Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Engaging Ontogeny—and Animal Sex

Michael Sims discusses biological and literary creativity

Where do babies come from? It may be a child’s question, but the answer is far from simple, especially if we consider the baby-making processes of the whole animal kingdom, as Michael Sims does in his companion to the National Geographic Channel’s television special of the same name, In the Womb: Animals. It features ultrasound images of fetal animals so detailed and vivid it’s almost hard to believe they aren’t simulations. In the Womb: Animals is also rich with full-color nature photography in the usual National Geographic style, but it’s made more than a visual feast by Sims’ engaging text. A highly regarded nature writer who has penned lively explorations of everything from astrophysics to evolutionary biology, Sims presents the scientific lore of reproduction with clarity and wit. The book considers both the precious birth of puppies and the “horrific exploitation” of the parasitic wasp, creating a portrait of the multi-faceted miracle of new life.

Sims grew up in rural Tennessee near Crossville and was a longtime Nashville resident before moving to Pennsylvania. He recently took time out from a vacation on the North Carolina coast to answer a few questions by email about In the Womb: Animals and discuss his literary vocation as an interpreter of the natural world.

Chapter 16: The National Geographic Society is such an iconic cultural “brand,” does it feel a little intimidating to write for an NGS project?

Sims: Well, Natty G, as we refer to NGS around the house, is so well-known that doing a TV-related book certainly attracts a different kind of attention than the usual round of reviews. I think the national TV programs that called the N G Channel publicist to interview me for this book saw sample footage from the program and thought, “Hey, it moves! Viewers won’t run away just because this guy wrote a book!” Most radio interviews concentrated on the book, but TV concentrated on the program. So I guess it was more exciting than intimidating.

Chapter 16: In the intro, you mention seeing puppies born during your rural childhood. In this era of neutered pets, a lot of people have never witnessed an animal birth. Does it worry you at all that so many people have so little acquaintance with the messy dramas of the natural world? Can a book fill that gap in real experience?

I do worry that human beings are ever more disconnected from the real world—and by that term I mean the ancient stage on which we enact our fleeting little comedies, the world beyond our wall-size TVs and air-conditioned SUVs.

Sims: No, I don’t think the book can replace the actual experience, so I can only hope that it helps explain a little of what’s going on around us constantly. I like your phrase “the messy dramas.” Real life is indeed very messy. I do worry that human beings are ever more disconnected from the real world—and by that term I mean the ancient stage on which we enact our fleeting little comedies, the world beyond our wall-size TVs and air-conditioned SUVs.

Is there any way to address this issue other than by each of us making choices? I don’t know. I address it for myself by filtering out as much as I can of the scurry and din of contemporary American society, which after all has very little to offer anyone trying to live a peaceful or natural life.

I’m no nature’s-perfect New Ager, God knows, but I find animals and natural rhythms more sustaining than talk radio and fast food. I’m writing this on a laptop from the North Carolina coast, but I was up at dawn to prowl the beach alone, photographing ghost crabs and “mermaid’s purses” (the egg cases of skates). On the way, I saw nine glossy ibis flying over the marsh. There was no one getting between me and my experience of the messy dramas of the natural world. All I can suggest to other people is that it’s up to them whether they attend to celebrity scandals or the baby squirrels in the maple outside their back door. It’s a choice.

Chapter 16: In the Womb: Animals covers an enormous amount of material with economy and elegance. Was there an aspect of animal reproduction that you particularly enjoyed writing about, or that you would have liked to explore further?

Sims: Thanks for the kind words; I wanted the book to feel graceful and literary despite the amount of material, which I admit was a challenge. I think I would have enjoyed treating each aspect with more elbow room for making analogies and drawing connections. The section that was the most difficult to write is in Part 1, “Familiar,” about dogs. It’s a spread called “Evidence of Life,” and it’s about kinds of growth, beginning with the earliest formation of cells into larger structures, down where biochemistry is busily deciding its own fate before cells have even held a committee meeting to form a local infrastructure. So my long attention to this topic, my many drafts working out how to convey so much in a small space, must be why I now remember that one as a favorite.

Chapter 16: Your previous books, Adam’s Navel and Apollo’s Fire, are rich in cultural references—in fact, I’d say they are as much cultural history as natural history. In the Womb: Animals is much more narrowly defined as a “nature” book. Did you feel constrained by those parameters?

Sims: I just think of myself as a writer, not a writer in a particular category, but when I feel I need to append an adjective I identify myself as a “nature writer.” My underlying interest in most of my nonfiction books—separate from the anthologies I edit for fun—is the natural world. For example, in Apollo’s Fire, my 2007 book about our shared experience of the rhythm of day and night, I describe the myth of Phaeton and the phenomenon of Rayleigh scattering because both myth and science are imaginative responses to nature.

In the Womb: Animals was my first book that dealt strictly with natural history. I could bring in cultural history only as an occasional analogy; mostly it was just-the-facts-ma’am. When National Geographic asked me to write the book, I wondered (privately) if I might find its focus somewhat boring in comparison to my other books’ diversity. But I didn’t feel that way at all. I had a wonderful time and I think the book conveys my excitement about the project.

It’s interesting, however, that my next book after the pure-science one is a pure-culture outing called The True Story of Charlotte’s Web, about E. B. White’s lifelong relationship with nature and how that inspired Charlotte’s Web; the whole book is about how the natural world captured one person’s imagination. As I write this, I’m about to head to the Maine coast to visit the farm where White lived and prowl the barn that inspired Charlotte’s Web.

Chapter 16: Your writing on nature often reminds me of another great interpreter of science for general readers, Stephen Jay Gould. Has his work been a model for you? Are there other writers whose work, in terms of conception or style, has helped shape your own?

I appreciate the comparison, but of course Gould was an expert in the field of evolutionary biology and I’m not an expert in anything.

Sims: I appreciate the comparison, but of course Gould was an expert in the field of evolutionary biology and I’m not an expert in anything. I liked Gould’s early essays very much. I like the style of Chet Raymo, author of such books as The Path and Walking Zero. I like Jennifer Ackerman’s books; her most recent is Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, about what’s happening inside the body during any 24-hour period. I love Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea. I own all the many books of Edwin Way Teale, the nature writer best known for his American Seasons series. But I don’t really have a model for the way that I like to weave together natural and cultural history.

Chapter 16: You’re a great fan—if that’s the word—of Charles Darwin. You throw a party for his birthday every year. What would he think of our public discourse about science today, particularly the way science is reported and interpreted in popular media?

Sims: “Fan” is a good word for my interest in Darwin, I think. Yes, I began hosting birthday parties for Darwin over 20 years ago. I think that most days Darwin would feel about as disappointed about the public awareness of science now as he did when he died in 1882. To him, science was a way of looking at the world that helped bring together seemingly unconnected creatures into a wonderful family of relationships. Evolution is about slow change over time, which means that it is also about kinship, family, connection. After his work, the world made a lot more sense than it ever had before; he revealed the formerly overlooked kinship between all forms of life. But public discussion of evolution seldom addresses this key point—the great spiritual payoff of this notoriously secular approach to nature.

Chapter 16: Getting back to your books, how do you see your role as a nature writer? Do you think of yourself as an educator? Or is the natural world just your particular literary territory?

I’m just someone who likes chipmunks and late afternoon sunlight and can’t enjoy something without becoming curious about it.

Sims: I like your second point, about literary territory. I’m not a scientist; I’m not really a naturalist, or only in a half-ass amateur way; I’m just someone who likes chipmunks and late afternoon sunlight and can’t enjoy something without becoming curious about it. I notice the way that wisteria tendrils grope toward support and I could not be more pleased by finding a mermaid’s purse on the beach if it were a mermaid herself.

Educator or litterateur? Good question. The analogy that comes to mind is furniture making. My father was a cabinet maker and carpenter; he died when I was three, so I have only vague memories and a couple of pieces of furniture—including a bookcase, which naturally now holds each edition of my various books and their translations.

Somewhere along the way, I’ve come to think of my kind of nonfiction writing as resembling furniture making as opposed to sculpture. If you’re sculpting something, you can make it representational or abstract, but you have complete freedom to do it however you want to. If you’re making furniture, you have complete freedom to be as artistic as possible within the constraints of utility. Think of a Noguchi lamp or a Saarinen chair. Several reviewers have compared my previous nature books to wunderkammer, “cabinets of curiosity.” So OK, I’ll take that as an image: if in writing a book you’re making a cabinet to hold various curiosities, it has a function to perform. All those drawers and doors have to work; all the information has to be stored where you need it and available when you need it. But along the way, I can try to dovetail the corners and polish the grain and make my cabinet as handsome as I am capable of fashioning.

[This interview originally appeared on September 14, 2009.]