May 12, 2023. Bozeman. The long winter is finally over, the dropped Halloween candy and lost newspapers have melted out of the snowbanks, the tulips and daffodils are up, the geese are sternly defending their nests, and the click of golf clubs against Titleist 4s is heard in the land. All but the maniacal diehards have transferred their skis, boots, and poles back down to the basement. None of this, of course, guarantees that twelve inches of tree-buckling whiteness won’t land on the poor maples and elms next week. But even those who love winter (including me, having established that my three-year-old knees and my 75-year-old legs are still capable of telemark turns) are glad, at this point, to see the grass grow. We’re delighted that a serious, kick-ass winter is still possible in Montana, but also that this one has run its course.
And in the Gaines-Quammen household, we’re still busy. My wife Betsy has completed work on her second book, to be published in October as True West: Myth and Mending on the Far Side of America. Another book has come squirting out of my laptop too, my 18th, published on May 16 by National Geographic Books. It’s called The Heartbeat of the Wild. It has taken me only twenty-three years to write.
That long ripening period reflects the fact that Heartbeat is built upon twenty-one magazine stories I published in National Geographic over the course of two decades—beginning with the Megatransect series (Mike Fay walks across the Congo forests) in 1999 and 2000. For a long fraction of those twenty years I was a Contributing Writer to the magazine, contracted to write three features each year, either on topics of my own suggestion or ones they proposed to me. Mostly I let them do the proposing, because persuading National Geographic—with its editorial committees and levels of decision making—to assign a particular story (especially if you’re the writer, not the photographer) is a little like persuading an aircraft carrier to make a sharp right turn at a buoy and drop you off in Tahiti. The good news was that the story assignments they proposed to me almost always coincided with my own strong interests. “Nick is going to do the Serengeti lion,” a photo editor might say to me. “Are you in?” The Nick in question was Nick Nichols, a brilliant photographer and my partner on great adventures since the Megatransect expedition. “I’m in,” I would say. Or “Would you be interested in writing about salmon conservation on the great rivers of the Kamchatka Peninsula?” I would indeed. Or “How about doing a story on Greg Carr and his leadership in restoring Gorongosa National Park, in Mozambique?” I thought you’d never ask.
So it went, for twenty years, in response to which offers I would pack my notebooks and passport and expedition clothes (a pair of river sandals and river shorts, when it meant jungle-slogging) and duct tape and iodine, and I would board a plane for some wild, remote place. At issue, in most of these assignments, was the study as well as the preservation of wild creatures and wild places. I saw many different models of how the conservation of biological diversity might be practiced—or, anyway, attempted. I saw what worked and what didn’t. I interrogated the scientists, the conservation activists, and the problems of efficacy they faced. I read the literature. And I formed opinions.
Eventually the people at National Geographic enterprises said, “Why don’t you assemble some of these stories into a book? We’ll publish it.” I thought you’d never ask.
For this project I had a fine, rigorous editor named Susan Hitchcock, and at her urging, in accord with my own instincts, I worked hard to turn the effort into something more than a collection of pieces. I updated the reporting on every project, place, and conservation effort I had visited during the magazine assignments. I wrote connective tissue between the pieces, telling stories of how these assignments fell into my basket. I wrote a Foreword and an Afterword for the book, together outlining my ideas—based in part on the ideas of some of my friends and betters, such as Edward O. Wilson, Jane Goodall, Greg Carr, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Mike Fay, Kris Tompkins, and others—about just what it means to call a place or an ecosystem or a creature “wild,” in the biological sense, and about how such wildness can be preserved, if we are wise and persistent and lucky, on planet Earth.
Then I hit SEND and it all went off to Nat Geo Books, to reappear in printed and bound form on May 16 of this year. The final product is fronted by a stunning cover photograph, generously provided by my friend Nick Nichols, of a certain very special lion, whose story, among others, is told in the book.