After 15 years as a regular columnist for Outside magazine, David Quammen has assembled another collection of what he describes as the best essays from his Natural Acts column. Imagine having to produce a 3,000 word column each month with the only guideline being that the piece have something to do with nature, science, or both. The outcome is an eclectic conglomerate of stories bizarre and humorous crafted by a writer with a fondness for exhaustive research and the freedom to roam in his work, which literally leads him around the world.
Quammen's four previous collections of essays attest to the thoroughness of his writing style and his affinity for obscure and unfamiliar topics in the natural world. Whereas his previous works tended to center on one particular geographical region or species, this latest collection explores the peculiar relationship mankind and the natural world share with characters and creatures equally bizarre. Quammen includes only those Natural Acts columns that explore the endlessly differing perceptions and attitudes with which humans regard the similarly complex and forever changing natural world. The result is a humorous collection fashioned with meticulous research and background material which is equal parts history, science, and cultural eccentricity.
In Quammen's description of a rattlesnake roundup in Texas, for example there is a carnival-like atmosphere of the event, which celebrates the abundant indigenous reptile yet a parent can pay five dollars at one booth for little Jimmy to have the honor of hatcheting the head off of one of the creatures. There is also the incredible story of nutmeg, the spice which launched a thousand ships, and its incredible journey from one end of the earth to the other and the political ramifications which guided its history.
For readers who have enjoyed Quammen's columns over the years, The Boilerplate Rhino is certainly one for the bookshelf. Those who enjoy reading about eco-journalism, natural sciences, history, philosophy, religion, astronomy, or ways of perceiving ourselves in relation to the natural world will find in this collection an agreeable assortment of it all.
Jamie McAlister is the assistant editor for Port News in Charleston, South Carolina.