The sometimes under-lionized natural-history journalist David Quammen is reaping some fantastic reviews and writerly canonization for his new book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, in which he busts a Richard Preston/Hot Zone move by merging stylish non-fiction storytelling with a horror-movie promise to scare the shit out of readers. This weekend in the New York Times Charles McGrath bestows a well-deserved major-writer treatment on Mr. Quammen with “The Subject is Science, the Style is Faulkner.”
I’m looking forward to reading Spillover with, as always in the case of Quammen, a bit of trepidation. My professional experience with David has been a somewhat melancholy one. When I arrived at Outside as features editor at the end of 1996, he was winding up a decade-and-a-half championship run as the magazine’s Natural Acts columnist, and Outside never quite recovered that brainy, crunchy, opposite-of-extreme-sports corner of its soul after his departure. As a columnist, he was like some updated manifestation of the heroic naturalist Dr. Stephen Maturin of the Patrick O’Brian novels, alternately courtly, clinical, and besotted with the amazing systems and architecture of living things. (Quammen’s collections Natural Acts, Wild Thoughts from Wild Places, and The Flight of the Iguana are simply wornderful.) I felt like I’d arrived on a baseball coaching staff on the eve of a Hall of Fame hitter’s retirement. He subsequently contributed only a few more features to Outside before beginning a distinguished affiliation with National Geographic.
I’m more ambivalent about the big-picture Quammen, in The Song of the Dodo (1996) and now, presumably, in Spillover. About his accuracy, narrative skill, and sense of big, important story there is no doubt. My problem with David is that he has an essentially pessimistic and tragic vision of environmental issues, and declines to be any kind of crusader or hopeful advocate. His view is probably far saner and more realistic than the evangelizing stance of someone like Bill McKibben. But after all the cool science and alarums, David Quammen tends to leave me with a counsel of despair. When The Song of the Dodo, his magisterial epic of conservation biology and extinction, was published, he did an Op-Ed piece for the Times about why national parks are “nature’s dead end,” far too small and isolated to function as tools for wildlife conservation. And…? “This approach won’t do” — the end. ”Lively writing about science and nature depends less on the offering of good answers, I think, than on the offering of good questions,” he writes in Natural Acts. His sensibility inclines him to lead us through the jungles and thickets and swamps of a dilemma, and then part company with us on the brink of the place where solutions and amelioration might begin. My worry about the new book is that it brilliantly portrays how the damage that’s been done to the borders between the wildlife kingdom and humanity, and how lethal threats are crossing from animals to people, but that it also leave us with a implicit message that wildlife are vehicles of contagion — our enemies, not our victims.
Aldo Leopold’s famous, very Quammenesque formulation comes to mind:
One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds… An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.
The analogy implies that a search for cure must follow diagnosis.