endured—reflecting my years of obsession with William Faulkner, and a thank-you to one of my early influences, the television reporter Hughes Rudd.
Terrain.org: Who are your literary influences and inspirations? Do you have any political influences? Teachers who made the largest impact in your life? Family members who did or continue to influence your work?
David Quammen: My strongest literary influence, throughout life, has been Faulkner. Started reading him as a sophomore in college, got utterly hooked, buried myself in his work for years. That was when I wanted to be a novelist myself (and, in fact, I started my writing career as a novelist). Did my graduate degree on questions of structure in Faulkner’s novels. As I’ve said elsewhere (I think), I probably couldn’t have handled the structural challenges of writing The Song of the Dodo (those readers who think it’s a structureless bag of information and travels are wrong) if I hadn’t studied Faulkner.
I had three very important teachers: Two Jesuits (in high school) and Robert Penn Warren (who taught me and befriended me while I was an undergraduate at Yale). Political influences? Maybe Saul Alinsky, indirectly, by way of another Jesuit friend. I’m not much for speaking of heroes, but if I have political heroes they are: Dick Gregory and George McGovern. Tells you what generation and milieu I come from, I guess.
Family members: Two saintly parents who have supported every quixotic ambition and crackpot adventure into which I’ve ever gotten diverted. Two sisters, equally supportive. My parents are now in their 90s, and we’re still a close group of five.
David Quammen: Species go extinct because their populations have fallen to low numbers, for one reason or another, and then something bad happens. Islands have been the preeminent sort of loci for extinction because (among other reasons) populations are generally held at low levels by the constraints of area. I could fill page after page explaining this further, but I won’t. That’s why I wrote the book.
Terrain.org: What is “island biogeography?” In researching it, did you change how you define the term “island?” Do you have a favorite island—from your eight-year journey in writing The Song of the Dodo or otherwise?
David Quammen: I didn’t change the definition of “island.” I merely reported and explained the fact that ecologists, beginning in the 1960s, had recognized that habit fragments of any sort represent islands, as far as the processes of community structure and extinction are concerned. E.O. Wilson and Robert MacArthur were the two young ecologists who, in 1963, brought this important realization forward to the scientific world.
Favorite island? Very hard to say. Madagascar is extraordinary, and I had wanted to go there for a long time before I embarked on The Song of the Dodo. I received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1988 for work on the book, and the first thing I did with that money was buy a ticket to Madagascar. I also love Indonesia (that’s 13,000 islands) and Tasmania. Admission: Despite eight years of work on islands for Dodo, I have never been to the Caribbean. (I don’t go to Europe often, either. I like places somewhat wilder and less traveled.)
Terrain.org: In January, I am chairing a panel titled “The Future of the Environmental Essay.” Alison Hawthorne Deming, David Gessner, David Rothenberg, and Lauret Savoy will each present their perspective. What do you think the future of environmental essay holds? What are your thoughts on the term “environmental essay” compared, say, to “nature writing” or “writing on place?” Within this genre, what is most critical for you as a writer and reader?
David Quammen: With all due respect to your panel, Simmons, “environmental essay” is not a term I would ever use for anything I write, or anything I take pleasure in reading. If I do read anything that justly deserves that label, I’d be doing it from a sense of duty, not literary interest. I’m a crank on this subject: I also loathe the term “nature writing,” or anyway loathe having it applied to what I do. What term, if any, does apply? I dunno. None that I’m fully comfortable with. I write nonfiction. Often on the subjects of evolutionary theory, field biology, ecology, and conservation. I also write sometimes about political history and travel. The underlying theme of much of what I do is: the yin and yang of landscape and human history. That is, I’m interested in the ways landscape shapes human history and the ways human history shapes landscape.
Terrain.org: In a conversation with David Thomas Sumner in 2001, you say of environmental literature that “the writers who work in this vein have a responsibility similar to any nonfiction writer: be accurate, be interesting, be graceful—provide good reading—and write about things that are real and important, as you see them.” Accuracy is under the public microscope these days; but which is more important: fact or truth (or Truth, with a capital T)? Can they be separated? Is nonfiction an art form like fiction or poetry, and therefore the pursuit of Truth is the ultimate goal, even at the expense of accuracy? Or does nonfiction maintain a higher standard precisely because it’s not fiction or poetry (or advertising or television, etc.)?
David Quammen: Fact or truth, yeah, that question. I utterly distrust the word “truth.” I detest it when writers claim they are hedging on factuality in service to “higher truth.” Or sometimes it’s “the essential truth of a situation.” Bullshit. Nonfiction should be composed, artfully but conscientiously, like a mosaic, from bits of accurate fact. Is it an art form? well, it can be, it should be. Artful, imaginative, accurate: this combination of adjectives is not contradictory. Readers should demand this of their nonfiction, and not settle for self-indulgent, falsified jive.
The form in which this boundary has been most egregiously violated recently is the memoir. Ugh.
Terrain.org: “Following scientists in the field and describing their work has taught me,” you’ve said, “that most scientists detest journalists, for good reason.” Why do most scientists detest journalists? What responsibility does the journalist have to the scientist, and what responsibility does the scientist have to the journalist and, perhaps, to the broader public?
David Quammen: Most scientists detest most journalists because too many (I won’t say most) journalists are careless of accuracy and lazy about doing their homework and double-checking their facts.
The journalist’s responsibility to a scientist is, in exchange for time spent and access, to make every effort to achieve accuracy within the limitation on precision imposed by the publication and the audience. A journalist who doesn’t understand the difference between precision and accuracy should stay away from science; write about Paris Hilton or… other analogies fail me. I guess that’s because a journalist who doesn’t understand the distinction between precision and accuracy shouldn’t write about anything, not the NFL, not NASCAR, not politics.
Rant, rant…. Where was I? The scientist has no responsibility to the journalist, except perhaps decent civility in saying yes or no to an interview. If the scientist says yes, then it’s not so much a new responsibility as an opportunity that has opened: an opportunity to see his or her work explained to the general public. Then the scientist should try to appreciate the inherent limits to precision, while not lowering his or her expectations that the result should be an accurate story.
Terrain.org: With your interest over the last two decades in evolutionary biology, was it only natural to write The Reluctant Mr. Darwin? What made you decide to write the biography, especially after spending so much time and attention on Alfred Russel Wallace in The Song of the Dodo? Does Wallace likewise deserve such a rich biography now?
David Quammen: I wrote the Darwin book because I was asked to do Darwin for a series of short biographies, the “Penguin Lives.” James Atlas, an old friend of mine, invented that series. Do Darwin, he said. You’re kidding, I said, me? Absolutely, he said, I don’t want a lifetime Darwin scholar, I want your conscientious attention to the story and the work, and your voice. Then Jim parted ways with Penguin, before I’d gotten my book written, and he invited me to bring it with him to another series, W.W. Norton’s “Great Discoveries,” that he had just founded. If Jim hadn’t persuaded me that a radically concise, essayistic life of Darwin was something the world needed, I never would have presumed to throw myself at that subject.
Alfred Wallace has gotten several pretty good biographical treatments in recent years. He’s a wonderful character. Does he deserve an excellent new biography? yes, I suppose so, but it’s not as though readers can’t currently read about him if they want to.
Having told the Darwin-Wallace story in The Song of the Dodo mostly from Wallace’s side, I enjoyed retelling the same story in The Reluctant Mr. Darwin from Darwin’s side. There was no inconsistency or change of sympathy in this. It was merely a matter of different perspective, context, and emphasis.
Terrain.org: What are the challenges and rewards in writing biography—or at least in writing the specific biography of Charles Darwin?
David Quammen: The big challenges in doing a biography of Darwin are 1) the material is vast, and 2) many other biographies, some of them long and excellent, have been done.
Biography in general is a wonderful form for both readers and writers, and I’d gladly do it again. I’m presently running a seminar on short biography within the history department at Montana State University, and the readings for last night were Plutarch’s Alcibiades, Samuel Johnson’s The Life of Richard Savage, and Lytton Strachey’s “Florence Nightingale“. We had a fine old time discussing these three wonderful pieces of writing.
Terrain.org: You are a conservationist, not an environmentalist. What’s the difference?
David Quammen: I’m both, but I frequently try to remind people that these are two distinct things. Environmentalism is mainly concerned with treating the world as a context for Homo sapiens and worrying about the pollution and other changes that cause harm to our species. Conservation is concerned with maintaining biological diversity and the integrity of ecosystems. It’s possible (at least in the short term) to have clean water and clean air but still be allowing tragic losses of biological diversity.
As Michael Soulé has (I think) said: Environmentalism is about getting lead out of paint. Conservation is about saving species, populations, and ecosystems.
Terrain.org: You have noted that evolution is not incompatible with Christianity, but that Darwinian evolution is. How so? Is a common ground necessary, not so much from a religious perspective, but from habitat and species preservation perspectives?
David Quammen: This is a huge question. Two huge questions. The short answer to #1 is: Darwin’s theory as articulated by Darwin is incompatible with Christian orthodoxy, in my view, because evolution by natural selection depends on random variation within populations; whereas the (Christian) notion that humans have a special spiritual status within creation, with opportunities and responsibilities that will send them to heaven or hell after death (and no such immortal consequences for earthworms or beetles), is dependent on the notion that God either created humans especially or else “guided” evolution to produce these special beings with whom he engages such a contract. If evolution is “guided,” it’s not Darwinian evolution.
Is common ground necessary, or at least desirable, for the sake of conservation? Yes. Ed Wilson is working on that front. So is my wife, Betsy Gaines. And others. I hope their efforts are fruitful.
Terrain.org: “If environmentalists are responsible for leading the fight to preserve species, to stave off the sixth great extinction, to prevent habitats from being chopped up into tiny pieces that can’t support viable populations,” you say, “then they need to understand how evolution functions.” What are your recommendations for getting environmentalists—and the general public—to understand evolution? Is it more than teaching principles of evolution at school? Is the lack of a working knowledge of evolution, and perhaps more broadly ecology or basic biology, a national crisis? Should it be?
David Quammen: People shouldn’t be afraid to read Darwin himself. That’s one of the points I try to make in The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. Everybody treats “Darwinian” and “Darwinism” as common parlances, as though they know what these words mean. But if you really want to know what Darwin said, read The Origin of Species. It’s a terrific book.
Yes, we should all know more about this. We should teach evolutionary biology in the public schools. We should also teach a little bit of the science of ecology—to fifth graders, sixth graders. It’s possible. They’ll get it. They’ll love it.
Terrain.org: What are your goals as a writer—beyond an individual piece and to broader communities, as well as to yourself? Do you find discrepancies between what you believe coming into a story, and what you discover during the research and writing, and if so, how do you resolve them? Or is the writing itself—the essay or article as process and product—the resolution?
David Quammen: Lytton Strachey said, “The first duty of a great historian is to be an artist.” I’d extend that to say: The first duty of a good nonfiction writer is to be an artist. My main goals as a writer are to create things that are beautiful, fascinating, and meaningful using words, facts, and craft.
The researching and writing of a piece is always an experience of discovery, challenging what you think you know and what you feel you believe. If it isn’t, you’re in a rut, working too formulaically on subjects that are too comfy and safe.
Terrain.org: How does the writing process compare for articles and essays to books such as Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind? How does the process—the research and time allotment, for example—differ between shorter pieces and books?
David Quammen: Books take longer, because there are more pages.
David Quammen: MSU has given me, as (temporary) holder of the Stegner Chair, a luxurious degree of freedom to invent duties for myself, and an edifying degree of trust. I give two formal lectures per year to the university community; I run a formal but noncredit seminar for grad students in the history department, which meets monthly at our house to discuss readings on a theme; and I perform some other services (e.g., speaking to classes), within the history department and elsewhere in the university. I don’t teach classes. I don’t correct papers or give grades. I wouldn’t; I couldn’t, not without detriment to my own writing work. MSU understands this and welcomes me on comfortable terms. They don’t want to put me out of business as a writer; the point of the Wallace Stegner Chair is to bring a working writer (and teacher) into the university, not to convert a writer into a teacher.
Terrain.org: When I was a a freshman studying wildlife biology, a professor told our class that if we really wanted to make a difference, we shouldn’t become biologists. Rather, we should work in business, make lots of money, and donate to the cause. That reminds me of your quote, “If you really love the landscape, live in town.” There is a town planning movement called New Urbanism that strives to create livable, compact, and pedestrian-focused towns. More and more, these new and redeveloped towns are implementing advanced resource efficiency measures, too. Integrating wildlife, or wildlife corridors, into these towns is, perhaps, the next logical steps. What are your thoughts on coexisting with native wildlife in an urban setting? Is it possible to live amiably with dangerous wildlife, or is it wiser to create boundaries beyond which our towns should not grow?
David Quammen: Your professor was nuts. Or anyway (more politely, and in my humble opinion) wrong. The conservation movement doesn’t need more money; it needs more people who understand the ineluctable interconnectedness of life on Earth. You don’t get that from making money in business and writing checks to the World Wildlife Fund as a way of salving your conscience. Criminy.
The point about living in town is completely different. I’m all in favor of denser housing, whether you call it the New Urbanism or whatever. I’ve lived on the same one-eighth acre of urban (okay, town) Montana for the past 22 years, not because I’ve been saving up to own a ranch, but because I have no interest in owning a ranch. Leave the “ranchable” country to elk, wolves, and grizzlies—that’s what I meant by that comment. Live in town among the magpies and squirrels, who don’t need such undisturbed open spaces.
And yes, we can allow wild fauna and flora to exist (to some degree) in our towns. Even our cities. Central Park is a good thing for all concerned.
Dangerous wildlife? If you mean predators, the flash point is generally livestock. Humans and big predators clash because the humans want to raise and protect domestic ungulates and the predators want to hunt and eat wild ungulates. The domestic ungulates are inserted, supplanting the wild ungulates; the predators eat what’s available; the humans protest, and somebody gets hurt. I go on at length about this in Monster of God.
I don’t recommend cougars in Central Park. Not enough poodles to sustain a viable population.
Terrain.org: What’s next for David Quammen?
David Quammen: I’ve just begun a book project on gorillas and viruses and humans and bats. I have a relationship with National Geographic Magazine (as contributing writer) that keeps me traveling to interesting places. My commitment to the Stegner Chair is for the coming year. Etc. Lots of balls in the air; sometimes I feel like a juggler on the Ed Sullivan Show. But each one of those balls fascinates and satisfies me. Plus there’s telemark skiing. Is it possible, in our sad postmodern age of climate change, to close this interview by saying: “Think snow”?
Header photo of sunset and baobab trees in Madagascar by Angelo Lanos, courtesy Shutterstock.