The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2001
Edward O. Wilson, editor
In the introduction to this year's "best-of" compilation of American science and nature stories, guest editor and famed naturalist Edward O. Wilson characterizes the winning selections as literature. It's a noble sentiment, but one that invites more scrutiny than these stories can withstand--especially considering that this year's collection is top-heavy with the humdrum.
Writing journalism to the level of detail required by literature is near impossible; few of the pieces here hit that mark, and not only because too many draw from the reporter's well-worn bag of clichés. (In one story, a researcher "gushed" out a sentence, while another "banged on doors" to find funding.) Reporters concern themselves mostly with externals, finding the who, what, when, where of some event. The official "why" is always of dubious value. And with good reason: The subject of a piece of journalism, however trusting, tempers his or her words for the public, self-censoring the very kind of motivations that made, say, Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov the subject of great literature in Crime and Punishment.
Many of the stories here--and this collection is dominated by straight "feature" journalism--are pleasant, informative, but static and character-free excursions into the quirks of the natural world. They hardly delve into the complexities and contradictions that concern literature. Donovan Webster explores the terrestrial depths in "Inside the Volcano" (which first appeared in National Geographic), Oliver Morton tells us all that is known about the world's largest underground lake in "Ice Station Vostok" (Wired), and Verlyn Klinkenborg shows us the world's most accurate clock running off the ever-flipping states of cesium atoms in "The Best Clock in the World" (Discover).
Only two pieces here arguably rise to Wilson's lofty bar. Ted Kerasote's "A Killing at Dawn" (Audubon), which closely chronicles a pack of wolves attacking a calf elk, is amazing, as cleanly executed as the killing it describes. Admirably, Kerasote takes no sides in the grisly account. When he describes the mother elk standing over the bloodied spot where wolves killed her young one some 15 hours before, he writes, "Who can know what is in her mind, except perhaps another mother elk? Perhaps a wolf, determined to bring meat back to his pups."
"Killing" is only rivaled by Val Plumwood's "Being Prey" (Utne Reader), which personifies the food chain. "Prey" is Plumwood's first-person account of being attacked by a crocodile, a particularly gruesome experience as it involves being pulled repeatedly under water and drowning slowly. Plumwood's subsequent introspection on her role in the ecosystem (i.e., being something else's dinner) is as compelling as her description of the near-death event itself.
But while Plumwood and Kerasote's stories work simultaneously as think pieces, character studies, and potboilers, most of the selections more closely resemble Richard Preston's "The Genome Warrior" (The New Yorker), a story about the race between the National Institutes of Health and Craig Venter's publicly held company, Rockville-based Celera, to complete a rough draft of the human genome. No more "literary" than a fast-paced detective novel, Preston's story nonetheless untangles a complex and little understood rivalry. Sometimes that's all we require from science and nature writers--to clearly explain what's going on in those fields, to forge narrative from the wilds of progress.