This year, National Geographic marked the centennial of the National Park Service by running several parks-related stories, culminating in an all-Yellowstone issue in May. Bozeman's David Quammen, a contributing writer to the magazine and author of the award-winning book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, was involved in early discussions on how to approach the issue. What Quammen didn't realize at the time was that he would become the first person in National Geographic's 128-year history to write an entire issue single-handedly. Besides writing the epic May issue, Quammen crafted a new book, Yellowstone: A Journey through America's Wild Heart, based on his two-year exploration of the park. For his upcoming reading in Missoula, the author spoke with the Indy about the place he's come to know so well.
When you realized you were actually writing an entire issue of National Geographic, did you have any particular "Holy shit!" moments?
David Quammen: It was a "holy shit" moment for me. And there were a few times after I accepted this project that I had a few of those "holy shit" moments at 4 a.m., thinking, "How in the world am I gonna do this?" What I was thinking was, everyone has already read books about Yellowstone, at least in this region and the world that we live in. And across America people think that they know Yellowstone and what it's about. The first challenge was how to make it new, how to make it fresh, how to make it interesting. So I worked very hard on trying to do that, to make it serious and probing and unexpected.
As familiar as you are with the ecosystem, did you encounter anything that was surprising to you?
DQ: The grizzly bear was going to be in the center anyway because I believe that is the most important single thing about Yellowstone, that we have a viable population of grizzly bears there, in the midst of the American West. The grizzly in the center, then the four major foods that the grizzly has depended on to a great degree would be like spokes on a wheel with the bear as the hub. That those four major foods would lead me into other considerations—broader considerations—like climate change, like invasive species, like private lands development, that talking about grizzlies eating ungulate meat, eating army cutworm moths, eating whitebark pine nuts and eating spawning cutthroat trout would lead me to discovering complexities and surprises I had not been aware of came as a surprise.
With more visitors every year, there is an idea that we are "loving our parks to death." Are we?
DQ: Well, it's an important question, and there will need to be solutions. It's something that Dan Wenk [superintendent of YNP] has said, that the time is coming when we need to deal with that problem of too much demand for Yellowstone, because we can't increase the supply. Some people would say you can increase the supply by building wider roads and more hotel rooms, but Dan Wenk is a wise enough manager to say no, that's not the answer, because that degrades the Yellowstone experience. So we have to realize the supply of high quality, wild landscape experience in Yellowstone is a finite entity. Eventually that might mean constraints on private automobiles, it might even mean, "Sorry, Yellowstone is full today, come back tomorrow." They do that in the Yosemite Valley.
The book that is about to come out sounds like maybe the "director's cut" of the magazine issue, correct?
DQ: Yes, that's a good way of putting it. Chris Johns [editor-in-chief at the time] asked me to do a book as well as the special issue, because he was also in charge of National Geographic Books. He said I could expand on it as well, and I almost doubled the text. As you were implying, I picked up all those ... things that were interesting, that were relevant, things that I had researched ... things that in some cases had been cut out or not even written yet because I knew they wouldn't fit—those are in the book.
Do you have any input in the selection of photos to accompany your writing?
DQ: I work with all those photographers, some of them very closely in the past, and again closely on this assignment. I love their work and I love working with photographers who are that great. But in terms of choosing the shots, that's not my job, that's somebody else's job.
That's got to be exciting, to see the finished product with the imagery combined with your words, right? National Geographic is still top of the heap as far as I'm concerned when it comes to this kind of dual threat journalism-slash-photography.
DQ: Yeah, thank you for saying that. I agree. Yes, it is a treat for me. I used to say National Geographic is a photo magazine, but Chris Johns and others would say, "No, no, David, don't say this is a photo magazine, it's a storytelling magazine." We tell stories with words and with pictures and with graphics and with maps. It's multidimensional storytelling. So if you're going to be telling stories with visual artists, mapmakers and photographers, you just can't have better partners than the ones you get at National Geographic.
You have traveled all over the world, to some of its wildest places. How does what we have in North America stack up against the rest of the world's dramatic landscapes?
DQ: It stacks up very well. It's one of the reasons I live in Montana. I live here because I love it so much. Usually, you're right, I get on a plane to do my work, and I fly to Africa or I fly to Madagascar or Australia. But there's no place more magical that I've been to than certain corners of Yellowstone. The Lamar Valley, or some of the backcountry that you don't get to unless you put on a pair of skis and, you know, suck it up—man, I love those places as much as anything I've seen on the Serengeti or in the tropics of Australia or in the middle of the Congo basin. I love all those places, and I love these Yellowstone places just as much.
David Quammen reads from Yellowstone at Fact & Fiction Fri., Sept. 9, at 7 PM.