@michaelnicknichols //

QUESTION: Can we hope to preserve, in the midst of modern America, any such remnant of our continent’s primordial landscape, any such sample of true wildness—a gloriously inhospitable place, full of predators and prey, in which nature is still allowed to be red in tooth and claw?Can that sort of place be reconciled with human demands and human convenience? Time alone, and our choices, will tell. But if the answer is yes, the answer is Yellowstone.
—–> continue series @michaelnicknichols

Writing by David Quammen (@davidquammen)

YELLOWSTONE the battle for the american west
May 2016 National Geographic magazine by natgeo

Books I’ve Read So Far This Year

Hey, tumblr! It’s halfway through the year now (how???) and I was looking through my book list and thinking that I have read so many good books this year, so I thought I would just throw my book list as it stands under a cut, with brief notes on the books in case anyone is interested! Or wants to talk about how awesome they are. Or even wants to recommend me some based on what I’ve read!

Or just tell me what you’ve been reading, if you do not want to deal with, um. A 90-item annotated list.

It’s possible that I read too much.

Keep reading

Yellowstone National Park, a wilderness recreation area stretching for nearly 3,500-sq.-miles atop a volcanic hot spot in Wyoming and parts of Montana and Idaho, may be in trouble.

Each year, Yellowstone attracts millions of visitors and provides a home to countless animal species, including the once threatened grizzly bear and bison. But finding the right balance between tourism and preservation can be tricky.

Journalist David Quammen, who writes about Yellowstone in the May issue of National Geographic, warns Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that “there are ways in which Yellowstone is in danger of being loved to death.”

Is Yellowstone National Park In Danger Of Being ‘Loved To Death’?

Let’s start by imagining a fine Persian carpet and a hunting knife. The carpet is twelve feet by eighteen, say. That gives us 216 square feet of continuous woven material. Is the knife razor-sharp? If not, we hone it. We set about cutting the carpet into thirty-six equal pieces, each one a rectangle, two feet by three. Never mind the hardwood floor. The severing fibers release small tweaky noises, like the muted yelps of outraged Persian weavers. Never mind the weavers. When we’re finished cutting, we measure the individual pieces, total them up – and find that, lo, there’s still nearly 216 square feet of recognizably carpetlike stuff. But what does it amount to? Have we got thirty-six nice Persian throw rugs? No. All we’re left with is three dozen ragged fragments, each one worthless and commencing to come apart…

An ecosystem is a tapestry of species and relationships. Chop away a section, isolate that section, and there arises the problem of unraveling.

E.O. Wilson calculated that the current rate of extinction for all animals was 10,000 times greater than the background rate, a loss of biodiversity that is helping to create what the nature writer David Quammen memorably described as a ‘planet of weeds’: a simple world where 'weedy’ animals - pigeons, rats, squirrels - thrive and little else remains.
—  Mitchell, LRB, 8 May 2014, page 16.
This is for all of you spider murderers.

The Face of the Spider

David Quammen

One evening a few years ago I walked back into my office after dinner and found roughly a hundred black widow spiders frolicking on my desk. I am not speaking metaphorically and I am not making this up: a hundred black widows. It was a vision of ghastly, breathtaking beauty, and it brought on me a wave of nausea. It also brought on a small moral crisis—one that I dealt with briskly, maybe rashly, in the dizziness of the moment, and that I’ve been turning back over in my mind ever since. I won’t say I’m haunted by those hundred black widows, but I do remember them vividly. To me, they stand for something. They stand, in their small synecdochical way, for a large and important question.

The question is: How should a human behave toward the members of other living species?

A hundred black widows probably sounds like a lot. It is—even for Tucson, Arizona, where I was living then, a habitat in which black widows breed like rabbits and prosper like cockroaches, the females of the species growing plump as huckleberries and stringing their ragged webs in every free comer of every old shed and basement window. In Tucson, during the height of the season, a person can always on short notice round up eight or ten big, robust black widows, if that’s what a person wants to do. But a hundred in one room? So all right,yes, there was a catch: These in my office were newborn babies.

A hundred scuttering bambinos, each one no bigger thin a poppy seed. Too small still for red hourglasses, too small even for red egg timers. They had the aesthetic virtue of being so tiny that even a person of good eyesight and patient disposition could not make out their hideous little faces.

Their mother had sneaked in when the rains began and set up a web in the comer beside my desk. I knew she was there—I got a reminder every time I dropped a pencil and went groping for it, jerking my hand back at the first touch of that distinctive, dry, highstrength web. But I hadn’t made the necessary decision about dealing with her. I knew she would have to be either murdered or else captured adroitly in a pickle jar for relocation to the wild, and I didn't  especially want to do either. (I had already squashed scores of black widows during those Tucson years but by this time, I guess, I was going soft.) In the meantime, she had gotten pregnant. She had laid her eggs into a silken egg sac the size of a Milk Dud and then protected that sac vigilantly, keeping it warm, fending off any threats, as black widow mothers do. While she was waiting for the eggs to come to term, she would have been particularly edgy, particularly unforgiving, and my hand would have been in particular danger each time I reached for a fallen pencil. Then the great day arrived. The spiderlings hatched from their individual eggs, chewed their way out of the sac, and started crawling, brothers and sisters together, up toward the orange tensor lamp that was giving off heat and light on the desk of the nitwit who was their landlord.

By the time I stumbled in, fifty or sixty of them had reached the lampshade and rappelled back down on dainty silk lines, leaving a net of gossamer rigging between the lamp and the Darwin book (it happened to be an old edition of Insectivorous Plants, with marbled endpapers) that sat on the desk. Some dozen others had already managed dispersal flights, letting out strands of buoyant silk and ballooning away on rising air, as spiderlings do—in this case dispersing as far as the bookshelves. It was too late for one man to face one spider with just a pickle jar and an index card and his two shaky hands. By now I was proprietor of a highly successful black widow hatchery.

And the question was, How should a human behave toward the members of other living species?

The Jain religion of India has a strong teaching on that question. The Sanskrit word is ahimsa, generally rendered in English as “noninjury” or the imperative “do no harm.” Ahimsa is the ethical centerpiece of Jainism, an absolute stricture against the killing of living beings—any living beings—and it led the traditional Jains to some extreme forms of observance. A rigorously devout Jain would burn no candles or lights, for instance, if there was danger a moth might fly into them. The Jain would light no fire for heating or cooking, again because it might cause the death of insects. He would cover his mouth and nose with a cloth mask, so as not to inhale any gnats. He would refrain from cutting his hair, on grounds that the lice hiding in there might be gruesomely injured by the scissors. He could not plow a field, for fear of mutilating worms. He could not work as a carpenter or a mason, with all that dangerous sawing and crunching, nor could he engage in most types of industrial production. Consequently the traditional Jains formed a distinct socioeconomic class, composed almost entirely of monks and merchants. Their ethical canon was not without what you and I might take to be glaring contradictions (vegetarianism was sanctioned, plants as usual getting dismissive treatment in the matter of rights to life), but at least they took it seriously. They lived by it. They tried their best to do no harm.

And this in a country, remember, where 10,000 humans died every year from snakebite, almost a million more from malaria carried in the bites of mosquitoes. The black widow spider, compared to those fellow creatures, seems a harmless and innocent beast.

But personally I hold no brief for ahimsa, because I don’t delude myself that it’s even theoretically (let alone practically) possible. The basic processes of animal life, human or otherwise, do necessarily entail a fair bit of ruthless squashing and gobbling. Plants can sustain themselves on no more than sunlight and beauty and a hydroponic diet—but not we animals. I’ve only mentioned this Jainist ideal to suggest the range of possible viewpoints.

Modem philosophers of the “animal liberation” movement, most notably Peter Singer and Tom Regan, have proposed some other interesting answers to the same question. So have writers like Barry Lopez and Eugene Linden, and (by their example, as well as by their work) scientists like Jane Goodall and John Lilly and Dian Fossey. Most of the attention of each of these thinkers, though, has been devoted to what is popularly (but not necessarily by the thinkers themselves) considered the “upper” end of the “ladder” of life. To my mind, the question of appropriate relations is more tricky and intriguing—also more crucial in the long run, since this group accounts for most of the planet’s species—as applied to the “lower” end, down there among the mosquitoes and worms and black widow spiders.

These are the extreme test cases. These are the alien species who experience human malice, or indifference, or tolerance, at its most automatic and elemental. To squash or not to squash? Mohandas Gandhi, whose own ethic of nonviolence owed much to ahimsa, was once asked about the propriety of an antimalaria campaign that involved killing mosquitoes with DDT, and he was careful to give no simple, presumptuous answer. These are the creatures whose treatment, by each of us, illuminates not just the strength of emotional affinity but the strength, if any, of principle.

But what is the principle? Pure ahimsa, as even Gandhi admitted, is unworkable. Vegetarianism is invidious. Anthropocentrism, conscious or otherwise, is smug and ruinously myopic. What else? Well, I have my own little notion of one measure that might usefully be applied in our relations with other species, and I offer it here seriously despite the fact that it will probably sound godawful stupid.

Eye contact.

Make eye contact with the beast, the Other, before you decide upon action. No kidding, now, I mean get down on your hands and knees right there in the vegetable garden, and look that snail in the face. Lock eyes with that bull snake. Trade stares with, the carp. Gaze for a moment into the manyfaceted eyes—the windows to its soul—of the house fly, as it licks its way innocently across your kitchen counter. Look for signs of embarrassment or rancor or guilt. Repeat the following formula silently, like a mantra: “This is some mother’s darling, this is some mother’s child.” Then kill if you will, or if it seems you must.

I’ve been experimenting with the eyecontact approach for some time myself. I don’t claim that it has made me gentle or holy or put me in tune with the cosmic hum, but definitely it has been interesting. The hardest cases—and therefore I think the most telling—are the spiders.

The face of a spider is unlike anything else a human will ever see. The word “ugly” doesn’t even begin to serve. “Grotesque” and “menacing” are too mild. The only adequate way of communicating the effect of a spiderly countenance is to warn that it is “very different,” and then offer a photograph. This trick should not be pulled on loved ones just before bedtime or when trying to persuade them to accompany you to the Amazon.

The special repugnant power of the spider physiognomy derives, I think, from fangs and eyes. The former are too big and the latter are too many. But the fangs (actually the fangs are only terminal barbs on the chelicerae, as the real jaw limbs are called) need to be large, because all spiders are predators yet they have no pincers like a lobster or a scorpion, no talons like an eagle, no social behavior like a pack of wolves. Large clasping fangs armed with poison glands are just their required equipment for earning a living. And what about those eight eyes—big ones and little ones, arranged in two rows, all buggedout and pointing everywhichway? (My wife the biologist offers a theory here: “They have an eye for each leg, like us—so they don’t step in anything.”) Well, a predator does need good eyesight, binocular focus, peripheral vision. Sensory perception is crucial to any animal that lives by the hunt and, unlike insects, arachnids possess no antennae. Beyond that, I don’t know. I don’t know why a spider has eight eyes.

I only know that, when I make eye contact with one, I feel a deep physical shudder of revulsion, and of fear, and of fascination; and I am reminded that the human style of face is only one accidental pattern among many, some of the others being quite drastically different. I remember that we aren’t alone. I remember that we are the norm of goodness and comeliness ohly to ourselves. I wonder about how ugly I look to the spider.

The hundred baby black widows on my desk were too tiny for eye contact. They were too numerous, it seemed, to be gathered one by one into a pickle jar and carried to freedom in the backyard. I killed them all with a can of Raid. I confess to that slaughter with more resignation than shame, the jostling struggle for life and space being what it is. I can’t swear I would do differently today. But there is this lingering suspicion that I squandered an opportunity for some sort of moral growth.

I still keep their dead and dried mother, and their vacated egg sac, in a plastic vial on an office shelf. It is supposed to remind me of something or other.

And the question continues to puzzle me: How should a human behave toward the members of other living species?

Last week I tried to make eye contact with a tarantula. This was a huge specimen, all hairy and handsomely colored, with a body as big as a hamster and legs the size of Bic pens. I ogled it through a sheet of plate glass. I smiled and winked. But the animal hid its face in distrust. 

An entomologist named Alan A. Berryman addressed it some years ago in a paper titled “The Theory and Classification of Outbreaks.” He began with basics: “From the ecological point of view an outbreak can be defined as an explosive increase in the abundance of a particular species that occurs over a relatively short period of time.” Then, in the same bland tone, he noted: “From this perspective, the most serious outbreak on the planet earth is that of the species Homo sapiens.” Berryman was alluding, of course, to the rate and the magnitude of human population growth, especially with the last couple centuries. He knew he was being provocative.

But the numbers support him. At the time Berryman wrote, in 1987, the world’s human population stood at 5 billion. We had multiplied by a factor of about 333 since the invention of agriculture. We had increased by a factor of 14 since just after the Black Death, by a factor of 5 since the birth of Charles Darwin, and by doubling within the lifetime of Alan Berryman himself. That growth curve, on a coordinate graph, looks like the southwest face of El Capitan. Another way to comprehend it is this: From the time of our beginning as a species (about 200,000 years ago) until the year 1804, human population rose to a billion; between 1804 and 1927, it rose by another billion; we reached 3 billion in 1960; and each net addition of a billion people, since then, has taken only about thirteen years. In October 2011, we came to the 7-billion mark and flashed past like it was a “Welcome to Kansas” sign on the highway. That amounts to a lot of people, and certainly qualified as an “explosive” increase withing Berryman’s “relatively short period of time.” The rate of growth has declined within recent decades, true, but it’s still above 1 percent, meaning we’re adding about 70 million people yearly. …

And here’s the thing about outbreaks: They end. In some cases they end after many years, in other cases they end rather soon. In some cases they end gradually, in other cases they end with a crash. In certain cases, even, they end and recur and end again, as though following a regular schedule. Populations of tent caterpillars and several other kinds of forest lepidopterans seem to rise steeply and fall sharply on a cycle of anywhere from five to eleven years. A population of tent caterpillars in British Columbia, for instance, has shown a cycle like that dating back to 1936. The crash endings are especially dramatic and for a long while they seemed mysterious. What could account for such sudden and recurrent collapses? One possible factor is infectious disease.  …

The Next Big One [pandemic] could very well be flu. Greg Dwyer knew this, which is why he mentioned it. I’m sure you don’t need reminding that the 1918-1919 flu killed about 50 million people; and there’s still no magical defense, no universal vaccine, no foolproof and widely available treatment, to guarantee that such death and misery don’t occur again. Even during an average year, seasonal flu causes at least 3 million cases and more than 250,000 fatalities worldwide. So influenza is hugely dangerous, at best. At worst, it would be apocalyptic. …

None of them [disease scientists] has disputed the premise, by the way, that if there IS a Next Big One it will be zoonotic. …

These scientists are on alert. They are our sentries. They watch the boundaries across which pathogens spill. And they are productively interconnected with one another. When the next novel virus makes its way from a chimpanzee, a bat, a mouse, a duck, or a macaque into a human, and maybe from that human into another human, and thereupon begins causing a small cluster of lethal illnesses, they will see it–we hope they will, anyway–and raise the alarm.

Whatever happens after that will depend on science, politics, social mores, public opinion, public will, and other forms of human behavior. It will depend on how we citizens respond.

So before we respond, either calmly or hysterically, either intelligently or doltishly, we should understand in some measure the basic outlines and dynamics of the situation. We should appreciate that these recent outbreaks of new zoonotic diseases, as well as the recurrence and spread of old ones, are part of a larger pattern, and that humanity is responsible for generating that pattern. We should recognize that they reflect things that we’re DOING, not just things that are HAPPENING to us. We should understand that, although some of the human-caused factors may seem virtually inexorable, others are within our control.

—  Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen

I recently finished reading Spillover, by David Quammen, who is one of my absolute favorite science writers. He’s probably one of my favorite writers, full stop. There’s one passage in particular that I need to share because it made me laugh out loud in public:

[Charlie asked,] “Tony, what do you know about bats?”

[Tony] Schountz thought Charlie meant Louisville Sluggers. “They’re made of ash.”

“Hello, Tony? I’m talkin’ about bats.” Wing-flapping gesture. As distinct from: DiMaggio gesture.

“Oh. Uh, nothing.”

“You ever read anything about the immunology of bats?”


“Have you ever seen any papers on the immunology of bats?”


Neither had Charlie - nothing beyond the level of finding antibodies that confirmed infection. Nobody seemed to have addressed the deeper question of how chiropteran immune systems respond. 

“So I said to Kay, ‘Let’s write a review paper,’” Charlie told me. “Tony said, ‘Are you crazy? We don’t know anything!’”

“Well, she doesn’t know anything, you don’t know anything, and I don’t know anything. This is great. We don’t have any biases.”

Biases?” said Schountz. “We don’t have any information!

“I said, ‘Tony, that shouldn’t hold us back.’”

Thus the workings of science.

The book is about zoonotic infections, with a good emphasis on the teams of scientists and doctors who learn about them, both in the lab and in the field. I’d write a more detailed review of it, but I’m in a pre-exams haze, so just take my word for it and go read it.