YELLOWSTONE: The Book Version
In August, National Geographic Books will publish 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.
David Quammen is an author and journalist whose books include The Song of the Dodo (1996), The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (2006), and Spillover (2012), 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.
YELLOWSTONE: America's Wild Idea
The year 2016 is the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service. In observance of that landmark, National Geographic Magazine is publishing a series of articles on national parks and the park idea throughout the year, and one very special issue—the issue for May 2016—devoted entirely to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Enormous resources have been devoted to this project, including a whole team of photographers; a single writer, me, was assigned to write the entire main text of the issue, a continuous essay of 15,000 words. (The sidebars and captions are by my friend and colleague, longtime reporter on Yellowstone-area matters, Todd Wilkinson.) Assigning the main text to one writer was an extraordinary act of trust on the part of Chris Johns, Editor-in-Chief at the time the project was conceived, and Susan Goldberg, Editor-in-Chief now, has affirmed that trust. It was also a great opportunity for me, giving me access to remote parts of the ecosystem, in company with park biologists and other experts, that I had never before seen. The issue is online, as well as available at newsstands, and you can start reading it here:
Learning to Let the Wild be Wild in Yellowstone, National Geographic Magazine,
from the May, 2016 issue
The Yellowstone We Don't See: A Struggle of Life and Death, National Geographic Magazine,
from the May, 2016 issue
Yellowstone's Future Hangs on a Question: Who Owns the West?, National Geographic Magazine,
from the May, 2016 issue
FEBRUARY 2015: THE CHIMP AND THE RIVER,
published by W.W. Norton.
Ebola was the big disease story of 2014, but of course AIDS is still around. The AIDS pandemic has now killed about 39 million people worldwide and infected another 35 million. There’s little point in comparing these two public-health catastrophes, despite the obvious contrast in sheer magnitude, because each is so awful in its own way and each is so extraordinary. Yet they have at least one thing in common: They belong to a single category of phenomena—the category of rampaging zoonotic diseases.
A zoonotic disease, as I’ve explained elsewhere more than once, is a human affliction caused by an infectious bug (a virus, in each of these two cases) that has spilled over from nonhuman animals into humans.
Zoonotic diseases are the subject of my 2012 book Spillover—a work mainly devoted to the ecology and evolution of scary viruses—from which I extracted and reshaped sections to produce a little 2014 book, Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus. I’ve now done the same thing (at the suggestion of W. W. Norton) with the long AIDS chapter from Spillover, in order to offer it too as a short, stand-alone book. The Chimp and the River: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest is my answer to the jaded question, Why do zoonotic diseases really matter? The impetus in putting out Ebola was to offer a lean but substantial explanation of that virus—where it comes from and why and how it behaves—in the midst of an urgent situation. I thought of the book as an emergency information tool for news people, public officials, and anyone else concerned with the subject but too busy, or otherwise not likely, to read all 592 pages of Spillover. The impetus for releasing The Chimp and the River is different: AIDS has seemed urgent for 34 years now (since it was first recognized, in 1981), but most people still don’t comprehend how it took hold in humans, or when, or how, or why. The Chimp and the River explains that, and I have always seen this stretch of pages as a little self-contained book within a big one.
If you haven’t read Spillover, or followed certain discoveries in the arcane scientific journal literature of recent years, The Chimp and the River will give you a startlingly unexpected picture of the AIDS tragedy and its origins—a story of fateful accident, dark irony, and humanity’s bad luck that is very different from what you think you know.
For instance: The very beginning of AIDS has now been traced to a single event, localized rather precisely in place and time. The place was southeastern Cameroon, a small wedge of landscape in forested Central Africa from which two modest rivers (the Ngoko and the Sangha) drain toward the great freeway of brown water known as the Congo. The time was as early as 1908, give or take a margin of error. The event was an encounter—presumably a bloody encounter, a predator-prey interaction—between one human and one chimpanzee. The chimp happened to be carrying a blood-borne virus, which scientists much later have labeled SIV—an insidious thing, a retrovirus, slow-acting, with enormous potential to replicate, persist, and cause harm in the right host (meaning the wrong host, from our point of view), if it could blunder its way into such a promising situation. This virus passed from the chimp’s blood—through a cut on the man’s hand, maybe?—into the hunter’s bloodstream. SIV became HIV. (More precisely, the chimp’s version of SIV became the founder lineage of what’s now called HIV-1 group M, the pandemic strain. I explain all this in the book.) Forget about that Canadian airline steward, Gaetan Dugas, about whom you may have heard or read. The Cameroonian hunter, not Gaetan Dugas, was Patient Zero. From there, that single man, that moment, that mishap, the fateful strain of HIV spread through global humanity, like a bucket of blood flowing down a tile stairway.
The Chimp and the River tries to tell this story accurately, humanely, vividly, in the dimensions of history and ecology (and imagination), as the most dire and consequential of scientific detective tales. My years of reading and rereading the journals, the many interviews I conducted, my travels in remote places (including on the Ngoko River draining southeastern Cameroon, where I chartered a rickety pirogue to retrace the virus’s route) all went into this little book. For one stretch of the text, to connect the dots among known facts across gaps of unknowability, I created a sort of parable—that’s my hypothetical tale of the Cut Hunter and the Voyager—using the tools of a fiction writer (which I once was) to imagine the irrecoverable particulars of history.
Maybe that gambit works; maybe not. Something else I’ve said elsewhere: Safety is craft, when it comes to writing, and art entails risk. For whatever this may be worth, and I invite you to discount it as coming from the author: The Chimp and the River probably constitutes the riskiest and most important 176 pages I’ve ever written.
OCTOBER 2014: OpEd from Time.com
Ebola and the New Isolationism, Time Inc., October 6, 2014