Foreword I’ve never been bird-watching, but after months of searching out these stories in the New York Public Library, of hiking up marble canyons and through stacks of compacted trees, I know how it must feel. One day you see a flash of beguiling color — a lovely opening paragraph, say, or a compelling thesis — only to lose it in a thicket of confusing prose. The next day you stare at something for a moment and dismiss it as ordinary, only to catch your breath when the sun strikes its wings. You might spend hours tracking a familiar singer — be it Andrea Barrett or E. O. Wilson — through card catalog and database, across the mountains of Lexis-Nexis and into the valley of ProQuest Direct, only to find that her or his song hasn’t been heard all year. There is no lack of birds, of course, but most are sparrows and grackles, and you’re after something rarer and not quite so noisy.
The problem, first of all, is deciding what to seek and where to seek it. Great science and nature stories don’t come precategorized in official lists. They don’t cleave to a single, recognizable form. Their one common trait is longevity — no matter how timely or rich in specific detail, the pieces that follow should still be worth reading in five or ten years, if not longer — but they shouldn’t sacrifice immediacy for timelessness, information for reflection. This book is devoted to the best American science and nature writing, David Quammen points out, not the best American science and nature essays. For better or worse, it comes with a wide- angle lens, and so dooms us to more than a few wild-goose chases.
There are limits, granted. Does our definition of writing include reports in scientific journals? Poetry? Prose poems? No, no, and no, though some passages by Peter Matthiessen and Anne Fadiman are poetic enough. Does straight reporting count? Yes, we decided, so long as the style is literary and its purpose broader than news gathering. Book excerpts are fine, too, but only if they appeared previously in a magazine and are truly self-contained. (Natalie Angier’s essay on evolutionary psychology, taken from Woman: An Intimate Geography, qualifies on both counts.) But novels, commencement addresses, cartoons, and plays — even a Tom Stoppard play on the second law of thermodynamics — fall outside our purview.
That covers the basics, but it leaves the thorniest questions unanswered. How broadly do we define science, for instance? Until a year or two ago, a science magazine like Discover rarely published stories on medicine or technology, calling these fields applied science rather than science proper. But that standard seems more arbitrary every year. Quantum physicists have colonized Wall Street and microbiologists have defected to the biotech industry in droves; mathematicians are programming computer games and chemists are creating laundry detergents. Some of the best science stories cover research where you least expect it: in camel racing (“Lulu, Queen of the Camels”), for instance, or in Mormonism (“This Is Not the Place”).
As you might think, such exotic birds rarely fly in flocks. You’ll find a few in The Sciences, Scientific American, and American Scientist, but science writing, in the main, is still a didactic genre. The classic feature format, perfected by an earlier incarnation of Scientific American, starts with a few mildly diverting sentences and then gets down to business: page after page of explanation, relieved only by the occasional chart or graph. Most of the time that’s all for the best — who wants storytelling when you’re trying to understand particle physics? — but it leaves slim pickings for anthologists. Even science bestsellers like A Brief History of Time tend to be admired more for their lucidity than for their literary daring.
Nature writing, as David Quammen notes in his introduction, often suffers from the opposite tendency. As a result, most of these pieces were found in general-interest magazines of the literary sort — places where science and nature are treated as just another subject for writers to bring to life. Still, some of the most distinctive voices come from smaller, more secluded places. Ken Lamberton’s essay on toads — as vivid and affecting as it is unexpected — was written in prison and published in Puerto del Sol. Wendy Johnson’s meditation on death and gardening comes from Tricycle, the Buddhist review. Paul De Palma’s incisive critique of the popular obsession with computers appeared in the American Scholar.
Ironically, in this context, De Palma’s piece will raise a question exactly opposite to the one he intended: Why nothing from the Internet? E-mail has made writers — or at least typists — of us all, and the on-line landscape is dotted with great piles of science and nature writing. Is nothing worth saving in all those virtual haystacccccks? Well, yeah, probably. But searching them might take a lifetime and find hardly a needle. Even the best Internet magazines (Slate, Salon) tend to publish articles that are either too chatty or too news-oriented — too mindful of our impatience with reading from a screen — to hold up in a collection like this one.
How widely that approach will spread to print remains to be seen. For now, the country still has hundreds of literary journals and magazines willing to publish lengthy, provocative work on a stunning range of topics. But less and less of it seems to sink in. When I asked various editors, writers, and journalism professors to suggest stories for this volume, they invariably came up blank. The reason isn’t that science and nature writing has been less than memorable this year — these pieces bear witness to that — but that our minds have been bombarded into impermeability. Like long-time New Yorkers, who walk past the most poignant street dramas without blinking, we’ve grown so adept at filtering information that we sometimes miss what’s most important.
The purpose of this book, then, is not only to celebrate, delight, and inform but also to remember and preserve. As Alexander Stille wrote in The New Yorker last year, in an article on the alarming accumulation and deterioration of digital archives in Washington, “The danger is not that some modern Sophocles will be totally lost . . . but, rather, that such a vast accumulation of records makes it nearly impossible to distinguish the essential from the ephemeral.” This series, we hope, will offer future readers one guide to the essential.
It has been a pleasure and an honor to work with David Quammen on this volume, after having admired his writing for so long. I would have loved to include one of his pieces among our selections, but his advice, suggestions, and eloquent introduction more than make up for the loss.
I want to thank Laura van Dam, my editor at Houghton Mifflin, for roping me into this project and for corralling it to completion with such grace and skill. Robert Atwan, the creator and series editor of The Best American Essays, suggested several stories and pointed me to dozens of wonderful journals. My friend Todd Wiener helped put together a database of nearly two hundred editors, prepared a mail merge, and showed me the fastest way to stuff envelopes. Finally, my love and gratitude go to my wife, Jennifer Nelson, and my children, Hans and Ruby, for putting up with all those sojourns to the library, and for welcoming me back with open arms.
Submissions for next year’s volume should be sent, with a very brief cover letter, to Burkhard Bilger, c/o Editor, The Best American Science an...