David Quammen Answers the Orion Questionnaire

In which we get to know our favorite writers better by exploring the sacred and mundane.

Whether he’s writing about zoonotic diseases, molecular biology, COVID, evolution, or really any other subject, David Quammen is one of the world’s most important science writers. Yes, you may be thinking, but what is this jet-setting thinker’s favorite meal? Read on to find out.


There’s a spider in the room; what do you do?

Try not to alarm it or step on it by dreadful mistake.


What is your most treasured comfort meal?

A dry Bombay Sapphire martini or, if I’m in Cincinnati, Skyline chili.


Would you jump at an opportunity to go into space? Why or why not?

I wouldn’t jump, but I would consider it carefully with high interest. I would ask my wife, Betsy, what she thought, considering the time away from home and the risk. She would say, “If you don’t grab that seat, I want it.”


Have you ever been bitten by an animal, wild or domestic?

Many nonpoisonous snakes, countless mosquitoes, several excitable cats, several formidable praying mantises, one mouse, can’t remember what all else. No hard feelings.


Ocean, garden, desert, or forest?

Forest. Then desert, or swamp.


My favorite tree in the world is _____.

A black walnut tree in our yard in Cincinnati that I climbed innumerable times as a kid. I loved that tree. I could literally climb it with my eyes closed (and sometimes did). Second place:  President, a sequoia in Sequoia National Park, one of the top most massive individual trees in the world, which I was privileged to climb once, during a National Geographic assignment.


Nature would be better without _____.

. . . the current human-caused cataclysm of accelerated extinctions.


What is something you’re looking forward to?

My next powder day on telemark skis.


Do you like scary movies?

Not especially, because they are so often boring, with their slow, obvious efforts to scare. I can’t watch the work of M. Night Shyamalan; my life is too short to wait for his payoffs.


Do you have any unusual hobbies, hidden talents, or superpowers you’d like to share?

I’d rather keep those hidden.


If you could make pancakes with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

Buster Keaton.


Can you make any convincing birdcalls?

I’m no good at that. But I’ve had some success exchanging calls with crows, no doubt because they’re smart enough to humor me.


What are some of your favorite words?

Defenestrate. Transmogrify. Saskatoon.


Who are some of your heroes or heroines, real or fictional?

Charles Darwin. Ulysses S. Grant. Mary Kingsley.


You have twenty-four hours suspended from time. Where and how do you spend them?

That’s where I am and what I’m doing right now: alone in a hotel room in Belize City, reading conservation project proposals for a board meeting of Rainforest Trust that doesn’t begin until Friday.


It’s six o’clock on a summer Saturday, you’re sitting with your feet in a cool creek and someone hands you the perfect beverage. What is it?

Hah! Didn’t I answer this already? A Bombay martini, clean and cold and dry.


Are you a morning person or a night owl? 

Mostly morning, in recent decades.


Do you remember your dreams?

Holy cow, my dreams. Yes, I do. Like being stuck in an amusement park designed by Franz Kafka.


Are you optimistic about the future?

I require myself to be hopeful. Optimism and pessimism are predictive inclinations. My predictive inclinations are rather dark. Hope is a duty. I embrace that duty.


Would you rather drink a piña colada or get caught in the rain? 

The rain.


Sweet or savory?

Hot and spicy.


What is a smell that makes you stop in your tracks?

Lilacs in bloom. Every year, in Montana, during the last weeks of May. I can’t walk past a good bush without literally stopping in my literal tracks.


Which of your book subjects or characters haunts you the most?

  1. Extinction; 2. Viruses.


Where did you grow up?
In a woods along the edge of a suburb on the north side of Cincinnati.


Are you the same person you were as a child?

Yes, but older.


What song or album reminds you of high school?

The Beach Boys: “Be True to Your School.”


What did an average Friday night look like for you as a teenager?

Respectable dates with a lovely girlfriend and some wonderful pals. Sorry to be boring here.


If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

Bozeman, Montana.


Do you step on sidewalk cracks?

Yes. But I knock on wood a lot. Twelve years of Catholic education, and that’s my last remaining metaphysical practice.


You’re in a desert island situation for an unknown period of time. You get three items and one book. What do you bring?

A Kindle (loaded with books), a solar charger, and a sun hat. Plus, a hardback of The Brothers Karamazov.


What would you like to be most remembered for?

Being a good husband, a good son, and a good brother.


What flower would you want pinned to your breast when you die?

One purple aster would be fine.


If you could come back as any organism, who or what would you be?

William Faulkner and Ed Abbey both answered that question with: a vulture. Faulkner’s reason, to the best of my memory: “Nobody hates you or envies you; you’re never lonely or in danger; and you can eat anything.” I’d like to come back as a vulture, too, so I could hang out with those two crazy, amusing men.