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Natural Acts (David Quammen's essay collections #1)

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  1,002 Ratings  ·  63 Reviews

"David Quammen is simply the best natural essayist working today."--Tim Cahill, author of Lost in My Own Backyard

"Lively writing about science and nature depends less on the offering of good answers, I think, than on the offering of good questions," said David Quammen in the original introduction to Natural Acts. For more than two decades, he has stuck to that credo. In th

Kindle Edition, 353 pages
Published (first published 1985)
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I promised a second review / rant about people I hate. This is it. This time it's Smug Environmentalists. The hate will manifest as the review goes on.

Natural Acts is a collection of essays, which mostly appeared originally in the authors column in "Outside" magazine. The essays mostly look at a particular question that the author thought of and presents a possible answer to the question. Such as, what is the benefit of mosquitos? Or why do bats have such a bad reputation / people are so fearfu
Let me see here. What did I learn?

--- I learned that of all the known species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes and crustaceans, plasmic tentacle-waving sea creatures, every brand of zooplankton, every . . . hell, every one of the 1.25 million known species of animal, one in four of them is a beetle.

--- I learned that mosquitoes are good for nothing, except maybe slowing the destruction of tropical rain forests.

--- I learned about parthenogenesis. Sure the wingless aphid sucks a lo
Feb 16, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
About 75 percent of the essays are eye-opening wonders that raise nature and science writing to an art form and make me want to ditch New York for a cottage near a lake. The weaker 25 percent, typically profiles of a scientific figure or various obscure species, are pushy and breathless efforts at mythologizing. Quammen wrote the lesser pieces in his youth, however, so all is forgiven (plus even his lesser articles are better than the average writer's best). The essay "The Post Communist Wolf" c ...more
This was a fascinating, wonderful, absorbing, funny read. I can see (from reading my own review, not because I remember) that I had some trouble with a few of the essays in Flight of the Iguana because some of the data in them has since been discounted and the theories have been updated. However, I didn't find that with this book. Some of the stories are a bit dated, but it didn't throw me as much. And there were some particularly evocative passages, particularly about the importance of water.

Apr 27, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I like David Quammen a lot, ever since I read The Flight of the Iguana A Sidelong View of Science and Nature a good long time ago. He manages to write about the environment without being shrill, repetitive, or completely depressing. Ok his later articles can be pretty depressing but have you looked at environment lately? He's got a clear concise way of writing that really conveys the gravity of say, African rain forest while still leavening it with humor and adventure. His longer pieces are some ...more
Dec 27, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is almost certainly the source for my fondness (and concern) for crows, my intermittent fascination with Tycho Brahe, and my incomplete knowledge of sea cucumbers. They can turn themselves inside out, you know. The sea cucumbers, I mean.
To say that David Quammen is an advocate for the most underreported, unloved, and reviled members of the animal kingdom is a gross understatement. He is, perhaps, their messiah, the one person who can write about mosquitos, bats, and black widow spiders with both breezy irreverence and serious fascination with creatures that most people would do best to stay far away from. Here's a sample:

the mosquito is taking a bad rap. It has been victimized, I submit to you, by a strong case of anthropomorph
James Roberts
There are some fantastic essays here and some not so fantastic; enlightening and boring. Quammen’s shorter works pack a heavier punch while he longer works tend to drone on and on. A solid enough read with accessible information to the layman.
Nov 05, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
for the essay on crows, as rec'd by Pamela Turner in Crow Smarts
I should have stopped there. The essays that were interesting had too much authorial intrusion such as forced humor, references to the poetry or Auden and Donne, and a pretentious vocabulary, imo. And the newer essays, added in this greatly revised & expanded edition, did not intrigue me. I kept trying to read each essay, then finding myself skimming up to the next and trying again.

Otoh, if you're a fan of Quammen, an
Max Potthoff
As I walked past a small bookstore in Lincoln, Nebraska, I noticed David Quammen's "Natural Acts" displayed prominently in the window. Honestly, I was drawn to it because the cover was beautifully designed(while it's improper to judge a book based on it's cover, I've never seen anything wrong picking one up because of it).

Quammen has had the kind of career that would make anyone with a remote interest in the outdoors jealous. He has written many years for Outside magazine, embarking on wild adve
Apr 07, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
I read a number of these essays when first published in Outside and other periodicals. That did not detract for reading them once more and enjoying the author’s thought-provoking, insightful and often humorous take on a far-ranging variety of natural subjects, a few I admit which wouldn’t have warranted my attention had they not bee included in the book.

The fact some of the essays date back to 1981 and the most recent to 2005 does not make the information outdated either. Quammen has revised and
Adam Wiggins
Sep 25, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nature
David Quammen is a self-effacing naturalist and travel author which I can't help but compare to Bill Bryson. He has a sharp wit and is good at bringing lofty and complex concepts from the natural sciences to a general audience. His writing is, from a technical standpoint, some of the best I've ever encountered.

This book is a collection of columns from a magazine he wrote for over the course of many years. They are roughly grouped together, with the first section zooming in on particular animals
Jason Mills
Jul 14, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Natural history buffs; anyone in search of a damn good read.
This is the first collection of Quammen's natural history essays for Outsider magazine. This selection features a run of articles on 'verminous' creatures, a section on oddball characters in science, some contemporary issues like animal rights (kinda copped out at the end of that one, dincha Dave? :) ), and finally a few curious corners of natural history for their own sake.

I'll read anything by Quammen. His mix of humour, up-to-the-minute science, travelogue and thoughtful angles is endlessly e
Todd Martin
Natural Acts consists of a series of light and lively natural history essays culled from articles that Quammen wrote for Outside Magazine over the years. The first part of the book consists of short articles about animal species (mosquitos, beetles, black widow spiders, anacondas, and bats, to name but a few) in which a few fun facts are provided before moving on to the next. The later articles are longer and more serious in tone and include a mix of adventure travel with nature writing and a di ...more
David Mccormick
If I could give this book 3.5 stars, I would. It's a great collection of Mr. Quammen's work and you can definitely see his evolution as a science writer, moving from cocky self-assurance in the early part of the book towards more introspective and thoughtful extended thoughts in the later work. The major flaw of the collection is the tendency to lose track of where he is going with some of the essays. Mr. Quammen has a unfortunate tendency to keep hinting at some big reveal during the first half ...more
Jan 12, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, read-in-2012
This is a very entertaining collection of essays about the natural world. Quammen is not a scientist or even really a science writer but he is very good at bringing to life little slices of interesting gee-whiz stories.

The book is mostly a collection of essays that he wrote as a columnist for Outside magazine in the early 80's. They are short, 4-6 pages, and cover weird and wonderful things with a good bit of humor thrown in. The last section of the book is several longer pieces that he wrote f
Mark Flanagan
Octopus-wrestling, vampire moths, and disaffected crows - oh my! I like David Quammen. More to the point, I want to be David Quammen. Back in the early 1980's, with neither scientific nor journalistic background, he stumbled into a sweet gig writing about the natural world for Outside Magazine, and he's never looked back.

'Natural Acts' was the title of that Outside column and the title of a 1985 collection of pieces from that column. It's back, and it's bigger and better than before with the ad
David Feela
Aug 30, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Quammen is a clever writer. He brings both humor and insight to his discussions of the natural world, in biology and supports them thoroughly with those Homo sapiens known to be authorities in their particular fields. I don't think he goes overboard, as some reviewers claim, with an "environmentalist" agenda -- whatever that is. Yes, his writing Is deeply concerned with the environment, a passion I can respect because of the way he writes about it, so it follows that he would discuss the difficu ...more
Erik Waiss
Apr 11, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Kind of a hodge podge of writings. Essays vary in length from several minutes to over an hour in reading time (your mileage may vary). As an avid reader of Quammen's other works you will find here a wide swath of essays that relate to much of his other publications. I found some essays that deal directly with one (or several) of his books. For the most part these essays/writings seem to be the earlier versions of grander ideas. Monster of God, Flight of the Dodo, and Spillover are all hinted at ...more
A collection of short essays that were somewhat uneven for my enjoyment. Some are very entertaining but others are a little too preachy. I enjoyed the first half most where the author described quirky animals, plants etc. in their natural environments. Some of his longer essays in the 2nd half very not nearly as fun, and tended to wander about or lack cohesion. He makes a case for preserving natural habitants and endangered species that I don't find convincing. He likens the catastrophic events ...more
David Quammen is truly an amazing writer. He brilliantly paints words across the page as he transports his readers to exotic locations and fascinating corners of the world. He's certainly one of the best science and nature writers out there. This is the third book I've read by Quammen, and the only reason it got three stars was because it wasn't as good as the other two ("Monsters of God" and "Song of the Dodo" - both fantastic). Still, I enjoyed this collection of short pieces that were previou ...more
Jul 10, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A selection of essays, well written, very interesting. I had to put the book down a few times when I was getting too depressed (especially the essays "The Post Communist Wolf" and "The Planet of Weeds") but the earlier essays in particular are just plain entertaining. I loved the later essay "Megatransect" especially, and now have the desire to hike across all of Africa, getting foot worms, and being menaced by elephants... '-) Anyone who loves nature and animals should read this book. Kayaking ...more
Feb 04, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nature
It's hard not to be envious. Successful writer, skilled outdoorsman, Montana resident, always traveling the world on one odd adventure after another, David Quammen is the essence of middle aged, nature dude cool. He's even a fly fisherman. Over the years, I've enjoyed much of his writing, but I'd never read his first book, Natural Acts, a compilation of magazine essays.

You can read the rest of my review at Natural Acts.

May 30, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
David Quammen writes very well. He takes high-end research science and condenses it to conversational stories of discovery and personality. I enjoyed his works on Linnaeus, the kayak trip down the Grand Canyon (three story lines are seamlessly woven together: his recent painful divorce, aging mid-life body and the limits it presents, and the remarkable historical geology of the place), and the article on the ethics (and stupidity) of cloning. The piece about the loss of his dog was wrenching and ...more
Kristie Saumure
Mar 08, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book of essays by David Quammen - they were an entertaining look into the natural world. My favourite essays were about 1) The Octopus (because it made me think about an animal that had never given me much pause before); 2) The Crows (gave me another reason to love these wickedly smart birds); 3) Hypothermia (because I love a good mystery); 4) Wolves in Romania (because I loved the intersection between politics and the environment); and 5) Citizen Wiley (because it eloquently explor ...more
B. Jay
Feb 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
A clever and well-written account of science in nature written by someone with more qualification in humor than science. Although the earlier essays are thought-provoking, and clearly written by a science-outsider, his later works are more thorough but somewhat drier (and longer). Nonetheless, I'd recommend this book to anyone who loves nature, science, comedy or debating any of the above topics.
Marilyn Chandler
One of my favorite science writers. These essays are literate, amusing, filled with surprising facts about various "critters," as he has called them (he wrote what he called the "critter column" for Outside magazine for years), and informative in memorable ways that make even non-science-minded readers want to come back for more. Good example of how humor can serve high purposes and a literary education can help make science accessible.
Apr 14, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Smart and inquisitive writing! I learned a lot of interesting things. The pieces were short and easy to read. I like that he lives in Montana, lots of western connections. The people he concentrates on in the book, be they historic or modern day, are crazy intelligent and all self motivated to uncover/try dozens of completely different things in their lives. When you look at the commonalities of these people it is inspiring, they all just have an intense curiosity about the world!
Nov 15, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
David Quammen has a way with words – his writing uses just the perfect words to enliven the reading experience without burdening it. The essays in this book do not have any thrillingly huge new ideas, just a constant stream of small ones illuminated by Quammen’s point of view. The chapter on Arctic Grayling expresses especially well a love of fish species and understanding of their behavior.
Jill Sergeant
Aug 06, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People with an interest in science, biology, and the natural world.
Recommended to Jill by: My brother
Well, I've become a David Quammen fan now. I inherited several of his books from my brother and this year finally got around to reading them. Foolishly, when I moved house I gave away a couple of them, thinking, if I like the others I can look for more, rather than hanging on to what I've got. Library, here I come.
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David Quammen (born February 1948) is an award-winning science, nature and travel writer whose work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Outside, Harper's, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Book Review; he has also written fiction. He wrote a column called "Natural Acts" for Outside magazine for fifteen years. Quammen lives in Bozeman, Montana.
More about David Quammen...

Other Books in the Series

David Quammen's essay collections (4 books)
  • The Flight of the Iguana: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature
  • Wild Thoughts from Wild Places
  • The Boilerplate Rhino: Nature in the Eye of the Beholder