The Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion

Death is always near, and teamwork is essential on the Serengeti—even for a magnificent, dark-maned male known as C-Boy.

National Geographic, October 2013, Photography by Michael Nichols

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The Swallow That Hibernates Underwater

Outside, July 1992, Reprinted from WILD THOUGHTS FROM WILD PLACES (1998) by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster.

WE ALL MAKE our deals with life.  We do it invisibly, sometimes unconsciously, and alone, without benefit of collective bargaining.  We come to terms.

And the terms are in every case different.  Some of us hold out for more, for better, when others would settle.  Some of us settle when others would hold out.  We leave home, or we marry early, or we enlist, or enroll, or audition, or hunker down into a job then we jump through the hoops, or fly off the tracks, or sell out if there happen to be buyers;

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The Same River Twice

Stenothermal Waters and the Remorseless Flow of Time

Outside, May 1986, Reprinted from THE FLIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1988).

I’VE BEEN READING Heraclitus this week, so naturally my brain is full of river water.

Heraclitus, you’ll recall, was the Greek philosopher of the sixth century B.C. who gets credit for having said:  “You cannot step twice into the same river.”  Heraclitus was a loner, according to the sketchy accounts of him, and rather a crank.  He lived in the town of Ephesus, near the coast of Asia Minor opposite mainland Greece, not far from a great river that in those days was called the Meander.

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The River Jumps Over the Mountain

National Geographic Adventure,February 2008

Reprinted from NATURAL ACTS: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature (2008), by permission of W.W. Norton.

LIFE IS SHORT and the Grand Canyon is long, especially when you paddle your way down it in a kayak.  From the put-in at Lees Ferry, not far below Glen Canyon Dam, the Colorado River winds 226 miles between walls of primordial rock to a take-out at Diamond Creek, on the Hualapai Indian Reservation, dropping through dozens of major rapids along the way.

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LISTEN: Charles Darwin and the Racing Asparagus

NPR Morning Edition by Robert Krulwich

Sometimes a great, earth-shaking, new idea in science can be created in the most homespun ways.

Listen to this Morning Edition piece, by Robert Krulwich with help from me, to hear how Charles Darwin and his butler dropped asparagus into a tub and how Darwin and his oldest son studied dead pigeons floating upside down in a bowl to test ideas about evolution.

Planet of Weeds

Harper’s, October 1998

Reprinted from Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature (2008) by permission of W.W. Norton.

HOPE IS A DUTY from which paleontologists are exempt.  Their job is to take the long view, the cold and stony view, of triumphs and catastrophes in the history of life.  They study the fossil record, that erratic selection of petrified shells, carapaces, bones, teeth, tree trunks, leaves, pollen, and other biological relics, and from it they attempt to discern the lost secrets of time, the big patterns of stasis and change, the trends of innovation and adaptation and refinement and decline that have blown like sea winds among ancient creatures in ancient ecosystems.

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Part I:  Into the Forest

National Geographic, October 2000

Reprinted from Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature (2008), by permission of W.W. Norton

AT 11:22 ON THE MORNING of September 20, 1999, J. Michael Fay strode away from a small outpost and into the forest, in a remote northern zone of the Republic of Congo, setting off on a long and peculiarly ambitious hike.  By his side was an aging Pygmy named Ndokanda, a companion to Fay from adventures past, armed now with a new machete and dubiously blessed with the honor of cutting trail.   Nine other Pygmies marched after them, carrying dry-bags of gear and food.  Interspersed among that troop came still other folk—a camp boss and cook, various assistants, Michael (“Nick”) Nichols with his cameras, and me.

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Part II:  The Green Abyss

Excerpt from Part 2 of the Megatransect series, with link to full story

FAY, BARE-CHESTED and walnut brown, with a wilder mane of graying hair than I remembered, stood on a thatched veranda taking video of us as we docked. Without pulling the camera from his eye, he waved. I can’t remember if I waved back; more likely I saluted. He had begun to remind me of a half-mad, half-brilliant military commander gone AWOL into wars of his own choosing, with an army of tattered acolytes attending him slavishly—rather like Brando’s version of Conrad’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, only much skinnier.

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Part III.  End of the Line

Excerpt from Part 3 of the Megatransect series, with link to full story

LIKE AN UNNERVING OMEN of things to follow, Day 453 had begun with leeches. We had spent the night at Leech Pond Camp, thus dubbed by me (I named all the camps, for mnemonic purposes) when Fay returned from his bath and reported that ten leeches had gotten to him while he was rinsing. Leeches in moderation are no big deal, since they don’t hurt and don’t generally cause infection or carry disease. But the leeches that greeted us in the pond on the 453rd morning were beyond moderation.

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The Dope on Eggs

Anisogamy, Science Journalism, and Other Food for Thought

Outside, February 1988

Reprinted from THE BOILERPLATE RHINO: Nature in the Eye of the Beholder (2000) by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster.

MONDAY AFTERNOON of a fresh new week and here’s a grown man, damn near forty years old, college graduate, stalking the upper floors of a university library with a notebook in one hand, a sheaf of photocopied pages in the other, and the pinched worried ruthless countenance of a starving coyote.  The clock is running.  He is a magazine columnist working on deadline, poor fool.  His monthly mandate is to demonstrate that evolutionary biology, theoretical ecology, and the incisive contemplation of nature can provide piquant entertainment for people in dental waiting rooms.

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Clone Your Troubles Away

Dreaming at the frontiers of animal husbandry

Harpers, February 2005  

Reprinted from NATURAL ACTS: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature (2008) by permission of W. W. Norton  

ONE MORNING EARLY LAST WINTER a small item appeared in my local newspaper announcing the birth of an extraordinary animal.  A team of researchers at Texas A&M University had succeeded in cloning a whitetail deer.  Never before done.  The fawn, known as Dewey, was developing normally and seemed to be healthy.  He had no mother, just a surrogate who had carried his fetus to term.  He had no father, just a “donor” of al his chromosomes.  He was the genetic duplicate of a

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A Moveable Feast

Outside Magazine, October 1990 

Have I ever told you about how I invented the electronic book?  A love song to the Kindle, from a time long before the Kindle.

The helicopter was costing about $600 an hour and the dollars weren’t mine and we looked to be overweight, so there came a moment outside the hangar when small, ruthless decisions had to be made.  Andy called it triage.  Andy is young and tough and deranged by love for his work, inured to going weeks at a time in wet, bloody socks on a diet of crackers and canned fish.  That is to say, he’s a tropical ecologist.

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Other Books


THE CHIMP AND THE RIVERHow AIDS Emerged from an African Forest

SPILLOVERAnimal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction