The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2000by David Quammen, Burkhard Bilger
With The Best American Science and Nature Writing, Houghton Mifflin expands its stellar Best American series with a volume that honors our long and distinguished history of publishing the best writers in these fields.
David Quammen, together with series editor Burkhard Bilger, has assembled a remarkable group of writers whose selections appeared in periodicals
With The Best American Science and Nature Writing, Houghton Mifflin expands its stellar Best American series with a volume that honors our long and distinguished history of publishing the best writers in these fields.
David Quammen, together with series editor Burkhard Bilger, has assembled a remarkable group of writers whose selections appeared in periodicals from NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, SCIENCE, and THE NEW YORKER to PUERTO DEL SOL and DOUBLETAKE. Among the acclaimed writers represented in this volume are Richard Preston on “The Demon in the Freezer,” John McPhee bidding “Farewell to the Nineteeth Century,” Oliver Sacks remembering the “Brilliant Light” of his boyhood, and Wendell Berry going “Back to the Land.” Also including such literary lights as Anne Fadiman, David Guterson, Edward Hoagland, Natalie Angier, and Peter Matthiessen, this new collection presents selections bound together by their timelessness.
Read an Excerpt
Foreword I’ve never been bird-watching, but after months of searching out these stories in the New York Public Library, of hiking up marble canyons and through stacks of compacted trees, I know how it must feel. One day you see a flash of beguiling color — a lovely opening paragraph, say, or a compelling thesis — only to lose it in a thicket of confusing prose. The next day you stare at something for a moment and dismiss it as ordinary, only to catch your breath when the sun strikes its wings. You might spend hours tracking a familiar singer — be it Andrea Barrett or E. O. Wilson — through card catalog and database, across the mountains of Lexis-Nexis and into the valley of ProQuest Direct, only to find that her or his song hasn’t been heard all year. There is no lack of birds, of course, but most are sparrows and grackles, and you’re after something rarer and not quite so noisy.
The problem, first of all, is deciding what to seek and where to seek it. Great science and nature stories don’t come precategorized in official lists. They don’t cleave to a single, recognizable form. Their one common trait is longevity — no matter how timely or rich in specific detail, the pieces that follow should still be worth reading in five or ten years, if not longer — but they shouldn’t sacrifice immediacy for timelessness, information for reflection. This book is devoted to the best American science and nature writing, David Quammen points out, not the best American science and nature essays. For better or worse, it comes with a wide- angle lens, and so dooms us to more than a few wild-goose chases.
There are limits, granted. Does our definition of writing include reports in scientific journals? Poetry? Prose poems? No, no, and no, though some passages by Peter Matthiessen and Anne Fadiman are poetic enough. Does straight reporting count? Yes, we decided, so long as the style is literary and its purpose broader than news gathering. Book excerpts are fine, too, but only if they appeared previously in a magazine and are truly self-contained. (Natalie Angier’s essay on evolutionary psychology, taken from Woman: An Intimate Geography, qualifies on both counts.) But novels, commencement addresses, cartoons, and plays — even a Tom Stoppard play on the second law of thermodynamics — fall outside our purview.
That covers the basics, but it leaves the thorniest questions unanswered. How broadly do we define science, for instance? Until a year or two ago, a science magazine like Discover rarely published stories on medicine or technology, calling these fields applied science rather than science proper. But that standard seems more arbitrary every year. Quantum physicists have colonized Wall Street and microbiologists have defected to the biotech industry in droves; mathematicians are programming computer games and chemists are creating laundry detergents. Some of the best science stories cover research where you least expect it: in camel racing (“Lulu, Queen of the Camels”), for instance, or in Mormonism (“This Is Not the Place”).
As you might think, such exotic birds rarely fly in flocks. You’ll find a few in The Sciences, Scientific American, and American Scientist, but science writing, in the main, is still a didactic genre. The classic feature format, perfected by an earlier incarnation of Scientific American, starts with a few mildly diverting sentences and then gets down to business: page after page of explanation, relieved only by the occasional chart or graph. Most of the time that’s all for the best — who wants storytelling when you’re trying to understand particle physics? — but it leaves slim pickings for anthologists. Even science bestsellers like A Brief History of Time tend to be admired more for their lucidity than for their literary daring.
Nature writing, as David Quammen notes in his introduction, often suffers from the opposite tendency. As a result, most of these pieces were found in general-interest magazines of the literary sort — places where science and nature are treated as just another subject for writers to bring to life. Still, some of the most distinctive voices come from smaller, more secluded places. Ken Lamberton’s essay on toads — as vivid and affecting as it is unexpected — was written in prison and published in Puerto del Sol. Wendy Johnson’s meditation on death and gardening comes from Tricycle, the Buddhist review. Paul De Palma’s incisive critique of the popular obsession with computers appeared in the American Scholar.
Ironically, in this context, De Palma’s piece will raise a question exactly opposite to the one he intended: Why nothing from the Internet? E-mail has made writers — or at least typists — of us all, and the on-line landscape is dotted with great piles of science and nature writing. Is nothing worth saving in all those virtual haystacccccks? Well, yeah, probably. But searching them might take a lifetime and find hardly a needle. Even the best Internet magazines (Slate, Salon) tend to publish articles that are either too chatty or too news-oriented — too mindful of our impatience with reading from a screen — to hold up in a collection like this one.
How widely that approach will spread to print remains to be seen. For now, the country still has hundreds of literary journals and magazines willing to publish lengthy, provocative work on a stunning range of topics. But less and less of it seems to sink in. When I asked various editors, writers, and journalism professors to suggest stories for this volume, they invariably came up blank. The reason isn’t that science and nature writing has been less than memorable this year — these pieces bear witness to that — but that our minds have been bombarded into impermeability. Like long-time New Yorkers, who walk past the most poignant street dramas without blinking, we’ve grown so adept at filtering information that we sometimes miss what’s most important.
The purpose of this book, then, is not only to celebrate, delight, and inform but also to remember and preserve. As Alexander Stille wrote in The New Yorker last year, in an article on the alarming accumulation and deterioration of digital archives in Washington, “The danger is not that some modern Sophocles will be totally lost . . . but, rather, that such a vast accumulation of records makes it nearly impossible to distinguish the essential from the ephemeral.” This series, we hope, will offer future readers one guide to the essential.
It has been a pleasure and an honor to work with David Quammen on this volume, after having admired his writing for so long. I would have loved to include one of his pieces among our selections, but his advice, suggestions, and eloquent introduction more than make up for the loss.
I want to thank Laura van Dam, my editor at Houghton Mifflin, for roping me into this project and for corralling it to completion with such grace and skill. Robert Atwan, the creator and series editor of The Best American Essays, suggested several stories and pointed me to dozens of wonderful journals. My friend Todd Wiener helped put together a database of nearly two hundred editors, prepared a mail merge, and showed me the fastest way to stuff envelopes. Finally, my love and gratitude go to my wife, Jennifer Nelson, and my children, Hans and Ruby, for putting up with all those sojourns to the library, and for welcoming me back with open arms.
Submissions for next year’s volume should be sent, with a very brief cover letter, to Burkhard Bilger, c/o Editor, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2001, Houghton Mifflin Company, 222 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA 02116.
Introduction: The Vine-Tree Science, like democracy and tai chi and golf, is a human activity. It’s not a body of Truth, inherent to the universe and revealed by priests and priestesses in white lab coats. It’s not irrefragable, nor even so purely objective as it sometimes pretends. Science is a subset of human culture, which is a subset of primate behavior, which in turn is a subset of nature. That’s partly why, beyond merely being important, it’s so damned interesting. People do science just as people do marriage or baseball — sometimes successfully, sometimes gracefully, sometimes badly. But in the moment of history in which we presently live, those nested relations — science within culture within nature — can easily be forgotten, and the hierarchy of scale can seem reversed. To say that in plainer words: Science looks big nowadays, and nature (as it is carelessly, narrowly, too often construed) looks small. Furthermore, science is getting ever bigger and more potent, whereas nature in the narrow sense is getting smaller, piece by piece, like a pizza on a platter between teenage boys. It’s shrinking away, as animal species, plant species, whole ecosystems disappear down humanity’s hungry maw.
Setting aside (for now) the dire subject of that shrinkage, that ruinous drawdown of biological diversity on Earth, let’s broaden our thoughts by construing “nature” more carefully and inclusively. A volcanic eruption on Mars is nature. A black hole is nature. The atomic reactions occurring within the stars Mizar and Alkaid are nature. Dark matter is nature, as are protons, neutrons, iron, manganese, bismuth, osmium, and iridium (but iridium.com is definitely culture). Chalcedony and cinnabar are nature; so too are goethite and berzelianite and samarskite and bunsenite (some of Oliver Sacks’s favorite minerals during his chemistry-obsessed boyhood, as he recollects in this volume), though the names by which we know them are cultural. Chemistry itself is a science and therefore a cultural construct, as is the periodic table, even while the relations it graphically displays are part of nature. String theory is culture, but the strings themselves, those infinitesimal, twanging, hypothetical filaments suspected to be the tiniest components of the universe (they can be “closed loops like rubber bands or open-ended like bits of twine,” according to Gary Taubes’s report here), are nature — if they exist at all. Gravitinos and quarks may be nature or figments of speculation, I don’t feel qualified to say. The fallen meteorite ALH 84001 is nature, whether or not it contains traces of extraterrestrial bacteria. The big red spot on Jupiter, garish, inscrutable, is nature. This is a more cheerful as well as a more capacious view of what nature encompasses — don’t you agree? — since it puts the whole thing nearly beyond the scope of annihilation by wee, puissant us. Humankind, with its global mastery and its limitless appetites, seems destined to eat up most of Earth’s biological diversity and poop it out in the form of plywood, fish sticks, beer cans, and silicon chips, but at least there will still be hydrogen atoms fusing to form helium at the cores of distant stars and an occasional comet whomping into the surface of planet Zork. Astrophysics is culture, and astrophysics is big, but of nature there’s an entire universe.
One advantage to this broader definition is that it allows for a rich range of topics within the book you now hold, and within the others in the annual series that will follow it. By seeing nature big, seeing it as the realm within which human enterprises such as science, religion, and historiography occur, we may free ourselves from most of the old expectations and biases, positive and negative, associated with what has commonly been understood by the term “nature writing.” Personally I favor that dissociation, because my own biases are largely negative. Although nature writing in the traditional sense does include some clarion acts of literature (by Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold, for instance) and many other fine, steady, attentive works of observation and reflection, there has also been quite a lot of ethereal tripe. There have been too many purple effusions by one writer or another standing out in a forest or a meadow, misted by rain or spring pollen or pheromones and transfixed by the spectacle of his or her own sensitivity. Too high a tolerance for such stuff, too great a willingness to let the merits of nature as subject excuse pious sentimentalism and self-absorption, have tended to ghettoize nature writing in our time. People who love it read it; most other readers, especially those of more urban and trenchant disposition, hear the first chirp of a lark, the first babble of a mountain freshet, and run the other way.
That’s an unfortunate bifurcation with possible consequences. For the good of all concerned, we need the urban and trenchantly disposed to remain receptive to the subject of nature, in both its broad physical sense and its narrow biological sense; and we need the self-identified lovers of nature to maintain an edge of critical intelligence. We can’t afford to take nature’s command of attention, of respect, for granted. On the other hand, we can’t afford to let nature seem optional, a fancy best left to the fanciers. Nature is total and elemental. It’s the world — in the big sense of world, meaning universe, not Earth — and though we can damage our own little bit of that universe, degrade it, render it boring and ugly, we can’t ever escape the larger context. Diversity disappears, but not nature. Extinction is nature. A planet once green and acrawl with living variousness, latterly paved with concrete and stacked with tall buildings full of humans, humans, and only more humans — well, that’s nature too.
Granted, no piece of writing pleases everybody. But if the mix of ideas and styles and tones and attitudes and topics within a given body of literature is raucously heterogeneous, that literature will be more likely to reach beyond the ghetto. Such a mix is the guiding ideal of this book.
But what about science writing, as commonly understood? Is it a tradition separate from nature writing, and has that always been so? No, the two have long been connected, sometimes closely and sometimes less so. But as science has defined itself more clearly (over the past several centuries) and asserted itself more forcefully (especially within the last six decades), the trend has generally been toward autonomy for its literature also.
In the English language, the tradition of science-and-nature writing for a general readership can be traced back along two distinct lineages. The first takes us to Gilbert White, an obscure village curate, whose book The Natural History of Selborne was published in 1788 and later became one of the most permanently cherished works of English literature. (According to a recent tally, it stands fourth on the overall list of reprint editions.) White wrote of the fauna, flora, and seasonal rhythms in his own little village in eastern Hampshire, and his legacy can be thought of as the Stay Home and Observe with a Gentle Heart school of science-and- nature writing. In France, J. Henri Fabre became the headmaster of that school.
The other lineage also has its origins in the eighteenth century and before, but it is best represented by Charles Darwin, who published his not-so-catchily titled first book, Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, Under the Command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N. from 1832 to 1836, three years after he returned from that round-the-world journey. In later editions and reprints, the book became better and more conveniently known as The Voyage of the Beagle. There had been earlier instances of a ship’s naturalist publishing a book based on his notes from a sea journey of exploration, notably Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World . . . , et cetera, another prolixly titled but interesting record, by one Johann Reinhold Forster, a prickly Prussian who sailed with James Cook. But unlike the others, Darwin’s became a bestseller, making him a famous young naturalist and setting the stage for him to startle a large rather than a small audience with The Origin of Species twenty years later. Darwin’s Journal became paradigmatic for the Go Forth and Observe with a Probing Mind school, to which Joseph Hooker, T. H. Huxley, Henry Walter Bates, Henry O. Forbes, Alfred Russel Wallace, and others contributed during the Victorian era. (I’d add Mary Kingsley, whose journeys up the Ogooué and Congo rivers were as adventurous as any of those others, but she was more of a travel writer, an observer of people and customs, than a literary naturalist.) On the American side of the Atlantic, William Bartram had worked in the Go Forth manner, publishing his Travels in 1791 after having groped through backcountry Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas at the time of the Revolutionary War. Thoreau himself did a little bit of Go Forth (The Maine Woods and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers) and a lifetime of Stay Home (as reflected in his fourteen-volume journal). Walden itself was a Stay Home enterprise masquerading as a Go Forth. He subtitled it Life in the Woods, but he walked into Concord frequently during that pondside sojourn to refresh himself from his mother’s cookie jar.
The Stay Home/Gentle Heart approach was carried forward in America by some elegant and distinctive writers, including Henry Beston, Joseph Wood Krutch, Aldo Leopold himself (at least after focusing on Sand County), E. B. White (again, after retiring from Forty-third Street in New York City to Maine), and more recently, Wendell Berry. The Go Forth/Probing Mind approach has continued among that blessed group of scientists who, like Darwin and Wallace, have been able to describe their efforts, observations, and ideas in engaging prose — a group that in our own time is well represented by George Schaller, Jane Goodall, Ernst Mayr, Edward O. Wilson, Richard Nelson, and Bernd Heinrich.
At this point I’ll make my apology that of course this binary schema is crude and ridiculously inadequate. The particularities of all those decades of writing are much more intricately woven, like the various forking, wrapping, and converging shoots of a strangler fig. As the fig plant thickens into maturity, one line of growth merges against or overlaps another. For instance, some of the most probing minds (I think of Wendell Berry) have mainly stayed home, and some of the gentlest hearts (I think of Jane Goodall) have gone forth into adventuresome fieldwork. My point in describing the two trunks and their respective rootstocks is merely to sketch a range of possibilities — and maybe also to provoke some fruitful argument.
Several other viny stalks deserve mentioning. One is straightforward science reporting as practiced by well-informed, fastidious journalists and authors who are not current participants in the scientific enterprise, though they may have had scientific training. Where did that lineage begin? I couldn’t say, though possibly William L. Lawrence’s wartime reports to the New York Times from the Manhattan Project were among the early models. The big issues at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge were technological, not scientific, it’s true, but revolutionary insights in nuclear physics lay just below the surface of each day’s engineering experiments. And to follow the lanky strides of Robert Oppenheimer while scribbling on a notepad must have been one of the more pungent journalistic — and literary — opportunities a writer could ever have. Nowadays we find solid science writing in the “Science Times” and other feature sections of good newspapers, in the more general sections of certain scientific journals (such as Science, which ran the Taubes string theory report), and occasionally in magazines and books. Among the best instances of that craft within recent memory is The Eighth Day of Creation, Horace Freeland Judson’s magisterial 1979 history of the foundational phase of molecular biology.
Another branch of the vine-tree that has thickened nicely in this country is the science essay, especially as delivered by working scientists who, in stolen hours, ruminate on areas of scientific specialty other than their own. This genre goes back at least to the short, wry, illuminating essays that J.B.S. Haldane wrote for the Daily Worker in England in the 1930s and 1940s, and to Loren Eiseley’s slightly later contributions to Harper’s and other magazines. Lewis Thomas took the science essay to a high level of humane grace in the New England Journal of Medicine. Stephen Jay Gould combined wit and freshness (especially in his earlier work) with scientific brilliance and an encyclopedic knowledge of popular culture to become America’s favorite science pundit through his pieces in Natural History. Jared Diamond, Robert S. Desowitz, Alan Lightman, and others continue to show us that a sharp scientist with an amiable voice is worth reading regularly on almost any topic.
This clambering vine-tree includes one other stalk that I want to try to delineate. I’m slightly less able to view it dispassionately, since it encompasses the work of my closest professional colleagues and most of my own, too. For a definition of this group, I have to start with negatives: They’re not scientists, they’re not reporters, they’re not nature writers of the decorous, dependable sort. Their hearts are not always so gentle, and mostly they don’t stay home. Some critics have accused them of being a sort of sylvan brigade of the New Journalism, whatever that means. They don’t have a collective program, any more than the other clusters of writers I’ve mentioned do, but they share certain interests and affinities. They care about landscape and its history. They care about the diversity of life that occupies landscape. They are not rooted to academic institutions or news organizations, generally, but will travel almost anywhere a magazine cares to send them. They appreciate (some more manifestly than others) the inherent value and literary usefulness of humor. They’re prepared to commit irony. They know that politics, though boring, is inescapable and crucial. They are fascinated by bizarre species of all stripes, but especially by Homo sapiens. For better and sometimes for worse, they tend to throw an entire personhood into the literary task, not content to maintain the separation of subject from author, or of science and nature from life. They do research. They do legwork. They interview, they eavesdrop, they tag along on expeditions and invade laboratories. With a sense of construction in the spirit of Robert Rauschenberg, they take liberties of untoward juxtaposition and inclusion.
For a landmark example of such work, think of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, published in 1968, when it seemed unfashionable and was virtually ignored, recognized only later as an underground, and eventually an aboveground, classic. It’s a book of many moods, many attitudes, many narrative and expository bits, united only by the voice of one man and his conviction that desert landscape is vital. Abbey was not any god to the cohort of writers I’m describing, but he was a friend to some, an influence to others, and he remains the charming, flawed, dead older brother in whose shadow they walk. A sampling of other books in this vein might include Charles Bowden’s Blue Desert, Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge, Edward Hoagland’s The Courage of Turtles, James Gleick’s Chaos, Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, Doug Peacock’s Grizzly Years, John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, Roger Lewin’s Complexity, Gary Nabhan’s The Desert Smells Like Rain, Dennis Overbye’s Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, William Kittredge’s Hole in the Sky, Caroline Alexander’s One Dry Season, Eugene Linden’s Silent Partners, Tim Cahill’s Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, Ian Frazier’s Great Plains, Jonathan Evan Maslow’s Bird of Life, Bird of Death, Sy Montgomery’s Spell of the Tiger, Bill Barich’s Laughing in the Hills, Tom Miller’s On the Border, and Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men and Arctic Dreams. There are more, including some nifty works by friends and compeers of mine who are secure enough to be unconcerned that I haven’t mentioned them explicitly.
It’s not a club. It’s not a movement. It’s just an infectious itch, a common realization that new effects and purposes might be achieved by ignoring old guidelines and limits.
Sometimes, late in the evening, I talk about all this by phone with Barry Lopez, an important colleague to me and a good pal, who shares my sense that there’s a fresh smell on the wind, and who confounds the clumsy categories outlined earlier in that he Goes Forth intrepidly all over the planet with what seems to me the most Gentle of Hearts. (His absence from this volume, by the way, merely reflects that he spent 1999 engrossed in work that didn’t include any short pieces appropriate for such a collection. The same sort of circumstance holds for a number of other writers, whom I suspect you may see in future installments of the series.) Labels aren’t essential, but they are sometimes convenient for calling attention to trends, and one of the idle questions Barry and I swat back and forth is, If it’s not nature writing and it’s not science journalism and it’s not travel writing or social commentary, then what should one call this stuff? “Landscape nonfiction” is a possibility, though it doesn’t satisfy either of us. “Political ornithology” is another, an ironic shorthand coined years ago (by the novelist Graeme Gibson, from whom Barry heard it) in admiring reference to Maslow’s Bird of Life, Bird of Death, a startling book about bird-watching and genocide, resplendent quetzals and vultures among the forests and the body dumps of war-torn Guatemala. We’ve never found the perfect phrase, Barry and I, in those late-night chats, but so be it. Convenient or not, categorical labels make people chafe. So we now devote our conversations mostly to the state of the planet’s landscape, the extinction of cultural diversity as well as species, the ethics and techniques of nonfiction writing, the thrills and travails of the road, the found jewels among whatever we’ve lately read, life after age fifty, and the weighty conundrum of whether Pete Rose should be admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Writers should just write, I suppose, one piece at a time, doing the best they can by their lights with each chance and each subject and each bit of material, making shapes that entertain and inform and mean, leaving critics and publishers to worry about truth in labeling.
As science has gotten bigger and more potent, artful nonfiction that examines its workings has grown in abundance and significance too. As nature (in the narrow, green sense) has become ever more marginalized and besieged, nature writing has had to reinvent itself, with a sense of outrage, and of outreach, and of dark, desperate humor. The task of writers who care about one or both of these vast subjects is, among other things, to retain a relentless urge for connectedness and a rogue disregard for boundaries. The task of readers is to demand the world.
Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company Introduction copyright © 2000 by David Quammen
Meet the Author
David Quammen, a former Rhodes scholar, has written the highly acclaimed SONG OF THE DODO (1997: Simon & Schuster), a series of books based on his columns for OUTSIDE magazine, and three novels. All of his nonfiction books are still in print. His writing for OUTSIDE garnered that magazine a National Magazine Award. Although he's likely to be found conducting research anywhere from Rumania to Congo, he lives in Bozeman, Montana.
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