“David Quammen Turns Tough Science into Page-Turning Pleasure”

—headline, The New York Times

“Quammen has written a deep and daring intellectual adventure. . . . The Tangled Tree is much more than a report on some cool new scientific facts. It is, rather, a source of wonder.”

—Tom Levenson, The Boston Globe

Quammen is “our greatest living chronicler of the natural world. . . . His new book, The Tangled Tree, is the biography of an idea—a heretical, groundbreaking idea.”

—Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

“In David Quammen’s new page-turner, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, the author reveals how new molecular techniques have come to revolutionize the way we understand evolutionary processes and how we classify life into coherent groups.”

—Ivor T. Knight, Science

“David Quammen proves to be an immensely well-informed guide to a complex story that in less capable hands would be unintelligible to the general reader. Indeed he is, in my opinion, the best natural history writer currently working.”

—David P. Barasch, The Wall Street

“At times, this master storyteller’s book reads like a travelogue. . . .Some of the stories are laugh-out-loud funny.”

—John Archibald, Nature

“Quammen does a marvelous job of weaving together the scientific and human story of this revolution.”

—Ivor T. Knight, Science

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     (This post was written for the National Geographic website and can be found here.  At the same site, you can also read other posts from the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition to Franz Josef Land.)


            Five weeks is a long time to spend on a boat, even if it happens to be a vessel as comfortable as the Polaris, amid company as fascinating, various, congenial, and purposeful as the members of the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition to Franz Josef Land.  Don’t remind me, please, that Charles Darwin was out for four years, nine months, and five days with the Beagle voyage, and that he slept on a hammock in a shared cabin so tiny he had to pull out a bureau drawer each night to make room for his feet.  Don’t tell me about the intrepid survivors of the whaling ship Essex, or the Bounty mutineers making their way to Tahiti, or that guy who soloed around the world in the Gypsy Moth.  Don’t tell me about Shackleton and the Endurance because, inspirational as it may be, that’s a South Pole story, half a world away from us up here in the far North.  Just trust me: Thirty-five days gets to be a longish time, bobbing around on the Arctic Ocean, especially after the wireless internet goes down, the freshwater rationing begins, and the vodka runs out.


The survey ship Polaris on the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition to Franz Josef Land.


           So we have devised some ways of coping.  We drink a lot of coffee and tea.  We share an endless supply of stories from previous adventures.  We edit photographs, by the hour, on our computers and phones.  We pose head-breaking riddles to the group, like that one about walking south a mile, east a mile, then north a mile and ending up exactly where you started.  (It works from the North Pole, yes, but where else?)  We take picnic lunches ashore, in the form of salami and cheese and brown bread, of which there seems to be no shortage, and eat them cheerily amid the rocks and the ice during pauses from the day’s walking and work.  When unable to go ashore, in desperation for exercise, we resort to the “Fittnes Center,” a cabin thus labeled on the lowest deck, containing one treadmill machine and a set of barbells.  We have a meeting each morning to discuss what we’re going to do and another each evening to recap what we’ve done.

After the evening confab, we take turns giving programs: Forest Rohwer on viruses, Alan Friedlander on fishes, Sergey Grebelny on benthic invertebrates, Andy Mann playing guitar, Maria Gavrilo on the history of meteorological research in Franz Josef Land, Cory Richards showing a selection of his stunning photos and making everyone laugh with his goofy self-deprecating humor.  We are a floating Chautauqua.

            On the nights without live programs, we watch movies and cable shows, sometimes together, more often on laptops in the privacy of our cabins.  (Personal disclosure: I’m carrying Season 1 of “Justified” and also early episodes of “The Sopranos,” which I’d never seen.)  But the movie-watching together, in the ship’s lounge, is more festive.  One night we screen “The Life Aquatic, with Steve Zissou” and feel that its evocation of idiotic shipboard camaraderie speaks very specially to us.  In place of the orange hats and blue shirts of Team Zissou, we have blue hats and orange jackets, part of complete kits of Arctic clothing supplied to us generously by Patagonia.  In lieu of Steve Zissou we have Enric Sala, a dapper Spaniard with a pony tail and a deep commitment to marine conservation, as our expedition leader.  Enric is a visionary young marine ecologist, founder of Pristine Seas and an Explorer in Residence of the National Geographic Society.  On this voyage he plays many important leadership roles, such as deciding (in consultation with the captain and with Maria Gavrilo, scientific co-leader) on the route of the ship, drawing pictures of our position on the whiteboard, breaking the news as we run short of water, and remonstrating when the American and Spanish expedition members drink up an undue portion of the evening beer, leaving an insufficiency for the Russians.  Enric bears little resemblance to Bill Murray, but by stretching our imaginations while watching “The Life Aquatic,” we can begin to see him in that role.


Cory Richards and Paul Rose enjoy tea-time ashore.


            And of course, being serious people, we read.  Reading helps the hours and days on ship to fly by.  Charles Darwin, aboard the Beagle, had volume 2 of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, a revolutionary new work (in 1834) that catalyzed his early thinking about evolution.  We enjoy the postmodern luxury of carrying many more options than Mr. Darwin did, thanks to our various electronic devices, and though we don’t put our reading time to such profoundly good use as he, still the flipping of electronic pages eases our journey.  On my own Kindle, for instance, I’ve been reading Cullen Murphy’s excellent book on the Inquisition, God’s Jury, and Tom Hornbein’s classic account of his Everest climb in 1963, The West Ridge, and H. L. Mencken’s lively selection of his own work, A Mencken Chrestomathy, as well as David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman.  As backup on the Kindle I have Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, all six volumes, as well as War and Peace and Emma for rereading, in case our ship becomes trapped in the Arctic pack ice and we’re forced to ride it out through the winter, as Fridtjof Nansen did.  But I’m hoping that won’t become necessary.

            Beyond our own personal libraries, electronic or otherwise, there’s a ship’s library downstairs, assembled for this voyage, mainly by Enric, with a rich selection of practical and historical works: The Norwegian North Pole Expedition 1893-1896: Scientific Results, in six volumes, edited by Nansen; New Lands within the Arctic, an account by Julius Payer, co-leader of the Austro-Hungarian expedition of 1872-1874 that discovered Franz Josef Land and named it for the Hapsburg emperor; A Thousand Days in the Arctic, by Frederick G. Jackson, another of the earlier Arctic pioneers; Polar Microbiology, a tome supplied for our diversion by Forest Rohwer; A Complete Guide to Arctic Wildlife, by Richard Sale; and quite a few other guidebooks, monographs, and expeditionary sagas in both English and Russian.  I’ve had a dip into the Payer book myself and found some interesting bits about how this place appeared in 1874.  It was even colder and icier then—although, notwithstanding the presumptive impacts of climate change, which we see in the form of retreating glaciers, and which we discuss and ponder continually, it’s pretty cold and icy now too.

Whether it’s still cold and icy enough to keep the entire ecosystem from turning upside down, like the iceberg that cracked suddenly a few days ago and nearly clobbered several of our divers, including Forest: That’s the question.


Mike Fay, a long way from Central African forests.


          I wouldn’t want to give the impression that our only use of energy and wit on this journey is finding ways to kill time.  On the contrary, most of our hours and days are industriously spent.  Making dive after dive in the freezing water, Alan Friedlander has identified 10 species of shallow-zone Arctic fishes and begun pondering the reasons why diversity here seems to be low.  Kike Ballesteros, likewise spending his days in a dry suit, with numbed fingers and reddened cheeks, has made a thorough inventory of the marine algae, something never before done.  Maria and her team have censused and banded kittiwakes, guillemots, skuas, little auks, eider ducks, and glaucous gulls.  Forest and his graduate student, Steve Quistad, have captured billions of viruses, from a variety of hospitable media such as beach slime and bird shit, and will learn interesting things from their DNA.  Mike Fay has collected thirty-some species of flowering plants, using both classic methods (pressing specimens in newspaper) and new ones (GPS-referenced photographs).  And even this list does not exhaust the science that’s being done.

The 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition will take the measure of Franz Josef Land—at this moment in time, for purposes of comparison against the past and the future—in ways and to a degree such as it has never before been measured.  Cory Richards and I, for our part, will do our best to give some sense of this heroic effort to readers of National Geographic Magazine.  Others are working to perform a parallel function with video and sound.

            As for the leftover hours, once our shore hikes and our dives are completed, or if especially bad weather prevents us from diving, or hungry polar bears on the prowl make it inadvisable to go ashore, or as the days and the weeks seem lengthened inordinately by the fact that the sun never sets—we have our ways of coping, as I said.  When all else fails, we write blogs.




  • Sphinx

        February 18, 2019

         Forty-five years in Montana, hiking the trails, skiing the mountains, driving the back roads, and I had never caught a glimpse of a mountain lion.  It's not that they are rare here—they aren't.  They live a pretty good life and at reasonable abundance, for a predator, eating deer and other prey, favoring rocky bluffs and deep forest,  occasionally showing up at the fringes of human settlement.  Many people see them by sheer happenstance—crossing the yard near a mountain cabin, at the edge of a ski area, along a foot trail just a mile from the parking lot.  But not me, ever.  It isn't that I'm extraordinarily unlucky, or obtuse (I hope), when it comes to observing elusive and formidable animals.  On the contrary, I've been privileged.  I've seen a Siberian tiger in the wild; but never a Montana cougar.  (For clarity: cougar, mountain lion, catamount, and puma are all synonyms for the same creature, Puma concolor by its scientific name, found from the Canadian Yukon to the southern Andes, the most broadly north-to-south-distributed big mammal, not counting humans, in the world.)  I've watched a Komodo dragon climb a cliff on the island of Komodo; but never a mountain lion crossing a dirt road in the Gallatins.  I've ogled saltwater crocs in Arnhem Land, leopards in Africa, Asiatic lions at Gir Forest in Gujarat, and grizzly bears in Yellowstone; but not one glimpse of the reigning big cat in the state where I live.  Finally, I had to go all the way to Patagonia National Park, in southern Chile, for that modest but satisfying experience.


        I was there for National Geographic, researching a story on Tompkins Conservation, the vast philanthropic effort created by the late Doug Tompkins and his wife Kristine McDivitt Tompkins to buy and restore wildlish lands and give them, as national parks, to the peoples of Chile and Argentina.  One evening after dinner, Kris Tompkins asked me: Do you want to go spotlighting for puma?  Yes.  She arranged for Cristian Saucedo, the park's chief biologist, with whom I'd spent a long earlier day seeing some of the other wildlife, to take me out.  We didn't need to go far.  Several puma, including at least one female with two kits, had been frequenting the rocky hills and meadows near the park's headquarters and lodge, preying on guanaco (a llama-like wild herbivore that constitutes most of the cat's diet down there) and staying clear of conflict (so far) with tent campers and other visitors.  And so, beginning at dusk, along with two other folks—Sergio Urrejola, the head of wardens, and another visitor, Chantal Henderson—we slowly drove the gravel roads of the headquarters sector of the park.  Cristian and Chantal swept the hillsides and cliffs with strong beams, as the darkness got thick, while we all watched for the green eyeshine of a puma.  And sure enough, after less than an hour, there she was.  It was Chantal's light that found her, on a sweep high and leftward into some low bluffs.

        An adult female, said Cristian, judging from her size.  She was resting low on her belly, front paws forward, like the Great Sphinx of Giza, on a rock ledge about sixty yards above the road.  She turned her head toward us, eyes aglow, seeming unconcerned with the lights or our presence.  Then she turned away.  She might be resting, said Cristian, or laying in ambush for a guanaco.  Cristian and Chantal diverted their beams, and we continued to admire her, without blinding her, for fifteen minutes.  Then we quietly drove on, to leave her in peace—for her rest, or her hunt.  When we swung back past the same spot, almost an hour later, she was gone.

        That's it.  No big drama here.  Just an observation—important to me because I had waited so long.  She was there.  She was magnificent.  And then she was gone.  I didn't take a photo.  You'll have to trust me.  The image is indelible in my head.




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