At his core, David Quamenn is a storyteller. He is a writer, and his work weaves together human empathy and the natural world, constantly exploring the relationship between landscape and human history. During his time with National Geographic, he has covered Mike Fay’s Megatransect, Jane Goodall, and stories of people and animals (his coverage of the recovery of Gorongosa National Park and the life of a Serengeti lion are just two examples). His non-fiction work explores the relationship between landscape and human history, and he has been nominated for and won several awards for his literary work.
This year, he received another well-earned honor: National Geographic presented David with the 2019 Eliza Scidmore Award for Outstanding Science Media at this year’s Explorers Festival. The Eliza Scidmore Award recognizes David’s work in combining scientific rigor and immersive storytelling to advance our understanding of the environmental and conservation issues we face, with the ultimate goal of empowering societies to make the best decisions for a healthier planet.
Photographer Erika Larsen visited David at his home in Bozeman, Montana and for an intimate view into his life and work. To complement her photo essay (below), National Geographic Society Video Producer and Editor Megan King interviewed David to discuss his career.
What do you see as your role in this profession?
I’m fundamentally a writer, not fundamentally a journalist. Fundamentally a science writer, and fundamentally what I used to be, a fiction writer. I’m interested in making art with words.
What drives me is creating beautiful artistic forceful pieces of non-fiction either at magazine story length or at book length that people will find entertaining, that occasionally will make them laugh, occasionally make them cry. And at the end of the day, will affect and hopefully change the way they see the world.
How do you translate your field experience back to the page?
One of the challenges in my job is to gather real facts, field data, quotes, to bring that back to my little office in Bozeman, Montana, and to take those pieces of fact and use them almost the way you would use bright chips of ceramic tile to create a mosaic.
Each fact to me is parallel to one of those little centimeter square chips of mosaic tile from which you might create a great, vivid, lifelike mosaic on the wall of a building. Each chip is discrete. Each fact is discrete. You can’t bend the facts. You shouldn’t manipulate, massage the facts. You shouldn’t invent quotes or improve quotes. You bring back all these little chips of fact, and then you make a mosaic from them, being true to each individual chip, but creating a story that is factual and suspenseful, satisfying, moving, interesting, and maybe amusing.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you face?
Well, the most obvious answer to that is the physical challenges. You go to difficult places, and you try to keep up with very fit, young, field biologists. But the physical challenges are really the least of it.
There are challenges in taking complex scientific information and making it palatable, comfortable, and accessible to the general public. This is complicated stuff — this is formidable, intimidating science, and I’m trying to turn it into a page turner for ordinary readers. I’m trying to get people interested, to keep people interested, to make them feel comfortable, and to make them feel, “Okay. If Quammen can understand this, I can understand this. Furthermore, there’s some human stories here. It’s interesting, there’s some surprises, so I’ll keep turning the pages.” That’s the hardest challenge in my work: to keep people turning the pages through material that’s complex, and yet dramatic and deeply important.
How do you see your work empowering others?
When I write about science, I do want to empower people with the recognition that they can understand this stuff. They can be an informed citizen — a literate and well-read person with a broad understanding of the world, even when it comes to something like giraffe evolution, molecular phylogenetics, island biogeography, or the ecology of zoonotic disease.
I think I can empower people by producing pieces of writing that vastly increase their knowledge and their understanding of important topics and yet, are enjoyable as literary works to read.
Do you see your work as helping to drive action towards achieving a planet in balance?
My ultimate aspiration is to be a literary artist. I want to have an impact, and I want to change the way people see the world. I want to put my shoulder to the wheel of this huge problem that we have of saving biological diversity on planet Earth while being helpful to, appreciative of, and supportive of all the desperate people on this planet.
So when I write an article or a book, I want to have an impact. I want to change the way people think about their carbon footprint, or about what’s happening to elephants in Africa, or what’s happening to grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, or the survival of beetles in the Amazon forest. I want to awaken people to active concern and change people’s minds and change the way people live.