For this department a distinguished writer is asked to read the magazine’s feature articles before publication and to comment or elaborate on them or take issue with them.
As conversational gambits go, the incredulous, brow-clutching "How on earth did you end up doing that?" has always struck me as woefully underused. Which of us has not asked more couples than we care to remember, "So, how did you two meet?" and, as for the numbingly predictable "And what do you do?" we’ve all been on both the giving and receiving ends of that one on an almost daily (or nightly) basis.
But the whys and hows of true vocational passion can take some digging, just as the rewards—those telling moments on which lives are turned—can be revelatory. This issue contains glimpses of several. For Professor Jerry Dragoo, the University of New Mexico mammalogist profiled in "Skunk Man," the career path (all things skunk) appears to have presented itself not in one fell swoop but, well, two fell swoops.
The clincher was, as Professor Dragoo describes it, getting tossed out of a university building as an undergraduate for reeking of skunk. His happy obliviousness to his aroma turned out to match his new calling perfectly. Still, plenty of people with an impaired sense of smell find gratification in rather different fields. In the professor’s case, the olfactory deficiency had to be combined with a preexisting interest in "small, ferocious animals" (his words) in order to send him in the life-changing direction. The undergraduate Dragoo, we learn, was "drawn to the mustelids"—a carnivorous weasel family. How many acquaintances can you confidently describe as "drawn to the mustelids"? (How many would you even peg as mustelid buffs?) In short, we are talking about a select group indeed—especially when further reduced to those with a sniffing disorder—to produce a single brilliant career.
In Rudy Chelminski’s piece on Sweden’s Icehotel Yngve Bergqvist, a "reformed engineer" running a hotel in Jukkasjärvi. The article describes how a slow season and a friend’s suggestion led Bergqvist to build an igloo to house an art exhibition, build a bigger igloo, expand that facility, and then start taking in paying guests. Then, as Chelminski writes, somewhere along the way "a lightbulb lit up over Bergqvist’s head." To ensure that this bulb didn’t turn the best rooms in the house into puddles, the hotelier engaged an Englishman named Mark Armstrong, "one of only a handful of experts in the understandably limited field of meltable architecture." (Sadly, we don’t learn here precisely how Armstrong made his way to meltables.)
The tangle of trails that might lead someone to devote himself to the study of skunks or to the running of hotels made of ice is faint indeed. But the road map that leads one to the examination of holes in the desert probably doesn’t exist at all. Pinau Merlin, the naturalist of Arizona’s Sierra Anchas not only quelled Merlin’s fear of "cows that bite" but transformed her into a camping and hiking enthusiast. As with Dragoo, however, that bit of serendipity had to combine with another—in this instance, Merlin’s disaffection with her job as an ER nurse, which turned her to full-time writing and led her to move to a remote ranch. Only then did her true calling—hole-ologist, if you will—emerge.
Western novelist Zane Grey must have had his eureka moment, too, though in Dolly Roth, one likes to imagine that it was something more than the love of a good woman that did it. A particularly uncooperative molar, for instance—wouldn’t that be nice? Because when it comes to major, life-altering detours, no little road sign is too insignificant, minor or absurd to celebrate.