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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Where the Wild Places Are

Air Date: Week of

Imagine being stuck upside down, underwater, in a kayak on a raging Montana river. For author David Quammen (KWAH-men), it's the perfect time to begin thinking about the fluid dynamics. After all, he’s only doing his job. Mr. Quammen is a veteran writer who has traveled from Montana to New York, from Chile to Tasmania in search of his stories. He writes frequently for Outside Magazine, and his latest book is a collection of essays, titled “Wild Thoughts from Wild Places.”


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Imagine being stuck upside down, underwater, in a kayak on a raging Montana river. Now, for most of us the first thought would be how to get the heck out of there, but for David Quammen, it was the perfect time to begin thinking about the subject of -- fluid dynamics? (Laughs) After all, he's only doing his job. David Quammen is a veteran writer who's traveled from Montana to New York to Chile to Tasmania, in search of his stories. He writes frequently for Outside Magazine, and his latest book is a collection of essays entitled Wild Thoughts from Wild Places. When I caught up with him for a chat, David Quammen told me that his experience with wild places began 25 years ago, shortly after he finished a program at Oxford University, and took to the backcountry of Montana for an impromptu solo hike.

QUAMMEN: I remembered that nobody in the world had a clue where I was or where I would be any time in the next 3 weeks. I was too far out to hike back that night and there were scree slopes and other things between me and my bus. So I stayed in a little derelict cabin with pack rats running across my legs and chewing up my fly line. And the next day I hiked back to where I had left my truck, and as I was hiking I was realizing that a broken ankle or a broken leg, anything like that, in this particular situation, probably would be fatal, because nobody knew where I was. And I mention that because it was my real introduction to the meaning of what a wild place might be.

CURWOOD: And that is?

QUAMMEN: It's any place where the terms of encounter are not completely predictable, controlled, or guaranteed, and where a person is really cast on his or her own resources, completely. And that might mean the middle of the mountains of New Guinea or the backcountry of Tasmania or the canyons of Manhattan might even be a wild place in that sense.

CURWOOD: I was going to say you could find places within the (laughs) many metropolitan areas where nothing is guaranteed. Now, for some time in Montana, you worked as a guide, right?

QUAMMEN: I did. I worked as a fishing guide for a handful of years.

CURWOOD: Did you like it?

QUAMMEN: I liked it at first, and then quickly I hated it. I got into fishing guiding because I was mad passionate about fly fishing, and because I loved trout. Not just catching them and eating them, not just fishing for them, but I loved them as creatures. They represented to me everything that was wonderful and wild and cold and clear about Montana.

CURWOOD: Could you read from your essay here, I think it starts on page 24.

QUAMMEN: You are floating a petroleum engineer and his teenage son through the final 12 miles of the Smith River Canyon, which is drowsy, meandering water. Not hospitable to rainbow trout, but good for an occasional large brown. The temperature is 95, the midday glare is fierce. You've spent 6 days with these people and you're eager to be rid of them. The engineer says that he and his son would like to catch one large brown trout before the trip ends, so you tell them to tie on marabou muddlers and drag those billowy monstrosities through certain troughs. Fifteen minutes later, the boy catches a large brown. This fish is 18 inches long and broad of shoulder, a noble and beautiful animal that the Smith River has taken 5 years to grow. You kill the fish, pushing your thumb into its mouth and breaking back the neck. Its old sharp teeth cut your hand. Half an hour later the father catches a large brown, this one also around 18 inches. You're pleased for him and glad for the fish, since you assume that it will go free. But the father has things to prove to the wife as well as to the son. "Mm, better keep this one, too," he says, "and we'll have a pair." You detest this particular euphemistic use of the word "keep." You argue tactfully, but he pretends not to hear. Your feelings for these trout are what originally brought you out onto the Smith River, and are what compel you to bear the company of folk like the man and his son. The 5-year-old brown trout is lambent, spotted with orange. Life as an ocelot swirling gorgeously underwater in your gentle grip. You kill it.

CURWOOD: And so then you got out of the guide business.

QUAMMEN: So then I got out of the guide business, yeah, very quickly after that.

CURWOOD: Well, let's talk about the ethic behind all this. I mean, this business of when it's okay to kill other things is something that appears in a number of your essays. You fish sometimes, right, and you kill the fish, right?

QUAMMEN: Well, I don't know if I still fish, frankly, Steve. I may have fished for the last time but I haven't taken a vow not to fish. When I have fished in recent years, I've been more inclined to kill what I catch, eat it, and stop fishing when I no longer am willing to kill for food. So I've admitted that it's a mortally serious form of predation and food acquisition. I no longer tell myself that it's just this innocent game between fisherman and fish. But I'm not a vegetarian, I've never been a vegetarian. I find the whole thing a little bit more deeply freighted with moral responsibility than I used to.

CURWOOD: What do you think of the current split between people who call themselves environmentalists and people who call themselves hunters?

QUAMMEN: Well, I think it's a split that really needs to be healed. It's a costly split in terms of the shared goals that the 2 groups have. Hunters will argue that the conservation movement in America began with hunters. People like Theodore Roosevelt and quite a number of others. And there are books that have been devoted to that subject. It's at least partly true. I don't think it's as true as they claim it to be because there are others like Henry Thoreau and John Muir who were not hunters and who played a very important role in the founding of the conservation movement, too. But in this day and age, when we're losing not just creatures but so much habitat to development, to home in the country fever in places like Montana, to bad logging practices, bad mining practices, it's crucial that hunters and other sorts of conservationists find alliance with each other toward the goals that they do share.

CURWOOD: There's a fascinating story in your book. Actually, there are a lot of really terrific stories. But I have to say one of the most unusual was that dinner that you were invited to that involved stir-fried mountain lion.

QUAMMEN: This was surprising to me, too. I had written an essay about the rarity of mountain lions, and I've lived in Montana, as I said, for a long time, and I've never seen one in the wild. And that led me to conclude a couple of things. One, that they are very rare, which they are relatively. But I also assumed that they were endangered, that their population was suffering from pressure from hunters. And when I published that essay, a fellow named Don Thomas, a physician and a bow-hunter who hunts mountain lions among other creatures, got very angry, got in my face, and challenged me to look at some of the facts I hadn't looked at. And convinced me, along with some other information, that for a big predator, mountain lions are thriving in recent years in the northern Rockies. One of the things that bothered me about the hunting of mountain lions was my feeling that people shouldn't kill game that they don't eat, and I perceived mountain lion hunting to be strictly trophy hunting. This fellow, Don Thomas, showed me that the mountain lion is actually a very edible species. So, one evening at his house in a small town in Montana, he cooked me a dinner of stir-fried mountain lion and proved to me that whatever arguments you might have about the idea of hunting Felice concolor, the American lion, inedibility wasn't one of them.

CURWOOD: So, is it okay to hunt something that you're willing to eat?

QUAMMEN: Well, it's an interesting question, and I don't know how far we'd be willing to take it. I think that if you're a flesh eater, then the lesson is that you have to be very judicious before you make judgments about what other people kill and eat in the name of sport.

CURWOOD: David Quammen's book is called Wild Thoughts from Wild Places. He joined us from KGLT in Bozeman, Montana. Thank you so much, David.

QUAMMEN: It's been a pleasure, Steve. Good to talk to you.



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