In 1981 David Quammen began what might be every freelance writer's dream: a monthly column for Outside magazine in which he was given free rein to write about anything that interested him in the natural world. His column was called "Natural Acts," and for the next fifteen years he delighted Outside's readers with his fascinating ruminations on the world around us. The Boilerplate Rhino brings together twenty-six of Quammen's most thoughtful and engaging essays from that column, none previously printed in any of his earlier books.
In lucid, penetrating, and often quirkily idiosyncratic prose, David Quammen takes his readers with him as he explores the world. His travels lead him to rattlesnake handlers in Texas; a lizard specialist in Baja; the dinosaur museum in Jordan, Montana; and halfway across Indonesia in search of the perfect Durian fruit. He ponders the history of nutmeg in the southern Moluccas, meditates on bioluminescent beetles while soaking in the waters of the Amazon, and delivers "The Dope on Eggs" from a chicken ranch near his hometown in Montana.
Quammen's travels are always jumping-off points to explore the rich and sometimes horrifying tension between humankind and the natural world, in all its complexity and ambivalence. The result is another irrepressible assortment of ideas to explore, conundrums to contemplate, and wondrous creatures to behold.
Rippling with verve, this fourth collection of essays culled from the latter half of Quammen's tenure as a columnist at Outside magazine (1981-1996) displays yet again how dexterously he fulfilled his monthly mandate "to demonstrate that evolutionary biology, theoretical ecology, and the incisive contemplation of nature can provide piquant entertainment for people in dental waiting rooms." Among his obsessions this time around are spiders and snakes, sperm and (somewhat more equivocally) eggs; reflections of nature in the eyes of artists and writers (the title alludes to Albrecht D rer's woodcut of a rhino armored like a feudal German knight, one of the world's first mass-produced images); and durian, a thorny yellow-green fruit the size of a rugby ball, which "smells like a jockstrap" but yields a pulp that's "creamy and slightly fibrous, like a raw oyster that's been force-fed vanilla ice cream" and that envelops another recurring motif: the nutmeg. As ever, it's a delight to watch Quammen (Song of the Dodo) take off in pointy-headed pursuit of the answer to a question that he has just twisted his brain to produce, such as why owls don't have penises or what is the terminal velocity of a plummeting cat. Nor is he above sticking his neck out and turning his meticulous gaze on his own foibles (why, Quammen wonders, is he a cringing arachnophobe, when he is also an avid snake fancier?). While one occasionally catches a glimpse of the "pinched worried ruthless countenance" of a man on a relentless monthly deadline, that sight only humanizes his formidable eye, ear and intellect.