The Latest Is Late

     May 24, 2018 

   "We stepped out of the helicopter and there in the grass was a thirteen-foot African snake."

     Ah, good: I've been wanting to write that sentence, but there just hasn't been time.  It happened a month ago—April 15, to be exact—in Mozambique, while I was researching a National Geographic story on Gorongosa National Park.  We had gone out that morning, flying low over the miombo forest and savanna, to collect buffalo poop for the research project of a young PhD student named Matt Hutchinson, from the lab of Dr. Rob Pringle at Princeton.  We had spooked up a few small clusters of buffalo, circledsnake330 down, landed, and gathered a pretty good haul (Matt had, that is; I wasn't a very proficient buffalo-poop finder) in the form of a brown glob here, a greenish-gray smear there, from which Matt would do DNA analysis back in the lab.  His analysis would show which forms of vegetation—native grasses, exotic weeds, both?—these buffalo had been eating.  We lifted off, landed a second time, and within a few yards of the heli we nearly stepped on this big, gorgeous snake.  She was moving slowly, like a channel of laval, trying to burrow as deeply beneath the grass as she could, as though she were wary of us . . . or embarrassed to be admired.  (I say "she" because our pilot, Mike Pingo, told me that African rock pythons this large are usually female.)  First we saw her tail, then traced forward a few yards to her midsection, and then—holy cow, this is her head, way the hell up here?  After due appreciation, we left her in peace, of course, and flew back to camp.  It was Matt's last morning in the field, and he had to pack his specimens, grab his gear, catch a Cessna from the park's airstrip, and connect to his flights to the U.S.  And I had to finish what I was doing—researching this story on Gorongosa and its remarkable recovery from devastation during the long Mozambican civil war.

     The Gorongosa story involves wildlife restoration, poaching control, reforestation, human development programs in the surrounding areas, a roster of dedicated Mozambican scientists and managers and students, some outside expertise, and an Idaho-born philanthropist named Greg Carr, who has entered a long-term agreement with the Mozambican government to revivify this place for the sake of its biological diversity and its people.  More on that, eventually, in the pages of Nat Geo.  For now I simply wanted to dust off the levers and knobs on the backside of my website here—an overdue task—and explain why I've been missing in action from this mini-blog for more than a year.  The reason can be summarized in one word: book.  I've been buried in the task of finishing my latest book (always an exhausting push), which will be published on August 14 by Simon & Schuster.  Its title is The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life.  Its subject is the tree of life, that iconic Darwinian image of the history of evolution on Earth, and the ways that image has changed radically, within the past forty years, due to discoveries from genome sequencing.  The tree of life, scientists now know, is not a tree.  

     The book's central character is one Carl Woese, a microbiologist at the University of Illinois, and the most important biologist of the 20th century that you've never heard of. Woese died in 2012, just before I picked up the trail of this subject.  And so, for five years, he has been my Citizen Kane.  (If that reference is unfamiliar, do yourself a favor: Watch the movie.)  I've talked to the people who knew him, worked with him, and treasure the memory of his complicated self.  Advance reviews of The Tangled Tree (in the trade journals of the publishing industry) have been excellent; knock wood.  This is the most ambitious, weird, and risky book that I've ever written.  And that's fine.  In February I turned 70, and it seems to me that a bit of weirdness and risk, for a septuagenarian writer, is better than being safe and stiff and staid.

      The past year has been rich too with other travels, topics, and events (I hate the word "adventures"), competing for my attention and helping account for my neglect of this space—a river journey in Angola, wild dogs in Botswana, desperate chimpanzees that kill children in western Uganda.  My wife Betsy finished and defended her dissertation—hoorah!—and is now converting that to a book of her own.  We lost three beloved dogs in the space of four months, mostly to old age and remorseless time, and welcomed two new young Russian wolfhounds.  We had a very good snow year, and managed to get out into it reasaonably often.  My knees are still capable (even the left one, the iffy one) of telemark turns and pushing the pedals on a road bike.  Life is good—whether or not, on the scale of global biodiversity and four billion years of evolution, it happens to be shaped like a tree.,

     More to come.  Please revisit.  This is just a postcard from the road.  I thought you might enjoy, as I did, a glimpse of a beautiful snake.