PERSONAL: Married Peter Kreutzer; children: Lucy.
CAREER: Writer and journalist. Worked as assistant editor for GEO and as a freelance copyeditor.
AWARDS, HONORS: Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.
The Tapir's Morning Bath: Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest and the Scientists Who Are Trying to Solve Them, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2001.
Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2005.
Author of "The Wild File" column for Outside magazine.
Contributor to periodicals, including New York Times Magazine, Harper's, National Geographic, New Yorker, Smithsonian, New York Times Book Review, and Rolling Stone. Also contributed to anthologies such as Best American Science Writing 2004, Ecco/HarperCollins, the environmental omnibus Naked, FourWallsEightWindows, and Outside Magazine's Why Moths Hate Thomas Edison, W.W. Norton & Co.
SIDELIGHTS: Freelance journalist Elizabeth Royte most frequently writes about science and the environment, expertise she used to great effect when writing The Tapir's Morning Bath: Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest and the Scientists Who Are Trying to Solve Them. The book is based on nearly a year's research done on Panama's Barro Colorado Island, where the Smithsonian Institution runs its Tropical Research Institute. Royte volunteered as a research assistant to gain first-hand knowledge of how biologists work and what kinds of discoveries they are making. Reviewers were charmed by Royte's methods and style of relating her experiences and observations. She was credited with disarming members of a reputedly standoffish profession, treating her subject with apt humor, and dealing with complex concepts in a way that made them understandable and interesting to non-scientists.
The Tapir's Morning Bath begins with an introduction to the island's flora and fauna, which are numerous and exotic but threatened by humanity's encroachment. Royte shows the kinds of work being done by the Smithsonian researchers, who hope to discover why biodiversity is greater in tropical areas than in temperate zones. They hope to answer this question by studying in detail everything that lives in the rain forest. One such study had Royte collecting the dung of female spider monkeys for Christina Campbell, a graduate student who hopes to link the female monkey's sexual behavior with hormones found in their excrement. The writer also helped Bret Weinstein monitor tent-making bats. Scenes showing Campbell calling to the monkeys—"Come on, Gracie, sit down and take a dump"—and the transmitters falling off Weinstein's bats humorously reveal that Royte was also busy studying the scientists, getting to know them as individuals and as a community. The journalist learned that most of the researchers considered the organism they were studying to be an "indicator species" showing environmental degradation and that the peculiarities of funding encourage increased specialization. Moreover, Royte came to the conclusion that, while they spoke earnestly about ecological preservation, the scientists were really driven by the thrill of the chase.
Writing for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Brigitte Frase commented that The Tapir's Morning Bath "wears its considerable learning lightly. Royte has adroitly woven all manner of biological information into her delightful and moving group portrait." Margaret Henderson remarked in the Library Journal that Royte "deftly describes these researchers and their work" and that the book is "an excellent overview of the need for tropical research." A Publishers Weekly reviewer enjoyed the humor in "this excellent book," describing it as "a superb introduction to tropical ecology and theoretical biology, as well as original and thoroughly engaging travel writing."
Nisi Shawl in the Seattle Times celebrated The Tapir's Morning Bath as "a treasure house of fantastic imagery and intriguing information." Shawl praised Royte's authorial skills, noting that her thumbnail sketches of the scientists were "particularly deft" and that "the book's lush yet rigorously accurate accounts of their pursuits make the [researchers'] pleasure almost palpable."
Writing for the New York Times, Ann Finkbeiner expressed the opinion that Royte had escaped pitfalls common to writing about scientific communities. The critic named four difficulties: a long roster of characters, the need for a central voice, the problem of inserting scientific information, and the creation of a story line. Royte, she deemed, "is a remarkable writer, and nails all four." Finkbeiner especially liked the author's narrative voice and called her "a perfect guide: intensely curious, smart, occasionally unimpressed, a little relentless, and so personal she lets us watch her taking a pregnancy test." Finkbeiner concluded: "The book is a charmer; I loved it."
In Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, Royte sets out to understand the intricacies of trash—how it is generated, where it goes, how it is handled, and how it can be reduced. To do this, she traces the route taken by her own waste, including garbage, recyclables, and biological waste, and where these materials finally end up after their journey through garbage dump, recycling center, and sewage treatment plant. "The crushing conclusion of Royte's book is that we are a sinfully wasteful society, that we spend fortunes on materials and processes to create goods that ultimately require us to spend additional fortunes not to throw entirely away, with often the briefest interregnums of usefulness in between," stated Jamie Malanowski in Washington Monthly. Royte describes how even the most expensively constructed landfills will eventually fail, releasing toxic substances back into the environment and, eventually, into our bodies. She describes how recycling efforts are having little effect on diminishing the amount of solid waste found in dumps and landfills around the country. She reports how older sewer drains in big cities can be overwhelmed during heavy rains, allowing as much as forty percent of a city's sewage to flow untreated into the seas and waterways. She notes a potential public health crisis as the effects of billions of discarded prescription pills accumulate long-term effects in wildlife and the environment.
Some professionals in the waste management field were especially critical of Royte's work, suggesting that she did not understand the realities of the daily struggle to control an unending stream of waste materials. In a Waste News article by Joe Truini, New York City Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse, and Recycling director Robert Lange is quoted as saying: "While the book is well written, as its author is an artful writer, her command of the subject matter is severely limited, as well as misleading and at times outright incorrect." However, other reviewers, further removed from the day-to-day activities of waste management and control, were considerably more positive. "During the course of this dispiriting trek, Royte manages to communicate an enthusiasm for her subject that, if not quite contagious, at least ensures that we're being led by a companionable and often plucky narrator," Malanowski remarked. Reviewer Rene Ebersole, writing in Audubon, noted that Royte displays a "literary wit that makes her taboo topic at once entertaining and alarming." Garbage Land is "a book that will leave you feeling vaguely nauseated, guilty, and overwhelmed," Malanowski noted, adding, "That's not criticism."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Audubon, November-December, 2005, Rene Ebersole, review of Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, p. 90.
Library Journal, October 1, 2001, Margaret Henderson, review of The Tapir's Morning Bath: Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest and the Scientists Who Are Trying to Solve Them, p. 138.
New York Times, October 7, 2001, Ann Finkbeiner, "Why So Many Creatures?," p. 15L.
Publishers Weekly, July 30, 2001, review of The Tapir's Morning Bath, p. 73.
Seattle Times, October 5, 2001, Nisi Shawl, "Author Penetrates a World of Tropical Mysteries, Scientific Inquiries," p. H16.
Washington Monthly, September, 2005, Jamie Malanowski, "Follow the Refuse: Elizabeth Royte's Weirdly Informative Investigation of What Happens to Our Trash," review of Garbage Land, p. 53.
Waste News, August 29, 2005, Joe Truini, "'Secret Trail' Goes Astray; Some Waste Pros Turn up Their Noses at Garbage Land," p. 22.
Star Tribune Online (Minneapolis, MN), http://www.startribune.com/ (November 18, 2001), Brigitte Frase, review of The Tapir's Morning Bath.
Time Warner Bookmark Web site, http://www.twbookmark.com/ (January 1, 2005), biography of Elizabeth Royte.