Mountains & Minds Magazine:

A natural act

May 02, 2008 -- Carol Schmidt

(Photo by: Stephen Hunts)

David Quammen is the award-winning author of 11 books and numerous essays on science, nature, and conservation. One of a handful of contemporary writers who has elevated the art of science writing, the Bozeman-based Quammen is a contributing writer for National Geographic. Quammen soon begins his third semester as the Wallace Stegner Professor of Western American Studies at Montana State University, also known as the Stegner Chair.

A 59-year-old native of Cincinnati, Quammen graduated from Yale, where he studied under Robert Penn Warren. He also studied the works of William Faulkner at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He moved to Montana in the 1970s and Bozeman in 1984. He has written for National Geographic, Outside, Harper's, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Book Review. From 1981 to 1995 he wrote the column "Natural Acts" for Outside magazine. He has received the National Magazine Award three times, and is also a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient.

In between trips to Kenya to write about elephants for National Geographic, Quammen answered a few questions for Mountains and Minds about the Stegner Chair, the future of the environment, and upcoming projects.

You've kayaked down the Colorado, skied in Romania, tracked tigers in the Russian Far East. How does one land such a great job?

DQ: Well, it's not actually a job, it's a literary niche. I paid dues as a writer for a long time, developing some expertise here and there, and a certain reputation among editors and readers for delivering a certain sort of story at a certain level of quality. Now I have the luxury of more work opportunities being offered than I can accept. Mostly I do my magazine work for National Geographic and Harper's these days, and they allow me to see and think about amazing corners of the world. But there's no security in the life of a free-lance writer. I bust my gut and risk my life to offer a form of literary product for which, at the moment, there are buyers. When you can't deliver the goods, the quality, the freshness, the edge -- you're done.

How did you come to be selected for the Wallace Stegner Professor in Western American Studies at MSU? While most of your work has dealt with more universal, rather than Western themes, what appealed to you about this position honoring the Dean of Western Writers?

I believe deeply in what MSU does for the state of bringing rigor and challenge to this region.
--David Quammen

DQ: Brett Walker, chairman of the MSU history department, and Gordon Brittan, MSU Regents Professor and project leader for the Stegner Chair, spoke to me about the Stegner Chair and what would be expected, what sort of duties and opportunities would be involved. They made clear that they wanted a writer and a teacher, someone with a mix of skills and interests, in the spirit of Wallace Stegner himself. I had met Stegner one time, he was a lovely man, but he hadn't been a mentor to me, as he had to other writers here in the West. Robert Penn Warren was my mentor. Another important influence and friend was Hughes Rudd, the CBS correspondent and short-story writer, who had come out of Waco, Texas. I cut my teeth on the literature of the American South and came here to the West as a 25- year-old published (barely) novelist. I owe back. Brett and Gordon were comfortable with what I could bring to the job, and I was fascinated enough by this different kind of challenge to give it a try. I've never aspired to be a teacher in the formal academic sense, but at the same time, I do feel a strong inclination to communicate my ideas, my interests, my concerns, and maybe some aspects of the craft of writing, not just to readers but to younger people.

Quammen's recent work focuses on cancer as an infectious disease, a phenomenon found in Tasmanian devils, such as this pup. (Photo: Menna Jones)
Quammen's recent work focuses on cancer as an infectious disease, a phenomenon found in Tasmanian devils, such as this pup.

You attended some of the world's most prestigious private universities. From that viewpoint, what is the role of public education in the West and society at large?

DQ: I fell into a channel of privileged education -- ivy everywhere. [However,] I believe deeply in public education and, though I've had this peculiar experience of some famous schools, my sympathy and my support go to more democratic institutions. They always have. I believe deeply in what MSU does for the state of bringing rigor and challenge to this region, and in precious programs like Native American Studies. The really significant difference isn't between public education and private education. It's between fine, robust, valued education and mediocre, sleepwalking education. MSU is full of the former kind of education, robust and valued.

You've lectured in colleges across the country and taught in several MSU classrooms. What are your thoughts about the students of today? If you were to be directing the education of these students, what would you advise them to read and study to be beneficial citizens of our changing world?

DQ: What would I advise them to read? Serious, enduring books in a broad range of subject areas. In other words, it's not enough to acquire information by flipping the channels on a remote or surfing the Web. Young people will be poorly served, and will poorly serve society during the maturity of their generation, if they don't develop the mental discipline, focus, and desire for reading. Serious reading, by which I mean books. For instance, I believe that every literate young citizen, whether he or she is majoring in drama or business or biology or English, should read Darwin's great book, The Origin of Species. It changed the world we live in, and the way we perceive ourselves within that world. And yet most people, even biology majors, never read it. That's crazy.

Does it surprise you that you are still defending the value of biological diversity and what we risk if we lose it?

DQ: It doesn't surprise me at all. It's the most important thing on Earth, and yet its importance can't be measured purely in terms of its practical, commercial, medicinal, standard-of-living value to humans. That's a hard sell, because imagination and passion are required for appreciating biological diversity for its own sake. It's the work of a lifetime, trying to help people experience that leap.

You say in your essay republished in this magazine that you first moved to Montana to fish, and then your fascination with area rivers turned to kayaking. Do you still have that passion, or does something else occupy your free time these days?

DQ: I retired from kayaking a handful of years ago, because all my kayak buddies got too old. I still have a passion for telemark skiing. For much of 10 years, I also played city-league hockey, hoping I might learn how to carry a puck through a crowd before my knees or my shoulders gave out. Alas, it didn't happen. I started too late. But what fun trying. Now I've retired from that, too. In summers I bicycle. I have a dear friend (Michael E. Gilpin, world- class biologist, retired), a superb senior bike racer, who thinks he can make me a bicycle racer. He's nuts, but I have fun chasing his wheel.

You have said that 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." Since you've written books about both Darwin and the dodo, you are something of an expert on extinction. What are your observations about the chopping up of habitat in Montana and extinction in the Rocky Mountain West?

DQ: Suburban sprawl and ranchette country living are doing more to destroy the wildlife habitats of the northern Rockies than all the chainsaws Husqvarna could ever build. I've said this before but I'll say it again, at the risk of sounding bossy or judgmental: "If you love the landscape, live in town." In fact I have no interest in telling other people where to live, but that little slogan is my answer to your question -- where do I perceive the threats, the priorities. Lifestyle choices about where we live, how long our driveway is, how far we drive to work, what we eat.

Montana's rivers first brought David Quammen to the state three decades ago. MSU's current Stegner Chair remains committed to the Western landscape and lifestyle. (Photo: David Quammen)
Montana's rivers first brought David Quammen to the state three decades ago. MSU's current Stegner Chair remains committed to the Western landscape and lifestyle.

Your name has been mentioned with other writers such as Edward Abbey, Barry Lopez, and Terry Tempest Williams -- great praise indeed -- who elevate their genre with a prose amalgam of science, economics, politics, culture and a good dose of humor. You've said, "Of all the things writing can be, what it always should be is entertaining." How did you come to develop your style? What is your process in polishing your prose?

DQ: Those three writers you mention have been my colleagues and pals. Ed Abbey was also an early inspiration, one of the writers who showed me what nonfiction could be. I developed my style by trying hard to write as though I were talking to one friend at a small table in a bar. I believe humor is important; you can't really make a person cry in a piece of writing, I believe, unless you're also a threat to make them laugh; and vice versa. I polish my prose this way: write; rewrite rewrite rewrite rewrite rewrite rewrite; listen to good editorial advice; then rewrite again.

What future activities do you plan related to the Stegner Chair?

DQ: Jane Goodall will speak at MSU on April 28 this year. She comes as a Friend of the Stegner Chair. In a literal sense, she's a friend of mine, from previous occasions; we've had some good times together in the field, watching chimpanzees in the Congo, watching black- footed ferrets in South Dakota. But she also comes to Bozeman as a friend of The Tributary Fund, the conservation organization founded by my wife, Betsy Gaines, who played a big role, along with Brett Walker, in working out the arrangements with Jane and her people.

Jane Goodall is one of the world's most eloquent voices and having a chance to hear her in person is a wonderful opportunity for this community. She's also a really good egg. People will enjoy this event and be inspired.

Suburban sprawl and ranchette country living are doing more to destroy wildlife habitats.than all the chainsaws Husqvarna could ever build.
--David Quammen

In February, I did another Stegner lecture. My topic this time was the evolutionary biology of cancer and the epidemic of infectious cancer (yes, infectious, from animal to animal) that's currently sweeping through the Tasmanian devil. There are wider implications of this phenomenon, even some implications for human health. Another continuing activity will be what we call the Stegner Seminar -- a reading group that I lead for graduate students in the history department, which meets at Betsy's and my house three times per term and discusses some select readings on a theme. This term the theme is "Oppenheimer, Teller, and the soul of nuclear America."

This should keep me busy, when I'm not on the road in Africa or somewhere else. And the menu I've described -- Jane Goodall in April, plus some history of technology, history of science, evolutionary biology and wildlife conservation -- will offer, I hope, substantial but tantalizing intellectual fare to the MSU and Bozeman community. My chair is in "Western American Studies," and I never forget that, but so far I've chosen to pursue the mandate by helping students and lecture-goers reach out imaginatively from this Western context of ours to the wider world and bring ideas back that help us understand ourselves, our country, and our landscape better.

How do you pick your next large topic? What's your next book project?

DQ: My next book project is on zoonotic diseases, growing out of my October 2007 article in National Geographic. Zoonotic diseases: the ones we humans share (giving and taking) with other species. The subject is fascinating because some of the diseases (such as Ebola, Nipah, Hendra, SARS, bird flu) are so dramatic and scary, and it's important because it's all about ecology. It shows us, still again, that Earth's biological systems are all interconnected and that we disturb them at our peril. I'll be chasing various aspects of the subject, but one in particular: the relationships among Ebola virus, gorillas, humans, and bats.

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