YELLOWSTONE: The Book Version

In August, National Geographic Books published my latest book, Yellowstone: A Journey through America’s Wild Heart. The origins of this project lie in my longtime relationship with National Geographic Magazine, and my 32 years’ residence in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and are worth describing.

In May 2016, National Geographic published a special issue, devoted entirely to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and its iconic place within America’s perception of the natural world. The occasion was the centennial of the National Park Service (1916-2016), which the magazine is celebrating with a number of parks-related stories throughout the year and this all-Yellowstone issue as the crescendo. The editor-in-chief who conceived the Yellowstone project, Chris Johns, gave me the assignment—a flattering opportunity, a daunting responsibility—of writing the whole text. It was, I’ve been told, though I haven’t checked the archives, the first time in the 128-year history of National Geographic that a single author was invited to write a complete issue. The research took me two years, off and on, during which I was also researching a very different literary effort, my Tree of Life book for Simon & Schuster (forthcoming next year). For the Yellowstone issue, I interviewed a broad range of scientists and other people, traveled throughout the ecosystem, and got to parts of the Yellowstone backcountry (by horse, by foot, on skis, and by bush plane and helicopter) that I’d never seen before. What I finally produced was a 15,000-word essay on a topic I framed as “Yellowstone: the Paradox of the Cultivated Wild.” The title as published was slightly different, but that was the guiding concept.

My text was matched in the issue with brilliant images by a large team of National Geographic photographers (led by Nick Nichols), expert maps and graphics, sidebars and captions by my friend and colleague Todd Wilkinson, and the superb work of many other members of the National Geographic team. The issue sold out quickly at newsstands across the country, and has since, for those who missed it, become hard to acquire. But in the meantime we have turned it into a book.

At the request of my National Geographic editors, I expanded the original magazine text, almost doubling its length. To do that, I restored some passages cut earlier for reasons of space, and I wrote several new sections on aspects of the subject that I had always considered relevant and interesting, but for which in the magazine there hadn’t been room. The book gave me a wonderful chance to present this fuller treatment. For instance, I added sections on social attitudes toward wolves; on the unexpected connections among grizzlies, elk, wolves and earthworms at Heart Lake; on Yellowstone as an island ecosystem and the implications of island biogeography; and on the importance of large private ranches as components of Greater Yellowstone. And I tried to reaffirm a point underlying the original version: Yellowstone is a big national park, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is bigger still, but the ideas and values that these places represent—the decisions and commitments they demand—are as big as America itself.

The result is Yellowstone: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart, containing my enlarged text and a rich assemblage of amazing photography—more than could be offered in the magazine. If you still want to read the historic May issue, and your subscription had lapsed, and you missed it on the newsstands, your best option, I suppose, is to spend an extra half-hour in your dentist’s waiting room before your next appointment. (Or read it on this website.) Better still, though, you can lay hands on the new hardback, a beautiful package for the eye and (I hope) a stimulating incentive to deeper appreciation and understanding of America’s first national park. It becomes available on August 23, wherever books are sold, at a price far more appealing than root canal.




franzJosephLand2Quammen makes his way across a basaltic scree field in Franz Joseph Land in the Russian Arctic. Read his blog post about the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition sponsored by National Geographic. Photograph by Andy Mann.

David Quammen is an author and journalist whose books include The Song of the Dodo (1996), The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (2006), and  Spillover (2014), a work on the science, history, and human impacts of emerging diseases (especially viral diseases), which was short-listed for eight national and international awards and won three.  More recently he has released two short books drawn from Spillover and updated to stand alone: Ebola (2014) and The Chimp and the River (2015). In the past thirty years he has also published a few hundred pieces of short nonfiction—feature articles, essays, columns—in magazines such as Harper’s, National Geographic, Outside, Esquire, The Atlantic, Powder, and Rolling Stone.  He writes occasional Op Eds for The New York Times and reviews for The New York Times Book Review.  Quammen has been honored with an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and is a three-time recipient of the National Magazine Award.  He is a Contributing Writer for National Geographic, in whose service he travels often, usually to wild and remote places.  Home is Bozeman, Montana.

Throughout the rest of this website, he will not refer to himself in the third person.


  • Movie Star

    January 24, 2017

         So we went to the Sundance Film Festival, yes, and a merry and curious time it was. Betsy and I drove down to Park City, Utah, along with two of our dogs--the most needy, the borzois Nick and Stella--on Friday, leaving Harry the maremma and Oscar the cat at home in the care of our trusted petsitter and friend Kris.  Friday night in Park City we went to a party, for cast and crew and others associated with the movie "Walking Out," made by script-writer/directors Alex and Andrew Smith, from a story I published, by the same title, about forty years ago.  Yes, forty.  The film stars Matt Bomer, doing a superb job in a role unlike any he's played before, and a fine young actor named Josh Wiggins, and Bill Pullman at his grizzled best.  Three generations of men in Montana linked by blood and distanced by pride and hurt and the burden of expectations.  It's a tale of a hunting trip that goes wrong, very wrong, and how a boy grows into a man under the necessity of circumstances.  Matt and Josh and Bill were all there, doing what starring actors do at Sundance, and Betsy and I were there too, doing what hayseeds from Montana do.  The film premiered at 6 pm on Saturday (a nice slot), to excellent reactions and reviews (including favorable comparisons to "The Revenant," which is the closest approximation though very different).  Speaking of "The Revenant," the film from my story, "Walking Out," also features a grizzly bear, though this grizzly sow is sensible as well as fearsome, she does not attack, and no bear was harmed--or even mildly insulted--in the making of the movie.  After the Saturday night showing, Betsy and I hung out a bit with Bill Pullman and his wife Tamara (fine and genuine folks who are anchored in Montana themselves) and other members of the cast and crew, including Annick Smith, distinguished Montana writer, who happens to be the mother of Alex and Andrew, the directors.  The relationship between my story and this family is longer and deeper than I can recount here.

         Park City was a madhouse.  There was a Women's March on the Saturday afternoon (hoorah, and Betsy was part of it), and then by evening Main Street was clogged with movie-goers and movie-makers and cars and snow.  We enjoyed it for a while, schmoozing with the film gang (Matt Bomer and Josh Wiggins, besides doing amazing work in the movie, are extremely nice and unpretentious fellows), then melted away and back to our room, where the dogs waited to be briefed on the scene.

         That was all great fun and enormously satisfying.  To cap it, on Sunday at noon we drove south to the home of our friends Doug and Lynne Seus, who have spent a lifetime adopting, befriending, raising, and training wild animals--especially grizzlies--to be film stars.  The great grizzly Bart, who starred in the 1988 film "The Bear," made by director Jean Jacques Annaud, was Doug's protege.  That Bart has gone to his reward, but Doug and Lynne now live with and care lovingly for another grizzly also named Bart, raised from a cub, now a charming 800-pounder (at least 800, I'm guessing), who is also a star of the silver screen.  We met Bart, saw some of his rehearsal work, watched him goof off in the snow of his big outdoor area, and then lunched with Doug and Lynne.  The afternoon was so wonderful, and so private, that I'll elide here and say no more about it.

         After a quieter day in Salt Lake City, with Betsy at work in the Utah historical archives for her disseration, we drove home to Montana.  Sundance was great, but for two focused homebodies like us, 48 hours was enough.  We enjoyed the good company of some very talented, dedicated, and congenial movie stars--four of them.  Matt and Josh and Bill were nifty, and Bart was unmatchable.

         I'm vastly grateful to Alex and Andrew Smith, as well as the cast and crew, for their skills and commitment in turning my story into such a serious, gorgeous film.  See it if you can.  "Walking Out," coming soon to a theater near you, maybe.


    p.s. Scott McMillion, Livingston friend of ours, journalist, editor, author of a book on the realities of grizzly attacks, plays an important cameo role at the end of the movie--as the doctor.  He nails it.  Local boy makes good on the silver screen.  Thanks, Scott!



  • Borzois in Tuxedos?

    December 8, 2016

       Forty-some years ago, I wrote a short story titled "Walking Out."  It's the tale of a boy and a father and a hunting trip gone wrong.  I was paying my dues as a struggling young writer at the time, waiting tables, then tending bar, in Missoula, Montana.  Originally this story was part of a novel, which would have been my second--but that novel never saw daylight.  The story did, finally, and thanks largely to Bill Kittredge, who was editing a collection.  He put my tale into print.  It was well received, in the quiet, small world of people who care about short fiction.

       Four decades later, the story has become a film--from a screenplay written by, and directed by, the wonderful Smith brothers, Alex and Andrew, whose previous film work includes "Winter in the Blood."  Montana lads with world-class eyes and ears.  Sons of the Montana writer and film producer Annick Smith.  We're a small world, a warm family, up here in the snow.  Everybody connected somehow.

       The film is elegantly cast: Matt Bomer as the father, Josh Wiggins as the boy, Bill Pullman stepping in for the flashback grandfather, and other fine actors.  I haven't seen the final product yet, but I saw these people at work, during a couple visits to the set, and I very much admire what they do and who they are.

       Betsy and I just got word that the film, shot in the snows of Montana last winter, has been accepted to premier at the Sundance Festival, Park City, in January.    The night of Saturday, January 21, I believe.  Mark your calendars.  Betsy asked: Can we go?  Yes, of course.  Can we take the three dogs? Yes, of course.  Load up the Subaru and we'll roll.  My question: What's the dress code for Sundance?  Do we need to get tuxedos for the two borzois?  (The maremma is more of a coveralls guy.)   No, I'm told, slightly more casual.  Maybe hip black.  Like a waiter at the Royalton, in New York.  Appropriate, I suppose, since I was a waiter myself--though never at the Royalton.  I dunno.  I suppose the dogs can be forgiven for going in fur.  I'll probably stick with the usual tweed and Levis.  Betsy will be resplendent.

       We'll watch keenly from the darkness.  It's only my story.  It's Alex and Andrew and Matt and Josh's film.

  • Crescent Moon

    December 6, 2016.  BOHART RANCH, BRIDGER MTS.

          I wish I had a photo of tonight's waxing crescent moon.  Go out and look at it.  That's the warm reflected winter luminescence that guided me out of the modest backcountry of the Bridger Mountains tonight.

         After half a day's work on "Tree of Life" and some chores, I headed for Bohart Ranch, up Bridger canyon, for a respite of late-afternoon ski touring.  Got there about 3:30 pm, way too late, it was 7 degrees or so, but as I signed in John at the Bohart lodge said, "It's a winter wondrland out there!"  That's the spirit.  I had my headlamp, knowing that I was pushing the window of daylight.  Started out, got half a mile, fingers were freezing in my little gloves, came back for my serious mittens.  Out again.  No one on the trails--except one guy, who blew past me because he was skating and I was doing diagonal stride.  (I don't skate ski because 1) I'm old and lazy and 2) when I ski tour, I want to meditate, not hyperventilate.)  Skied out alone for about an hour, on lovely snow, as it got dark.  Didn't quite go up to Logger's Loops this time, atop the Bohart area, because I knew that takes me a bit longer. Looped back around after an hour and headed toward the lodge, somewhere amid these branching trails. Now it got dusky.  Headlamp still in the fanny pack.  Should I pull it out?  Naw.  I knew that we were graced with a waxing crescent moon tonight, and that therefore it would be up early, long before sunset, casting a fair bit of light onto the snow.  So I slid on, through the darkening, with good visibility on the two-track trail.  Exquisite.  Silence.  Lodgepole pines and subalpine firs.  The ridge of the Bridgers in the distance.  Nobody else on the trails.  I got back to the car after two hours, sweaty.  I knew that John, living over the Bohart garage, would come out and look for me sometime before midnight if I was in trouble and  my car remained cold in the parking lot.  I turned on my headlights and made a circle.  Thanks, John.  Back to town.

         This is why I live in Montana.  This is why I was born half-Norwegian.

  • The Latest

     October 24, 2016

    It’s book-tour season for me again—this time on behalf of "Yellowstone: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart," my new book (in collaboration with a team of wonderful photographers), which is just out.  It’s an expanded version (more words, more photos) of the May 2016 special issue of National Geographic, for which I wrote the complete text.

    This week I'm headed over to Billings, MT, for a talk and book signing at This House of Books, on Wednesday, October 26, 5:30 pm.  I'll show some amazing photos from my National Geographic colleagues, in the course of speaking about the Yellowstone book (just out) and the work that led to its making.  Y’all come, if you’re in Billings.

    Other recent visits have been ticked off the calendar.  On October 10 I was in Colorado Springs, to lecture at Colorado College on "Ebola to Yellowstone and Beyond: A Writer's Explorations."  My old pal and editor Mark Bryant was teaching a block in the journalism program and he asked me to come, meet with his class and do the evening lecture.  Mark was editor-in-chief at Outside Magazine in the late 1980s and early '90s, when I wrote the Natural Acts column there.  We relived some good memories.  Like the time, in a beat-up car headed for a weekend getaway from Chicago to Wisconsin, when I listened to Mark pitching a story idea to our young colleague, Jon Krakauer.  Something about a poor confused young man who died in a school bus not far off a road in Alaska. . .

    On September 30, Friday, I did a lecture on Yellowstone with photos (from my National Geographic colleagues) at Town Hall in Seattle, again with a book signing afterward.  

    On October 2, a Sunday morning, I did one of the keynote talks to the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, also in Seattle.  A bit eearly for public speaking but fortunately there was good strong coffee in Seattle.

    On October 4, Tuesday, I drove down to Grand Teton and gave the keynote that evening at the opening of the 13th Biennial Scientific Conference on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  This brought to full circle, in a satisfying way, my intensive engagement with the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that began back in December 2013, when Chris Johns of Nat Geo asked me to write the special issue.

    After the GYE science conference, I drove back to Bozeman—through the southern half of Yellowstone Park, which looked magnificent in its autumnal yellows of the aspens and the cottonwoods, and a skiff of fresh snow.  I stopped along the bank of the Firehole River to savor the moments, shared distantly with a handful of tourists and about fifty bison.  Then onward: toward Bozeman and winter and more work at my desk.



EBOLA: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus



SPILLOVER: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic



THE CHIMP AND THE RIVER: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest