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Natural Acts

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

This revised and expanded edition is a marriage of two distinct and different collections of essays. The first half of the book consists of nineteen essays, divided into three sections, taken, without revision, from the first edition of Natural Acts, which was published in 1985. The second half contains seven essays originally published within the last decade. The first half shows the young, exuberant David Quammen, still learning his craft, but entertaining and educating his reader with a different view of the natural world. The essays of the second half are those of a mature, sure craftsman, still taking a sidelong view of science, but now a master of his field. Confident in his skill to persuade, there is little of the showoff that is evident in the earlier writing. Both sets of essays look at the same set of themes: nature, the place of humans in nature, communities and relationships, and the life of the individual researcher in the history of science.

The early essays originally appeared between 1981 and 1985 and, with three exceptions, were first published as a column in the magazine Outside. Quammen’s early columns are characteristically short (limited by the format in Outside), informal, wander a bit, challenge prior preconceptions, and ask unusual questions. In the introduction to the original edition, he describes his point of view as “oblique” and “counterintuitive,” which is a good way to put it. That is one of the chief attractions of these early works: They force the reader to rethink his or her position on nature. For example, the essays collected in the section entitled “All God’s Vermin” look sympathetically at creatures most of his audience probably had little love or appreciation for, such as the mosquito and the black widow spider.

At the time of these early efforts, Quammen was conscious of what he perceives to be his outsider’s position in respect to one well-known and acknowledged community of popular science writers, the scientist-essayists. He lacked, he pointed out in the original introduction, the scientific training and research experience of the masters of the genre, such as the anthropologist Loren Eisley, the paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould, and the biomedical researcher Lewis Thomas. To contrast himself with these practitioners of the craft, he emphasized, in his autobiographical introduction, the important roles of his personal curiosity and his love of nature instead of literary research. His utilization of the published literature in these early essays was often limited to a handful of sources. His essay on the black widow spider, for example, relied, apparently, on only two sources, while that on the octopus used three. In addition, in what may have been an overreaction, he used language that emphasizes the distance between him, the lover of nature, and the researchers, with their technical knowledge and their efforts to reduce nature to numbers. A simple, extremely insightful algebraic expression used by ecologists becomes an “ugly cryptogram,” highlighting and conveying both Quammen’s lack of appreciation for the beauty of mathematics and its presumed impenetrability, while Robert J. Oppenheimer’s team of atomic scientists and ingenious engineers become “a coven,” invoking images of witchcraft and evil doing.

The essay on the mosquito, the earliest chronologically in the collection and the first in the book, captures, not unexpectedly, all of the early Quammen’s strengths and weaknesses. His love of all nature, even aspects of nature that are commonly viewed negatively by most observers, is evident. So is his somewhat off-center point of view and his willingness to ask singular questions. Rather than limiting his account to the life history and feeding habits of the insect, or simply acknowledging or repeating the massive destruction that the mosquito has done to humans over recorded history, he asks what some readers may consider a ridiculous...

(The entire section is 1,736 words.)