David Quammen’s new book “Yellowstone” is a beautifully photographed and engagingly written testament to an extraordinary place. Quammen appears Friday, Sept. 30, at Town Hall Seattle.
The Yellowstone Plateau’s spectacular geology, award-winning science writer David Quammen explains, earns such deserved fame because “directly beneath it burns a vast volcanic hot spot” comprising two magma chambers that cause the continent’s plate to bulge upward to an average elevation of 8,000 feet. These chambers create a “supervolcano” that acts “like a stationary torch burning blisters through a sliding sheet of steel.” Forming the world’s largest collection of hydrothermal features — geysers, steam vents, bubbling mudpots — they led to the area’s being preserved as the United States’ first national park in 1872.
While Yellowstone was visited by 4 million tourists in 2015, even more people are expected this year as the National Park Service celebrates its centennial. Quammen, author of “Yellowstone: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart” (National Geographic, 223 pp., $28) has lived in nearby Bozeman, Mont., for 30 years and frequently counts himself among that number. In fact, during the two years he worked on this book, he made many return trips to hike and ride horseback with park scientists, and even took an “eagle-view tour” from the air to see backcountry most people never reach.
“Yellowstone is a wild place. Sort of,” he notes. It is “nature under management,” a place of roads, hotels and souvenir shops, the “paradox of the cultivated wild” with “animals obliged to abide by human rules.”
The author of “Yellowstone: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 at townhallseattle.org and at the door. Information: 206-652-4255.
Author of 14 books and a contributing writer for National Geographic, Quammen is both observant and engaging. He enjoys tackling big, complicated topics such as evolution or, recently in “Spillover,” zoonotic diseases, that is, animal viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi that can infect humans. As he does now with “Yellowstone,” he often travels for research, giving readers the pleasure of going along.
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These encounters are sometimes surprising. For example, on the flight, he and the pilot spot a grizzly. Although stories about bears killing people grab headlines, this bear was merely eating flowers. Quammen learns they depend on four natural foods: cutthroat trout from Yellowstone Lake during spawning, elk and bison meat, whitebark pine nuts and army cutworm moths, which feed on nectar of alpine and subalpine flowers, attracting bears each summer.
He then delves into “the intricate story within the big saga” of grizzly diets. A subspecies of cutthroat, for instance, is the only trout species native to Yellowstone. Tens of thousands used to spawn here. However, a count at Clear Creek in 2006 recorded only 489 fish, “less than a hundredth of the former number.” The reasons? Prolonged drought, a parasite causing whirling disease and lake trout, probably introduced decades ago by someone wanting to improve the fishing.
But lake trout thrive on cutthroat. And for several reasons, lake trout don’t replace cutthroat as food for bears. Accompanying a biologist on the water one day, Quammen observes the park’s efforts to dredge and kill the lake trout, an anticipated long-term struggle.
Several times, he describes how our understanding of natural processes evolved. Wolves were exterminated, the thinking went, to improve hunting. But with no predator to keep them in check, elk multiplied, overgrazing the land and riparian zones. Reintroduction of wolves has allowed us both to study and begin to repair these intricate relationships.
Yellowstone and the greater area surrounding it, Quammen shows, “can teach us a lot about how nature works.” Visiting the park with him teaches us a lot, too. And, of course, the accompanying photographs are exactly what we expect from National Geographic: stunningly beautiful and thought-provoking.