A writing teacher introduced me to Quammen by handing me an essay entitled, Synecdoche and the Trout. It’s a personal essay, wordy and deliberate. I wanted to know more about how David Quammen writes, and honestly, I just wanted to enjoy more of his writing.
Since then, I’ve read David Quammen’s Wild Thoughts from Wild Places several times. A collection of essays written over a number of years, I always find that different pieces pique my interest on different readings. But there is one that makes me go still every time I read it: The Swallow that Hibernates Underwater.
The essay is about Gilbert White, a British naturalist who spent nearly his entire life in his home village of Selborne, at a time when British naturalists were travelling the world, discovering new species, and generally, being Carl Linnaeus.
Gilbert White fascinates Quammen. He, too, is a science writer, an excellent one, and like Quammen, he also seems to have been a gentle man, who loved watching birds and writing about their habits.
Quammen begins the essay with a meditation on the deals we all make with life. We “keep faith with our commitments, sow oats in a high wind, marry often, travel great distances in search of a place to call home, lose big, win big, harbor regrets, fulfill finally our one wildest dream; or, alternatively, we don’t.” Throughout the essay, Quammen not only tells us about Gilbert’s work and about the agility of swallows, but also, more importantly, about his life, and the deal White made with life.
What makes David Quammen a superb science writer is his empathy, even with people he dislikes, and his enduring commitment to the human stories that take place alongside those of pigeons, mountain lions, trout and synecdoche.