Why Quammen’s Spillover is worth Your Time

David Quammen’s new book Spillover, on emergent diseases; or more specifically, on emergent zoonoses, came out a few months ago to a series of middling good but somehow lukewarm reviews. I vehemently disagree, but it takes a bit of unfolding. Why do some readers find such a book fascinating while others find it dull?

First: I think any literate biologist will find it fascinating, a journalistic War and Peace with many adventurous protagonists, viruses as antagonists, mysterious hosts (you will learn why so many turn out to be bats, and why the source of the legendary Ebola— which should scare you a lot less than bird flu– probably is).

But you must understand evolution as an organizing principle of all nature to follow it. What is more, Quammen travels round the world, from northern Australia, where a disease you have likely never heard of jumps from fruit bat to horse to veterinarian, to the familiar (to his readers) rain forests of equatorial Africa, home of gorilla and chimp and bonobo, of war and bushmeat, Ebola and Marburg and AIDS. He looks at Lyme disease (not a virus by the way). He visits Bengladesh (who else bothers?) to trap flying foxes while wearing a biohazard suit, and sees a scary combination of a dense population inhabiting a semi- submerged land with poor sanitation as well as a sweet bucolic tropical nation. He goes to southern China, home of the briefly appearing SARS, which I was checked for once on a Mongolian flight from China, and where the proximity of humans, ducks, and pigs may make for the next human pandemic in the form of an unstoppable flu.

You must be patient, because  none of this has a normal narrative line. Quammen is delightfully anecdotal, but unlike in Richard Preston’s entertaining and Stephen King- terrifying The Hot Zone, he is not penning a novelistic thriller that happens to be non- fiction. His aim is to have the reader understand all the origins of the diseases he writes about, that is, their evolutionary roots. He wants you to know what a virus is, and how the main kinds of virus differ, and how they evolve without being “alive”. He wants you to know how and why some kind of outbreak is mathematically virtually inevitable. But nobody “explodes”; in fact, I thought that given his gentle reprimand to Preston over his using that verb re Ebola, the Saturday Wall Street Journal‘s giving the assignment to review the book to him was at least tactless. Preston acquitted himself as a gentleman, giving the book a mostly favorable review, but that unmentioned paragraph hung uncomfortably in the air.

Quammen ends the book by writing vividly about what a unique situation our human biosphere is, merely in its sheer mass and number of ubiquitous large mammals and their congener species. It is a subject I have only seen in science fiction. And then he closes with a description of a plague of tent caterpillars in Bozeman Montana, and what happened to them. If you read that far, and I think even non- science nerds may be captivated by then, you may finally feel your flesh creep.

The Gang of Five

Off-season Jackson Hole is a pleasure for those of us who like to have short visits. Roads are undergoing reconstruction before the major traffic hits, and many businesses are closed for renovations or revamping before the summer season. With few people, the businesses that cater to high-end travelers offer great deals during this quiet time, and Jim and I took advantage of that last weekend. Beautiful lodging, on a rainy and snowy April weekend. We drank excellent draft beers and feasted on German food at a local hangout (The Bird), and spent sunrise out on the National Elk Refuge. We saw dozens of bighorn sheep, at least 1,000 elk, numerous mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and moose – and that was just on the drive up through the Hoback from Pinedale!

While we were watching a herd of elk cross the road in front of us, we noticed a pack of five coyotes making its way across the meadow. We stayed around and watched as the pack hunted for rodents, and running together, actually managed to part the herd of elk so they could travel through. The coyotes showed no aggression toward the elk, but the elk kept tabs the movements of the coyote.

This pack of five coyotes is fairly famous as they treed two juvenile mountain lions on a buck-rail fence a few weeks ago. A NER employee happened by and got some great photos of the incident.

Here’s a few images of some of the pack we encountered on Sunday. Click on the images for a larger view.

P.S. This eagle was hanging out behind the visitor center in Jackson. I love the green coloration on the fence post.

Rungius Letter!

Serendipity: not only did I pick up several interesting books at Nick Potter’s in Santa Fe; in my “new” copy of the uncommon 1948 Knopf Borzoi sporting book, Russell  Annabel’s Hunting and Fishing in Alaska (which I have been looking for for years) I found a letter by the greatest painter of American (or any?) big game.

This guy.

One of his greatest:

The letter:

UPDATE: Walter Hingley fills in some history. “Note the Rungius letter is to Walter Joseph Wilwerding  (1891 – 1966) who illustrated for the big three. I believe he did a lot of the Annabel articles for Sports Afield which might mean the book was Wilwerding’s or maybe even Annabel’s…

He has had this book for forty years:

Ian and Tom

Best concert ever– well, I am inclined to hyperbole– let’s just say the best set of popular music I have ever seen in NM.

It could NOT have been any better, and I have seen & heard both (long) before; Ian first in 1967! Tom on stage spoke of one collaboration: “Ian wrote this when I was just four” [pause] “He was eleven at the time.” All classic stuff, maybe one new song, a really spooky effort by Ian he dedicated to the hawks on his ranch “THIS IS MY SKY!”

Slight air of… valedictory?– Ian’s voice is 90% back but everything he did was haunted, perhaps because he seemed frail. “Leaving Cheyenne” made the hairs on my neck bristle. They mostly played independently with their own backups, calling each other out for collaborations.

I first heard Ian live, I repeat, in 67–!  Lib beat me with 1963, “Four Strong Winds” which Ian played last as a sing along (as was their collaboration “Navajo Rug”).

Afterward it got a little goofy, perhaps because of relief that everything– the old Lensic theater, the young guitarist whose name I  must get– went just right. In the break & aftermath Tom was helping Nadine man the tables with art & cd’s, and acting like my booster, pointing at me, yelling “Steve Bodio, The Falconer!” and giving me high fives. So I’d come back with “Tom Russell, American songwriter!”, sort of a private joke, and pump my cane in the air, or (for a mutual former Magdalena friend who was there helping, “Joel Bernstein, quarter horses and violins!” Finally a woman came up and said “are you the REAL Steve Bodio? ” Now: my name is uncommon enough that I may be the only one, and for sure the only one THERE, but as I looked puzzled Tom retorted “that is why I’m gonna put him in a book!”…

It turns out my “fan” was Alberta writer and rider Wendy Dudley, who took the first two photos below. The third, at Rainbow Man gallery next AM, is by Nadine on her phone, and I show the effect of broken sleep, always a travel difficulty these days. We still had too much fun.

Returning to regular operation?

Slowly anyway. Learning everything from  new Dragonspeak to IPad to keep work and communication going, still busy and rather too “Parky”.  Rissy’s pregnancy failed. The car broke down while we were driving Jack and Eli to the airport! You all know the public horrors, but…

Good Things are happening– work, art, music (yes we were at the show; yes it was GREAT) and serendipity.

Even if I do sometimes feel like this:

My relatives are OK

Federico wondered if my relatives were OK. As I have three sisters who regularly run the Marathon it was a serious question. The twins did not go up from Pittsburgh this year, and Anita St John was at mile 20 when the bombs went off at the finish line.

However, my sister Wendy, a head nurse, is apparently working on the victims, and there are or at least were armed guards on the hospital doors.

Of Lane and Jane and dog relatives

Our blog friend and frequent commenter Lane Batot lives an enviable life in the wooded hills of North Carolina, working at the zoo, rambling the wild lands with his team of dogs and his spear, reading and collecting a natural history library that would rival mine. At the moment he has thousands of books, thirteen  dogs including a pair of tazi boys from Vladimir Beregovoy that are cousins of ours, and four ferrets; if I have gotten any numbers wrong I am sure he will let me know.

But Lane is not only Ortega’s “Municipal Paleolithic Man”; he is an amateur scholar of Edgar Rice Burroughs, a former Sasquatch, and a long time friend of Jane Goodall’s who has worked at Gombe. They meet occasionally when Jane speaks at a nearby venue, but this year Jane and the Edgar Rice Burroughs Society conspired to fly him to LA for the big Tarzan festivities. I wish I still had the typing skills and energy to re- type his entire 20- some page handwritten letter about his wandering around in an alien habitat, but I think that his official interview will do.

A couple more photos: tazi boys, and Lane in a more natural habitat:


Everywhere, doing their courting flights even in town. My reading indicates Coopers at least are becoming urbanized; the Eurasian gos nests in city parks in Russia. This is the first in my thirty some years here that they have ventured so close to humans this deep into their breeding cycle. The poor pic is of a haggard male Coop in my yard last week, eating a pigeon on one of the doghouses. The good one is of a breeding age female by Carolyn Wilson; she chased a dove into the Wilson’s window. Yes, they are out of town, but not that far or isolated, and the bird’s habits suggest no fear…