Close encounter of the word kind

I had the pleasure of meeting David Quammen a quarter of a century ago, up in Washington State at a writers’ conference I attended in part because I knew he would be there. I was already a fan of his fiction, most especially a story I used in my college classes as a way of enticing young male students to show a little interest in literature, a subject most of them viewed with indifference, suspicion, or outright hostility.

That story, “Walking Out,” concerned the challenges faced by the tale’s young protagonist after his father is critically injured in a hunting accident. Quammen’s story worked on my students as it had on me. It is masterful in its storytelling, and true in ways my students apprehended before they noticed they’d been taken in by literature and put out the other side, having gleaned something about human nature they already knew but did not know they knew.

Because I admired that story so much, I admired Quammen before I ever met the man. That admiration made it even more heady when I arrived at the conference to be told that Quammen was looking for me, that he’d read a story I’d written and had liked it enough to ask to have me pointed out to him when I showed up.

Shamelessly, I repeat this inconsequential anecdote with pride and pleasure, and if the editor cuts it from the piece, I’ll be annoyed, because thinking about Quammen’s work on Darwin has me looking for patterns in things, and if I hadn’t met Quammen back in the ‘80s, I probably wouldn’t be writing this piece about him in the first decade of a new century. So that’s a pattern.

Not that Quammen remembered me from all those years ago, of course, though he was gracious enough to pretend he did.

He’s not finding time for fiction these days, what with all that globe trotting and jungle running. When pressed, however, he did say that “Walking Out” still holds an esteemed place in his personal assessment of all the work he’s done.

“Since you asked me,” he said, “I’d probably put it in my own list of the top five pieces I ever wrote…. I did set out to be a fiction writer, and it still surprises me that I wound up doing the kind of writing I’ve now spent most of my career doing.”

The breadth of Quammen’s work finds its way onto more than a few college reading lists. Chico State biology professors Don Miller and Chris Ivey both use Quammen’s books in their classes, as does Dean Fairbanks, in Geography. Leslie Layton uses Quammen essays in her magazine writing classes, as does Steve Metzger in his journalism and English classes.

“I discovered Quammen when he was writing his column for Outside,” Metzger said. “I tore them all out, and still have most of them filed away.

“My favorite, and the one I used in class, was called ‘Chambers of Memory.’ Quammen uses the chambered nautilus as a metaphor to show how we compartmentalize our lives and how we move from one compartment, or period of life, but carry our pasts with us, and that’s how we stay ‘buoyant.’

“It was a pretty scientifically technical piece on one hand, but was also a first-person memoir. The beauty of it was that the essay took the form of the chambered nautilus—moving from compartment to compartment.”

Quammen attributes some of what he knows about writing to an intense study of William Faulkner he undertook back when he was doing graduate work at Oxford.

“Probably the most challenging book I ever wrote was The Song of the Dodo, and I don’t think I would have known how to organize that material and make it coherent had it not been for the time I’d spent investigating how Faulkner managed to structure some of his novels.”