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Bat Caves, Bamboo Rat Farms, The Birthplace of AIDS

David Quammen Will Follow Field Biologists Anywhere for a Story


by Jaimie Siegle

In the distance, a tiny figure amid towering pines, David Quammen glides almost silently over the fresh powder of Brackett Creek. It’s late Friday afternoon but here beneath Bridger Bowl, the local ski mountain, the trail is virtually deserted. David wears no headphones, absorbing the sights and sounds of nature as his orange and red skis slice steadily up the trail through the smooth layer of snow, a pristine sheet of cotton that sparkles with the warming sun’s last few rays. He doesn’t seem to feel the 20\degree cold or the rigors of cross-country skiing in Montana, even at 2,400 feet above sea level.

Today he’s testing a new set of Voile Telemark skis that he scored on eBay for just $300 — easily a $2,000 bundle at a gear shop just for the bindings, skis and skins, which attach to the bottom of the ski to allow for uphill movement. Fewer local shops are carrying the Telemark-style ski for uphill and cross-country climbs anyway these days, as many avid skiers consider the technology outdated. “It’s not the most practical kind,” David, 65, admits with a chuckle, “but it’s a lovely form of skiing.”

Brackett Creek is only 20 minutes from his doorstep in Bozeman, but this is the first time in weeks he’s had the opportunity to ski since knee surgery a few months back. There’s the distraction of his writing, too. Since the 2012 release of his fourth nonfiction book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, David splits his time between a new book project involving molecular biology — “I jokingly say it’s on the ‘lighter side’ of phylogenetics” — and his responsibilities as a contributing writer for National Geographic, where’s he’s been writing since 1999.

Although he’s made a living as a freelance writer for more than two decades, David is particularly busy this year. He’s been assigned to write an entire issue in lieu of his usual contract of three stories per year — the first time National Geographic has asked a writer to do so in its 65-year history. Scheduled to run in 2015, the 13,000- to 14,000-word issue will explore the “tapestry,” as David calls it, of Yellowstone National Park, the nation’s first national park, from its history, geology and ecology to the controversies with private landowners.

Michael “Nick” Nichols, National Geographic’s photography editor-at-large, pushed for David to singlehandedly take on the Yellowstone issue. “He can interpret adventure
as well as science and conservation,” says Nick, who’s been a fan since David’s days as an Outside magazine columnist. The two took the ultimate buddy adventure together in 1999, accompanying biologist J. Michael Fay on a 2,000-mile hike through Central Africa to survey its great forests before they succumb (as David puts it) “to the inexorable nibble of humanity.” The three-part series, “Megatransect,” in National Geographic earned Quammen one of his three National Magazine Awards.

Next week, David’s heading out to the snow-ridden Yellowstone backcountry for three days with photographer Cory Richards and a wolf biologist to report on the ecosystems within Yellowstone — what’s changed over time and the consequences of those changes. The trip up to Brackett Creek is merely a test drive for David’s eBay skis to be sure they can handle the backcountry terrain. His knee, fortunately, seems to be doing fine. As he approaches the trailhead, David locks into a rhythm, the same way pingpong teams and volleyball players do, and he begins to ascend more quickly, as if on autopilot.

For some reporters, surviving three days
in Yellowstone’s Pelican Valley backcountry — not to mention accurately reporting on its ecosystem of wolves, bison and moose that live there amid the lodge pole pine slopes and grasslands — would be challenging. But for the longtime Montana resident, who retired from the community hockey league and whitewater kayaking only in the last few years, it’s a nonissue, just another day on the job — a job David loves, especially if the locale is wild and re- mote. “My literary niche,” he says, “allows me to call up some of the world’s most interesting field biologists and say, ‘Can I come and watch you put collars on bears or follow lemurs through the canopy in Madagascar?’” David’s genuine excitement and curiosity permeate his work, from his early columns at Outside (collected in Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature) to his nonfiction books, such as The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction.

Whether he’s conducting research for a book on the Galapagos Islands or visiting Jane Goodall’s gorilla sanctuary, David manages to blend adventure, science and conservation.
He gives scientific and environmental topics, from animal extinction to deadly diseases, a readable quality not unlike the mystery/thriller genre, weaving intellect with humor, scientific material with playful storytelling. His books are thoughtfully constructed, using evocative sentences laced with allusions to literature and poetry ranging from John Donne and
T.S. Eliot to Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Pynchon. He relishes any opportunity to follow scientists, especially field biologists, whose day jobs take them around the world tracking highly contagious diseases such as AIDS, SARS and the lesser-known zoonotic diseases. He has what he calls a “healthy respect” for taking risks but he’s still trekked through the birthplace of both the Ebola virus and AIDS. He walked through Gabon on assignment until blisters formed and his feet bled.

For a boy who grew up in suburban Ohio, loving science, writing and the outdoors, what better career fit could there be?

“I WAS ONE OF THOSE KIDS who walked in the woods, collected salamanders and snakes and brought them home, caught butterflies, climbed trees, and loved to walk in the mud and walk up and down creeks,” David recalls of his childhood in Ohio. He might even have become a biologist, but literature and writing stories — a dream stoked by a high school teacher and two literary influences —piqued his interest early. After high school, he wound up studying English at Yale University and discovered William Faulkner, specifically The Sound and the Fury. Five pages in, he settled into the rhythm of Faulkner’s multiple points of view and story lines that unravel slowly and meticulously. From that point on, he became obsessed with Faulkner’s technique, especially, he says, the “laminations of narration, where the full story isn’t known to the reader until you assemble all those laminations.”

In David’s office, Post-its hang in semi-neat rows on the wall above the desk. A window to the backyard lets in some natural light. Much of the time, his two gentle dogs, Harry and Stella, will wander in to offer David company. One feature of the office — perhaps the least used — is a closet-sized nook hidden behind a black curtain with a tiny bed (and an exercise ball for knee exercises). A nod to Faulkner, the nook offers peace of mind to the late-night writer more than an actual place to sleep.

“Through high school and college, I was
Mr. Literary,” David says. At the time, he was absolutely certain of his future as a novelist. At Yale in the late ’60s, renowned American poet and literary criticism pioneer Robert Penn Warren, a close friend of Faulkner’s, fed David’s infatuation with Faulkner. David speaks fondly of Penn Warren, recalling how as a student, he would deconstruct Faulkner in Penn Warren’s office at Yale and even spent a summer at his teacher’s vacation home in Vermont.

Penn Warren, a significant influence on David’s writing today, had a “down-to-earth” teaching style that forced students to think critically about their work. “He taught me a lot about how to read fiction, and therefore indirectly, about how to write fiction,” David says. He even recalls the classics listed on the syllabus for his first class with Penn Warren
— a class on literary analysis technique, the New Criticism, which Penn Warren helped to develop. “We went through a Hemingway, a Faulkner, a Dreiser and a Joseph Conrad. And he showed us how to see not only what writers were doing but how they were doing it.”

David mentions a story by Hemingway, “The Killers,” which begins with this sentence: The door of Henry’s lunchroom opened and two men walked in. Penn Warren taught his students how to theorize about Hemingway’s implications, offering an insight into his writing strategy. “The implicit point of view, the relation- ship of these two guys, a dramatic moment, a little bit of tension,” says David. “All of it in that sentence.”

David reads closely in this manner almost involuntarily now, whether he’s skimming a science journal or newspaper headlines, catching up on one of the three or four nonfiction books he’s juggling, or sifting through pages of a decades-old biology text. This is the same guy who recommends Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as a solidly entertaining piece of writing, its place in science history notwithstanding.

“I move like a snail when I read, but I think it’s probably not unrelated to the fact that I write pretty good sentences,” he says matter-of-factly.

David completed his first novel at age 22 before graduating from Yale. Established publishing house Alfred Knopf picked up the book, To Walk the Line, about a white Ivy Leaguer
in alliance with a black militant, bolstering David’s ambitious goal of becoming a fiction writer. But Penn Warren, a Rhodes Scholar alum himself, convinced David to apply for
the Rhodes scholarship as he did, pushing his protégé to study literature at Oxford.

As he headed to England, David remembers a bittersweet feeling. The very thought
of school after a strenuous four years at Yale exhausted him, despite the prestige and opportunity. The itch to go off and be a writer prevailed, but David had a feeling it wouldn’t last. After two years in England, he rebelled and set off from Oxford’s ivy-covered walls to become a novelist on his own. “I was sick of academic work, the academic kind of thinking of literary work,” he says. “I remember saying, I want to live closer to the ground.

Packing only the essentials into his Volkswagen bus — books, typewriter, fly fishing rod — he meandered down to Austin, stopped for a stint in Wyoming, then drifted west to Berkeley. Finding he didn’t quite belong in any of those places, he headed northwest toward big sky country, Montana. On Sept. 12, 1973, a date he has never forgotten, David parked his roomy VW bus in the small fishing town of Missoula to work on his novels and fly fish in his spare time.

With his second novel, he wasn’t so lucky. He couldn’t find a publisher and worked as
a waiter, a bartender and a fishing guide to pay the bills. His fishing buddy Steve Byers convinced him to move to Ennis, Montana, and there they would pass the winter doldrums playing chess by a small wooden stove, the only heat source in David’s $30-a-month rental house. When his fictional plots failed to hook any book deals, he accepted a ghostwriting position in Butte, a $1,000-a-month job researching American technology. And when that fell through, he used the research to write a spy novel, The Zolta Configuration, a “potboiler” with sex, violence and the history of nuclear technology. It didn’t sell well, he says, but it got great reviews so he wrote another one.

And then, everything changed — all because of a fly-fishing trip and a boozy evening with two other starving freelancers.

DAVID AND HIS WIFE, Betsy Gaines Quammen, live today in a modest Craftsman-style house in Bozeman with Oscar, the cat, and their dogs, Harry, Stella and Nick. His office, in the back, is tightly packed with bookshelves that are even more tightly packed with books. On his desk are stacks of books and papers and reporter’s notebooks, all organized by project. Currently he’s trying to balance his responsibilities for National Geographic with research he’s accumulating for a new book, which revolves around molecular biology and returns, in a sense, to Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life theory found in his early note- books on evolution.

Like many of Bozeman’s veteran residents, David never intended to plant his roots in
the college town. People come here in search of more mountains and fewer skyscrapers. They stay to enjoy the historic diners serving homemade chicken fried steak and strawberry rhubarb pie along Main Street and to ski mountains that are, unlike those in Colorado, not yet infiltrated with vacationing Europeans or reckless spring breakers.

This is where David came to fly fish — and also where he gave it up. An environmentalist and conservationist, he retired from fly fishing because of the animal rights issues involved, pondering over them so much he decided to stop several years ago, only picking up a fly-fishing pole over the last year during
a weekend reunion on a lake with friends. He cares about how we treat the planet, and in every book, he strives to educate (about Darwin, about evolution, about the ecology of emerging viruses) but he doesn’t want to be boring. “My real ambition is to be a moral philosopher with the demeanor of a vaudeville comedian,” he says, smiling. “I like to make people laugh if I can, but the core of my work is about trying to change hearts and minds.”

Spillover, which has no obvious conservation agenda, hones David’s notion that humans are connected to the natural world and live in it — not above it. “Eight percent of the human genome consists of viruses; that’s a boggling idea,” David said. “We’re governed by ecology on a more basic level than global politics and economics —composites of other creatures from the history of life.”

Although he never completed any academic training in science (or journalism), David absorbed his science by interviewing the experts during a 35-year career in journalism that can be traced back to a story pitch he made to John Rasmus, the editor of Outside magazine at the time, after a day of fly fishing in Montana.

His fishing buddy Byers, now deputy editor at National Geographic Adventure, recalls that Rasmus was “scouting the West for writers”
so Byers invited the Outside boss over to meet David. In a new introduction to his anthology, Natural Acts, David says he “softened John up with a ranch-kitchen dinner of whiskey and whiskey,” then he gave his pitch — about the upside of the pesky mosquito. Months later, he accepted Rasmus’ offer to command the “Natural Acts” post at Outside full-time. He intended to remain a year, maybe two.

Fifteen years and some 160 columns later, David resigned from Outside. Feeling mildly exhausted by the essay format he’d been glued to for more than a decade, he already had an idea for a book from an assignment for Natural Acts on the pattern of extinction in birds on the Pacific island of Guam. With money from a Guggenheim Fellowship, he set out in 1988 to see conservation efforts around the world — to Indonesia to see the giant Komodo dragons, Madagascar for the lemurs, the Galapagos for its finches and giant tortoises, and finally Mauritius for the extinct dodo bird. The Song of the Dodo, David’s first nonfiction book, came out eight years later in 1996.

While researching it, he developed an interest in Alfred Russell Wallace, the British naturalist considered the father of biogeography, which studies the distribution of animal species. “I had to decide: Did I want to write a book about Alfred Russell Wallace, or did
I want to write a book about the extinction
of species on islands? I think I diagrammed something on a restaurant placemat,” David says. The book starts with Wallace — well, really a Persian carpet cut into bits — then follows what David calls “a complicated sinuous path,” one that owes its unusual structure to his Faulkner studies, he says.

He likes organic structure. “I like complicated structures where there are three or four threads that are being braided together: Maybe there’s a historical thread, there’s a thread of my travels, there’s a thread of explaining scientific concepts in a logical way ... and there might be some other thread woven together.” In The Song of the Dodo, for example, there’s a historical storyline, an autobiographical plot and a scientific angle. “Deciding which thread to bring and braid in at a given point is part of what makes the structural decisions tricky.”

After The Song of the Dodo, he followed up with Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind, combining adventure with the politics and ecological dynamics behind the preservation of “alpha predators” like lions and tigers. In The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution, he unveiled the creator of evolution as “socially awkward” and suffering from boils. “He’s really mastered one of the hardest things in writing: Making nonfiction have the momentum and lyric quality of great fiction, but accomplishing this without skewering or distorting the facts,” says Byers, a friend now for 40 years. “It’s very tough to make a steamrolling science story while telling only the truth.”

DAVID’S UNPRETENTIOUS HOME “on the range” and leisurely Montana lifestyle contrast sharply with the exotic adventures he adores so much and the wild anecdotes in his stories, especially his latest book, Spillover. To research the book, he hiked through the forests of
the Minkebe National Park tracking Ebola, trapped bats in Bangladesh on the lookout for the Nipah virus, and ate bamboo rat at a rat farm in China while reporting on the SARS outbreak. (Bamboo-rat meat tastes mild, subtle and “faintly sweet” with lots of small femurs and ribs, he reports.) It’s a risky business, this hunting for viruses that spread from animal
to man. But when David read in 2007 about ground zero of the AIDS epidemic, he saw a village where he slept on an earlier trip. And naturally he wanted to go back.

“I don’t do anything foolhardy,” he says modestly, “but I do like vivid field reporting. I’m not one of those science writers who wants to sit here in my office and call people on the phone and say, ‘A new study came out, what do you think of it?’ and write a newspaper story about it.” What he loved about Spillover was following field biologists around as they sniff out the origins of pandemics. “Some people admire astronauts, some admire cowboys, I admire field biologists. They’re very tough physically and tough intellectually,” he says.

The search for new emerging diseases gave him a great “mystery story,” with biologists trying to figure out where viruses emerge from and how they are passed along. “These people go out to solve these mysteries. And that’s great for a writer because everybody likes to read mysteries!” he says and smiles. “So it gives you what we all look for — a narrative frame!”

His office is a welcome refuge from his often-chaotic reporting experiences on ferryboats in the Russian Arctic, islands in the Galapagos and bat caves in Australia. His research on the road demands flexibility, improvisation and a certain ability to “expect the unexpected.” In Montana, by comparison, David starts, fills and ends his Montana days in largely the same way: He awakens before anyone else and reads from one of the several books he’s juggling in order to “wake up” his mind. Then he re-reads what he wrote the day before and makes edits to the draft with fresh eyes. “Once the research is done, I don’t write quickly, but I write steadily,” he says. “Typically with a book I might work five to seven hours
a day with a break or two, and in those hours I can turn out about two pages of second draft.” He polishes in the morning, and writes “more recklessly and quickly” in the afternoon. He’ll throw away the “bad stuff” later.

It’s a disciplined writing routine that David developed early on, inspired by a quote by French author Gustave Flaubert that he saw in a high school teacher’s classroom. Now it’s taped to his own desk in Bozeman: Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your art. The quote, he says, reinforced his logic that completing a book simply required a bit of simple math: a strong story idea, of course, but nearly as important, consistent discipline to push through writer’s block.

When he was younger, says David, “I thought writing involved inspiration late at night and scribbling pages of witty and brilliant sections when they came to you.” Then he realized that plan wasn’t working so well. He decided he better not wait for inspiration. “I would write hard and force myself to write three pages of rough draft on yellow legal pads before my roommate woke up and I had to
go to class. Arithmetic tells you there would
be about 300 pages after 100 days, and that sounds like a book.” With this strategy in place, David diligently cranked out pages regardless of whether or not he was felt “inspired.” He’s replaced the yellow pads with a Mac laptop, but little else has changed since his Yale days.

During short breaks, he walks the dogs or goes on a bicycle ride around Bozeman. He loves Gregorian chant music, especially during happy hour, but he also digs Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. When he’s writing, however, he does so in silence. “Because then the music would interfere with the music of the writing,” he says. David’s ear is so fine-tuned to the lyrical nature of words that he can detect an editor’s changes to his text almost immediately after reading it. “Don’t they notice that that sentence sounds ugly, and those words don’t work together musically? Are they tone deaf?”

The “music” David produces appeals to
a wide audience, but it hasn’t broken the bestseller threshold yet. And although he says it would be nice, he won’t invest time in a project or subject he doesn’t believe in just to sell more copies. “I’ve tried that,” he says. “I wrote a couple of potboiler spy novels when I was young, and I learned that even when you try and write a potboiler, it doesn’t mean the pot is going to boil.” His goal? To write a book that “nobody else could write, and nobody else would write,” he adds. “And then, let the chips fall where they may.”

Spillover may not be a bestseller, but David is such an expert now on zoonotic diseases that he’s invited to speak before the same scientists and researchers he interviewed for the book. Spillover received both the Science and Society Book Award from the National Association of Writers and the Society of Biology (UK) Book Award. “He’s become one of the premier science writers of his day,” says Byers, “and
is trusted by the scientists who figure in his books to always tell the truth.”

THE SUN HAS BEGUN TO SET, tinting the big sky behind Bridger Bowl a bright shade of pink. Time to head back down the mountain. David clicks his heels into the back of his Telemark skis and heads swiftly downhill, carving “S” shapes through ski tracks from the uphill trek. He plans to enjoy a quiet evening in
with Betsy and dinner at a low-key restaurant within walking distance of their snow-covered neighborhood.

By the time David parks his Toyota Prius
in front of his house, nearly all the sunlight has been squeezed out of the sky. Betsy comes outside to wave goodbye and David offers a friendly hug for his visitor before unpacking his skis and walking inside. He’s eager to spend one more night at home before heading out for Yellowstone in the morning, gathering details to weave a new thread into his latest literary “tapestry.”

 

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