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Diane Ackerman's writing demonstrates how creative sensibility combined with command of the technical aspects of biology can make significant contributions to our common understanding of the nature around us and our own human nature. She backs up her intuitions with interviews; she knows her sales will reimburse her for the financial resources she must commit to the travel needed, and she has sufficient credibility to be welcome wherever her informants work or live. She's won respect as a top-flight communicator in her field.
She's a perceptive observer. She can convey with great delicacy ways we experience ourselves and each other:
We understand ourselves on many more spine-tingling levels: how we're changing the planet, other creatures, and each other. This is not just the Human Age. It's also the age when we began to see, for the first time, the planet's interlaced, jitterbugging ecosystems... We're each a sac of chemicals, forged in the sun, that can sometimes contemplate itself, even if we don't always know where our pancreas is, and are troubled most days by mundaner manners. When we meet, at parties or on the street, we nonetheless feel like strangers. When we find ourselves alone together in an elevator, it is as if we have been caught at some naughty act; we can't bring ourselves to meet each other's eyes.
She can connect such intuitions to her solid grasp of what happens on location:
What began as an effort to bank the DNA of only the most endangered animals has now evolved into an urgent banking of whole ecosystems. The Ark goes into an area and collects everything that crawls, flies, scampers, or slithers. In a tropical rain forest with its thick canopy, groups of people spread sheets underneath a tree, and they shake it. As I picture raining insects, frogs, snails and moths, I feel sure Ann finds the shaking and collecting great fun. I know I would. We haven't named more than about 65% of the biomass of all the species on Earth. So, yes, shake it down, and freeze it...
I admire the confidence with which she can declare her own reactions to, and apply catchy unusual terms to, phenomena she encounters on location. And how she can weave together as a single experience her impressions of other people and the science involved. She's a powerful writer; sometimes I could feel the iron structure of an outline being relentlessly tracked, yet the writing remain as fresh and spontaneous as an onsite journal entry.
How can one progress from a neophyte writer whose speculations about what it means we evolved will be dispatched with furious mockery, to such eminence that few will dare challenge you? Diane demonstrates, I think. You must have sufficient command of your subject matter. You must demonstrate skill in communications well beyond what is commonly met with in writings by scientists. You must develop sufficient confidence to gain access to those you must interview. And you need both the creativity and reason to develop meaningful themes that cut across scientific categories, around which you can focus your research and from which you can come up with an action plan.
In my opinion, it's a hard-won combination of skills. I respect how much Diane must have invested to make it look easy. It's extremely worthwhile.
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