David Quammen is an award-winning writer, perhaps best known for his nature column called “Natural Acts” in Outside magazine from 1981 to 1995. His first novel, To Walk the Line, was published when he was 22 years old. He has authored three other works of fiction and seven non-fiction books, including Wild Thoughts from Wild Places, The Song of the Dodo, and The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. His recently published book is Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. He is also a regularly contributing writer for National Geographic.
Below is the transcribed record of a verbal conversation. Neither David Quammen nor I have tried to make it read like a polished, fully grammatic piece of writing. It is what it is: human talk.
Let’s begin by talking about your family background. How big was your family? Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Cincinnati. I was the middle of three children, with older and younger sisters. My father worked for Proctor & Gamble. It was sort of a middle-class, suburban “Leave It to Beaver” family. It was a very happy childhood; therefore, not very interesting, I suppose. I went to Catholic school for 12 years, including four years of Jesuit education. And I was probably headed toward a Jesuit university, when one of my Jesuit teachers–the man who was most important to me as a mentor–suggested to me, “Why don’t you also apply to Yale?” I remember saying, “Why would I apply to Yale? That’s a non-Catholic…” He said, “Well, yes, it is. It also happens to have a great English department.”
I was interested in writing and planning to study English. And I asked, “What’s so great about its English department?” And he said, “Well, they have Penn Warren to start with.” And I said, “Who’s Penn Warren?” He said, “Robert Penn Warren—one of the co-editors of the Understanding Fiction textbook we’re using, but also a great novelist and poet, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of All the King’s Men.”
So I went to Yale and to my great, good fortune in my junior year I took a seminar from Robert Penn Warren. Then I became close to him and his family and lived with them as an assistant at their summer house in Vermont my junior year. He became a very, very important mentor, friend and patron to me.
Early in my senior year, Penn Warren said to me when we were having a one-on-one meeting, “Have you thought of applying for a Rhodes Scholarship? It could be two years at Oxford.” I said, “I don’t know if I want to do two years of graduate school at Oxford, or anywhere else. I want to be a novelist.” His response was: “Of course, you don’t want to spend two years at Oxford! But you’ll be three hours from Paris, man!” And I said, “Well, yes, sir, I guess I would like to apply.” He said, “Fine, I’ll write you a recommendation!”
I always assumed that there was no one thing that can win [the Rhodes Scholarship] for you, but that recommendation from Robert Penn Warren certainly was an important shoulder to the wheel. He had been a Rhodes Scholar himself in 1928.
Let’s go back to your early childhood. What were you like as a kid?
I was always interested in two things: the natural world and writing.
Why was that?
I don’t know if I can say why. I just was. Those were the two things that fascinated me, entertained me. Writing was the target of my creative energies. From about the age of ten, eleven, maybe twelve, I was writing poems, little plays, skits and stories on my own time and showing them to people, teachers, or my parents, or doing whatever you do with a poem when you’re twelve years old. [Laughs.]
I was also spending a lot of time exploring a hardwood forest that began just off the backdoor of our house in the northern suburbs of Cincinnati. I had a very good friend who was also interested in insects, reptiles of all sorts, and nature generally. He and I would spend a lot of time hiking through this forest, collecting insects, bringing back live reptiles, keeping wild animals as pets, and raising tropical fish.
Your parents didn’t mind?
My parents hugely indulged that. They took me to the natural history museum in Cincinnati. They took me to the zoo. They bought me butterfly nets. They tolerated me keeping snakes and at one point even a bat in my bedroom as pets. The bat didn’t work out very well. I was smart enough to release it after it tried to bite me once. The snakes sometimes didn’t fare well, because I didn’t really know how to take care of them. But my parents were very supportive.
All of that was a strong enough [interest] so at the age of 14, I thought I’m going to be either a writer, or a biologist. When I went to high school and was under the guidance of these Jesuits, I had several teachers of English who were extraordinarily creative, brilliant, charismatic, and supportive. They really developed that literary side. I didn’t have a biology teacher who was equally galvanizing and that probably, as much as anything, is what sent me off to Yale with the intention of being an English major and the ambition of becoming some kind of a writer.
You had mentioned earlier that you had a really important Jesuit mentor.
I had two really. I had one when I was a freshman in high school and one when I was a senior in high school. The one that I had as a senior was the one who told me about Penn Warren and pointed me toward Yale. His name was Thomas G. Savage and The Song of the Dodo, which is probably my best and definitely my most successful book, is dedicated to him.
What kind of worldly wisdom did they impart to you? What message, or wisdom did you take with you after you parted?
From the two Jesuits, I learned the really important lesson that writing is an equal mixture of creativity and precision. The way they taught involved being very, very supportive of any wild degree of creativity, whimsy, and imaginativeness; yet, they were very, very demanding on the level of grammar, spelling, and the mechanics of language.
As early as freshman year in high school, this was a lesson I got from a Jesuit named Jerry Lackamp, who died about two years ago. At the age of 14, I had come into his classroom and had learned this very important lesson. I still have a quote right now taped up over my desk from [Gustave] Flaubert. Somewhere Flaubert said, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your art.”
I don’t know if it’s a motto, or just sort of a recipe. It’s something that I find comfortable and I suppose I live by it. I’m a fairly disciplined writer. I’m not as wild or crazy or dissipated as lot of writers are. [Laughs.] Although I have this peculiar professional niche that takes me all over the world freelancing, I live a fairly straight life when I’m home and writing. That comes from Flaubert. That comes from these two Jesuits.
There was also Robert Penn Warren at Yale who became my third, very important mentor. I learned from his example that a writer doesn’t have to be one kind of writer. Warren wrote non-fiction on racial attitudes and history. He wrote poetry. He wrote fiction. He wrote criticism. He was hugely respected in most, or all of those kinds of writing. I didn’t know how important that was when I was studying under him, but later on when I went from being a fiction writer to being a science journalist and a non-fiction writer, it was important to me to have Warren’s example to remember and to resonate with.
And was he the person to turn you onto William Faulkner as well?
No, it was Robert, my brother-in-law (married to my older sister) who turned me onto Faulkner. He was only two or three years older than I. He used to recommend books to me occasionally, including Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. When I was a sophomore in college, he recommended The Sound and the Fury. I had read almost no Faulkner at that point. I had read one short story assigned in high school, but I had never read a Faulkner novel. So at the advice of my brother-in-law, I sat down just for fun and started reading The Sound and the Fury. By the time I was five pages into it, my life had changed.
Why is that?
Because it was so dramatically engaging, unusual, and mesmerizing. It seemed so experimental yet so right, so effective—experimental not for its own sake but in service to a kind of insight. By the time I finished The Sound and the Fury, I was completely excited by Faulkner. I went on and started reading all of his other novels, not in any sort of course context, but just because I was excited about them. I suppose I wanted to be novelist at that point and I thought these are the novels more than any that I’ve seen that I wish I had written. So I started reading, reading, reading Faulkner.
The following year I took a seminar from Penn Warren. In the course of the seminar, we read only four books and one of them was The Sound and the Fury. So I reread it at [Penn Warren’s] elbow and saw it through his eyes, or he helped us see it through our own eyes, but with greater acuity. The way the course was organized, we would read these four books very closely, pick any author, read most of his, or her work, and write a sixty-page term paper (longer than anything I’d ever written before)—an in-depth exploration.
Of course, I picked Faulkner, so I had the experience during my junior year of having private meetings, or conferences with Robert Penn Warren to talk about Faulkner. This was a huge educational opportunity. Here was one of the greatest writers from the Southern Renaissance, serving as my personal guide to the greatest writer from the Southern Renaissance and, arguably, from American fiction in the twentieth century. I was just this kid from Cincinnati getting this opportunity to talk Faulkner with Warren.
Was it easy to build that rapport with him?
I don’t know if it was easy, but it certainly built. We got along very well, but I was his student. At that point, I was not his friend, or his protégé. During that term, I was just getting know him. When I went in to talk to him about the long paper and which writer I was going to do the paper on, I can remember saying to him, I want to do it on the epistemology of Faulkner’s novels. He squinted his eyes, looked at me with his wise Southern look, and said, “Well, epistemology. That’s a big word. Let’s talk about what it means.” So we did and I wrote about ways of knowing and the way Faulkner’s plots unfold for the reader through a very complicated set of strategies that bring factual material and ultimately understanding to the reader in a series of fragments, or a series of layers almost like GIS overlays. Eventually, you get the full picture, but you get it layer by layer.
And then [Penn Warren] had this habit of choosing one student from Yale each year and offering the kid the chance to come up to his summer house and be a helper, teach tennis to his kids, drive the car to the store, and do things like that. So I got the offer and lived with his family the summer of 1969. That was when I became really close to the whole family.
And you continued studying Faulkner at Oxford.
I went to Oxford and my original intention was to do another B.A., in History. A lot people who go there on Rhodes Scholarships simply do a second B.A., essentially because it’s an interlude between their undergraduate work and going to law school in many cases, or maybe medical school. So it’s not going to be a terminal degree. It doesn’t matter. They’re filling out their education. I did one term with a tutor doing a B.A. program in History. I worked really hard. Well, I didn’t work really hard, but I worked harder than I wanted to work, because I was writing another novel at that point. I should back up. I had already written my first novel [To Walk the Line] and it had been published, again thanks to no small part to Penn Warren. I wrote it during my junior year and then he read it during the summer when I was with them. He recommended me to his agent and to his editor at Random House. His agent ended up selling it, not to Random House, but to Knopf. The fact that I had a novel that was sold and was in the pipeline to be published was another thing that probably helped me get the Rhodes Scholarship.
During my senior year [at Yale] I was doing a rewrite of my novel and I was also writing a screenplay of Absalom, Absalom! (another Faulkner novel) under an independent study program. The only responsibility I had senior year was a program called Scholar of the House. I was excused from all courses and only had to do this project.
The first novel got published right about the time I got on the boat to go to England [to go to Oxford]. I thought I was launched as a novelist and wanted to really work on the second novel and do the BA degree on the side, but the tutors [at Oxford] generally were rigorous and demanding. They didn’t want you to be a part-time student. They wanted your full attention, so there was a bit of conflict there. After one term, I dropped out of the History program and I talked my way into a different degree program to do B.Litt., which is like a Master’s degree, on Faulkner. I had another wonderful teacher/mentor, Richard Ellmann—the great [James] Joyce biographer and literary critic—who was teaching at Oxford then. He agreed to take me on as an advisee to do this master’s thesis on Faulkner. I could do that (sort of) with one hand and continue working on the novel at the same time.
From one of your columns, I gathered that you really didn’t enjoy Oxford that much.
I didn’t, because there was this tension. I really wanted to be trying to proceed as a novelist and didn’t like the pretentiousness and the social snobbery at Oxford. It was rainy. I didn’t like the academic demands. That was my own problem. It was not a good fit for the first three quarters of my time there. Actually, when I had the Faulkner thesis about seven-eighths written toward the end of my second year, I took an opportunity and I quit and left Oxford.
Where did you go?
I went to work for George McGovern’s campaign. I quit, because Richard Nixon had blockaded Haiphong Harbor. It freaked me out. I was already upset by the Vietnam War. I resigned everything, wrapped up my affairs within a space of 36 hours, flew back to America, hitchhiked to upstate New York, and made contact with the McGovern campaign people. I sent a note to the director of Rhodes House apologizing for the suddenness of my decision. I got a very wise, accepting response from him saying: Don’t worry about it. You’re young and the door is still open. And if you want to, you can come back and finish.
After the campaign was over and McGovern had been trounced by Richard Nixon, I got on a plane again and went back to Oxford, finished my Faulkner thesis, took the oral exam, and got the degree, which, of course, nobody thought I was going to do.
Did you know that you would always go back and finish?
I had no idea whether I’d go back and finish. It didn’t matter to me at that point, because the degree was not important to me. I wanted to be a novelist. I wanted to be a writer. But I actually knew soon enough. I worked on the primaries and then in the middle of the summer of 1972, the [Democratic National] convention was held in Miami. It was a notoriously wild and crazy convention, where McGovern did get nominated. I did not go to the convention. I went back to Cincinnati and shared an apartment with a friend. I sat at his coffee table in his living room watching the convention and writing the last chapter of my Faulkner thesis. That tells me by then I knew I wanted to finish the degree. I typed [the thesis] after the campaign and went back to Oxford. I slept on one of my friend’s floor for about two weeks and turned in the thesis. Then I went to Africa for Christmas. By the time I came back from Africa, they were ready to give me my oral exam. I took the oral exam, got the degree, and went back to the US.
Were you well traveled before you went to Oxford?
No, I wasn’t, but I had this signal from Penn Warren that one of the advantages of going to Oxford was that vacations were long; you had a bit of money in your pocket; and you could travel.
Did you go to a lot of countries?
No. I went to Israel on one vacation. I went to Scotland. That was it, then during the delay between submitting my thesis and taking the oral exam, I went to Kenya and Tanzania on a charter flight.
Here’s another important thing. There was this man—E.T. Williams. He was the warden of the Rhodes House. During my first stay at Oxford, I thought he was stiff and pompous and this whole Rhodes Scholarship thing was silly and I even wrote something that lampooned him. Then when I quit, he came forward as this heroically wise and understanding guy. As I said, he wrote me a letter saying, don’t worry about [quitting] and we all have periods when we need to grow cabbages. Growing cabbages was his metaphor for sowing wild oats. After the campaign, I came back to Oxford and I went to see him. And I said, “Warden Williams, as you know I quit in May, but in June this payment from the Rhodes Scholarship landed in my bank account and I want to give it back to you. How do I do that?” It was three hundred pounds, which was a lot of money in those days. He winked and said, “Oh, that would be very difficult. That would be a bureaucratic nightmare. I really don’t see how we can do that, David. So why don’t you not worry about it.” I walked out of there thinking what a great guy and how did I misjudge him so badly. I took some of that money and went to Africa.
So the letter he wrote you was totally surprising to you for being so accepting?
Yes. He wasn’t a mentor, but he was heroically understanding of my particular disposition, my uncertainty, my need to charge off impulsively in one direction, or another. He absorbed that and allowed me to do it and still made the opportunity available to me to come back, not only to finish my degree, but to collect the Rhodes money that they had waiting for me.
Do you think any of those experiences abroad changed any of your viewpoints?
That first trip to Africa was a big, important gateway experience for me.
What did it do exactly?
It showed me that the world is big and fascinating, various and filled with natural and cultural wonders. You can go stumbling out into it without much money, sophistication, and any particular tools, in terms of language, or professional skills. And you can have a rich experience and enjoy people and landscape. I hitchhiked around Kenya and rode a bus to Tanzania. I traveled alone and traveled rough. It wasn’t for very long and it agreed with me.
I met little African kids on the road who led me back to their village when I was lost. They helped me find a bus to the next town and were delighted when I bought Cokes for the three of us, because they had never had a Coke before. It was a luxury they couldn’t afford and it was almost as if the Cokes in their village were kept in the vault of the banker. They were kept in a little warm chest of the only merchant in town. They weren’t called Cokes. They were called Fanta. That was the generic term. It didn’t just mean an orange drink; it meant anything including a Coca-Cola. I bought three Fantas and it was a big event in the life of the village, for these two kids, and for me. Then the bus pulled in, I got in, waved to them, and went on.
So what do you think in your youth set you up to move to Montana? I read that trout inspired you and you had just known that it was a bunch of highways on a map.
When I came back from Oxford, I lived briefly in Austin, Texas, because my older sister and brother-in-law and their little boy, who was my godson, lived there. I worked on another novel. I wrote it quickly in about six months and then I decided that Austin was not where I wanted to be. It was too hot and dry. I got in my Volkswagen bus and drove west, wanting to learn how to fly fish, wanting to be a novelist. I stopped in Wyoming and spent a month camping on the Green River and teaching myself to fly fish. And then I drove into Berkeley, California, thinking maybe I’d settle there. I shared an apartment for about another month and typed up a novel (this was, by the way, a never to be published novel). The one I wrote in England was also never to be published. The one at Yale became my first published book and then there was a gap for thirteen years.
Anyway, Austin, Texas was not right. Wyoming was not right. Berkeley, California was not right. And then I decided Montana. I had a friend who had told me that he had been through this place called Missoula, where three rivers converged and you can see snow in the mountains in September. I knew there was a university there and I thought, that’s it, I’m going to Missoula, Montana, and I’m going to be a novelist. So I drove in to Missoula, Montana on September 12, 1973, in my Volkswagen bus and I got a place in a rooming house. I had no idea that I’d stay, essentially the rest of my life, publish a few more novels, but discover I couldn’t make a living as a novelist and probably shouldn’t, because it wasn’t the right kind of writing for me; and then turn into a science writer. I was not able to foresee any of that. But I showed up in Missoula and began that phase of my life.
So how long did you stay in Missoula, because you’re now in Bozeman?
I stayed in Missoula for four years. I ran out of money. I tended bar. I waited tables. I worked on another novel (the fourth) and then I finished that novel. I tried to get it published. Couldn’t. Then after four years, I said, I need to get out of here. I can’t tend bar anymore. It’s driving me crazy. Apparently, I’m not succeeding in continuing to be a novelist, so I left. I started trying other things, some of which included being a ghostwriter for a fellow who ran an energy research institute in Butte, Montana. I moved to Butte and started getting a salary for being supposedly his ghostwriter. It involved trying to read his mind and write a book about the history of technology that he thought he could create. But it was mostly me reading and writing about the history of technology. It became an experience that was almost like another master’s degree, but it was all independent study. I did that for two years, getting a small paycheck and reading about Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, the history of nuclear technology in particular, and the history of technology, in general. That’s when I discovered I liked writing non-fiction.
Let’s talk about your lack of success in fictional writing. At what point, did you realize it. Did you even see it as failure?
I saw it as a frustration. I didn’t see it as failure. I thought that the books I had written were good.
What were those novels?
The one I wrote at Oxford was a novel about young men dodging the draft, but that one was no good. My first novel had been semi-autobiographical, very grounded in my own experience. It had been about friendship between a black kid and a white kid on the west side of Chicago in 1968. Racial tensions. Community organizing. Friendship. It was called To Walk the Line.
The second one was sort of phantasmagorical. I had gotten influenced by Thomas Pynchon. It was rickety and not very good.
The third one was called Spiders of Madagascar, not based on my own experience, or things that I knew about. It was about (oddly enough) a National Geographic photographer coming back from an assignment in Madagascar and his relationship with a woman, who unbeknownst to him had become pregnant by him. And he was trying to reinsert himself in her life before she made the decision to have an abortion. Those were all things I didn’t really know about.
The fourth one that I wrote…a novel about the death of Faulkner (or a character resembling Faulkner) and the storytelling impulse and father-son relations all tangled together in an elaborate plot. I thought this was my masterpiece. I still think it was a good novel. I couldn’t get anyone interested in it. I no longer had an agent and the editor who had published my first book was no longer an editor. I was essentially starting fresh in terms of finding contacts. It was like I was trying to sell my first novel all over again. And it didn’t happen. Eventually, part of that book was published as the book Blood Line: Stories of Fathers and Sons. It’s three novellas on father/son themes. Those were all stories within the story of this fourth book, which was called Second Samuel as in the second chapter of Samuel in the Bible.
Anyway, after four years in Missoula, including one year of trying to get this book published after I had finished it, I said, “Apparently the world does not want me or need me to be a fiction writer.” I took the job in Butte. I needed to make a living, but then I continued a little bit later writing fiction. I wrote a spy novel with a lot of history of technology in it. You know what they say about writers: they allow nothing to go to waste. I had spent two years reading about the history of technology. My cut-your-losses strategy was to take all that and put it into a historically based spy novel, which I thought was going to be a pot boiler to make me some money and be a transition to my next phase in my career, whatever that was going to be. My first book was published in 1970. The Zolta Configuration, the spy novel and my second book, was published thirteen years later in 1983. In between that period of time, I had gotten interested in science, history of science, and non-fiction writing and I had started to write magazine non-fiction pieces, including my column in Outside.
Go back one step. What is your basic philosophy on handling failure?
I wouldn’t flatter my approach with the word “philosophy.” I think the phrase “get over it,” which was not a catch phrase in those days, is the closest approximation. I don’t remember the failures I had as a teenager. I’m sure I had some. I was always interested in lots of different things. I was trying lots of different things. One of my approaches to failure is: if you can’t do this well enough to succeed at it, then do that. If you can’t do A, do B. And if nobody will reward you, or accept your efforts for B, then try C. My approach has been lateral progression and transformation. If the world wouldn’t let me do one thing, then there were still other things I was very interested in that I could try.
How did you become the columnist for Outside Magazine in 1981?
I was living in Ennis, Montana, a little fly fishing town, by this time, because I was obsessed with fly fishing and I had two good friends there. We were all three trying to be writers. I was supporting myself as a fishing guide with occasional freelance editorial chores. I was just starting to try to be a freelance writer. And we heard that the editor of Outside was coming to Montana, so I called up the magazine. I was very nervous and got this august figure on the line—the editor John Rasmus. I said, “I live in this town that’s a great fishing town with a couple of writer friends. You haven’t heard of us, but we hear you’re coming to Montana. If you have any interest in coming to Ennis, we’d be happy to take you fly fishing. What about it?” To my great surprise, he said, “Hey, that sounds good. Okay, I’ll do it.” He was a young fella, very unpretentious and approachable.
Now, the way he tells the story is he already knew of me through some of my writing. I guess one of those father-son stories that had been published made a very strong impression on him. My most successful short story was called “Walking Out,” about a boy, his father, and a hunting accident. John said he had read that so when I called, he thought, “Oh wow, this is the guy who wrote that great hunting story.”
Where did you get that published?
That was published in a small literary quarterly called TriQuarterly, a special issue devoted to Montana writers and edited by Willam Kittredge. He had accepted the manuscript and it got some attention. It has continued to get some attention over the years. It has been my one successful short story.
Anyway, Rasmus read that. He came out. We took him fishing. We managed to teach him enough how to fly fish. By the end of the day, he was catching some nice rainbow trout on this beautiful stretch of river. It was enormously satisfying to him, then we went back to my friend’s farmhouse. We cooked steaks and we drank whiskey. By the end of the evening, we were all good friends. I pitched one idea to Rasmus about an essay on what’s good about mosquitoes and in a weak moment he said, “Yeah, okay, you can do that what’s good about mosquitoes. Alright.” Then we all sobered up and fortunately, he stood by the agreement to take that piece. I wrote it and sent it to him a couple of months later. And to my utter surprise, he called me back and said, “I like the mosquito piece. As a matter of fact, I really like it. How would you like to be our natural science columnist and that could be your first column?” I said, “Whoa, yeah, I guess I can do that for a year, or two.” I ended up doing it for fifteen years.
During that time, the first year, what were you doing in between the time you were writing the column? Or did that take up a lot of your time?
I was learning how to be a freelance writer. I was pounding on doors. I was writing book reviews. I was writing pieces. I wrote a piece for Audubon during that period. I was just starting to be able to publish in national magazines. I was sending out lots of query letters and going to the post office to look at my P.O. box in this little town, hoping to get an answer saying, “Yes, we want you to do that story.” The hardest thing for a freelance writer at least after you’re established is to say yes to the right amount of work. It’s hard, because you remember what it was like when nobody was saying yes to you and you were hungry for work. And remembering that [time] makes you likely to agree to too much work. It’s still a problem I have.
What do you consider the best day of your life so far?
Certainly, one of the days of my life was the day I married the woman who is now my wife—Betsy. I had been married before and that ended. I met this wonderful woman and we got married. That was four years and some months ago.
The other best day of my life was probably the first day I arrived in Montana. That was a very important day. September 12, 1973. Discovering this wonderful place was so important to me.
There were days that were very satisfying in terms of professional success. There was one summer day when I got an award from the National Academy of Arts and Letters and was surrounded by friends and my first wife in New York. My two friends from Ennis, Montana, by that time, were no longer married, but they were both living in New York. The woman had a big, old yellow Cadillac, really an incongruous cruiser. The Song of the Dodo had just been published and my editor was there. Sitting in the back of this crazy, yellow Cadillac driving south through Harlem to go to a downtown bar after having received an award from a very fancy organization…that was a terrific day.
Other days like walking across the Congo were among the most wonderful and memorable in my life, too, that had nothing to do with professional success. It was an opportunity to be out in amazing places with Mike Fay—the guy who I walked across the Congo with, seeing lowland gorillas in a clearing in the middle of nowhere; sleeping in a tent on the ground; getting up at 4:30 the next morning to duct tape my feet so we can start walking again through swamps. Some of my best days in life were those days.
You have written that “in the course of life, a person could travel widely, but could truly open his veins and his soul to only a limited number of places.” So besides Montana, have you opened up your soul to any other places?
Well, I hope so. I have this very strong peculiar fondness for the Congo. I’ve made a lot of trips for National Geographic and spent some extraordinary time there. I wrote three stories for National Geographic about an event called the Megatransect, where an American ecologist [Mike Fay, mentioned above] walked 2,000 miles across the Congo rainforest, off-trail through the wildest, most unexplored, pristine sections of Central African rainforest. And it was my job to go with him for long stretches and write about it. We walked in sandals and shorts, because we were walking often through swamps that came up to our armpits. I got a real intimate feel for the Congo rainforest, seeing it over his shoulder and traveling in his crazy way. That certainly was one of the most extraordinary experiences in my life, but it wasn’t one day. It was eight weeks of walking. And I certainly opened my soul to some degree to the Congo rainforest in the course of doing that.
Also Madagascar and parts of Australia. Landscape has been very, very important to me and if there’s an underlying theme to much of my work it’s this: [the way] human history shapes landscape and the way landscape shapes human history represent a yin and yang of explaining the surface of planet Earth.
Do you have a favorite animal?
I have to say no, because there are too many animals, too many species that I have a deep, deep fondness for, respect for, fascination with. The grizzly bear is certainly one, but not to the exclusion of the Asiatic lion, the saltwater crocodile, and the Indri—one of the most amazing species of Madagascar lemurs. There are a lot of animals that have really struck me hard and whose wonders and fate I’ve gotten deeply, emotionally, and intellectually entangled with. Those are some of them.
This is an easy question. What are the three things you love about what you do?
I don’t know if that’s such an easy question, but I’ll start.
One, I love to make shapes out of words. I always wanted to create artistic shapes of some sort, whether through drawing, sculpture, music or putting words together. I wanted to make shapes. It turns out that I have no talent for the plastic arts, or music, but I have some talent for putting words together into shapes. And it’s even more basic than to say it’s a matter of telling stories. It’s a matter of making shapes which are sometimes narrative. I love doing that and then seeing the shape that I’ve made. If other people see it, read it and appreciate it, that’s almost like a bonus. The first set of satisfactions comes from just seeing the shape I’ve made, whether it’s a nine-page essay, or a seven hundred page book.
The second thing I love about my work is that it’s different every day, every week. I get to wake up on Monday morning and say what am I interested in? In all the world, what am I most interested in? And by god, that’s what I’m going to focus on. If what I’m most interested in is Ebola and how it’s killing gorillas as well as people in the Congo, then I’m going to find somebody who’s willing to pay me to research and learn about it and tell the story. It’s always different and it’s always responsive to what I’m genuinely interested in and what I consider the most important thing in the world at that particular time.
And the third thing is that my work allows me to go out into the world and travel to amazing places, amazing landscapes, amazing ecosystems, and amazing cultures, and learn about them, study them, experience them, immerse myself in them, and then come back. The fact that people actually pay me to travel, rather than my having to pay to travel, is an enormous privilege and benefit.
So what would you recommend to anyone young or old about living a fulfilling life not just a contented one?
Ask yourself what are you really interested in and then find a way to spend your life on that. Find a way to be paid for learning about the things that fascinate you most. If that happens to be high finance and instruments of investment, fine, then be a business person, or a banker. If it happens to be the way the mind of a seven-year-old child absorbs information, then great, go be a teacher. And if it happens to be the relationship between butterflies and the ecological integrity of the Amazon, then do that.
Worry about how to make a living, how to have a pension, and how to retire secondarily, not primarily. Ask yourself that question, what am I most interested in, what thrills me, engages me, fascinates me so much that I want to learn more about it. Then do that. Spend your life studying it, being a learner and finding some way to have at least a subsistence income, in terms of material wealth, while you have this luxurious richness of intellectual experiences.