On Extinction: How We Became Estranged from Nature

  • Melanie Challenger
  • Counterpoint
  • 329 pp

In a series of journeys, a poet and award-winning Scottish writer ponders what we’ve lost in nature, cultures, languages and ways of life.

If you assumed that a nonfiction book called On Extinction was another scientific, grayscale lament of the state of the world’s biota, you’re in for a surprise. Instead, author Melanie Challenger, who lives in the Scottish Highlands, takes us on her own personal journey as she explores the concept of extinction — not just of species, but of cultures, languages, knowledge and ways of life.

Guided by the author’s carefully crafted prose, we accompany the award-winning writer and poet through three book sections she calls “peregrinations” or journeys. The first is to Cornwall, England, where she explores the ruins of a tin-mining operation and the lives of the miners that depended on it. Next we hop a ride with her on the British Antarctic Survey ship headed to the old whaling stations of South Georgia in the southern Atlantic Ocean, the cold continent of Antarctica and the Falkland Islands. Finally, we travel with her to the old whaling town of Whitby in England in North Yorkshire, and from there across the Atlantic to New York and to Baffin Island in Arctic Canada, where she visits an Inuit community.

As readers, we become not only her travel companions but also her confidants as she struggles with the concept of extinction. We sit beside her as she realizes her estrangement from the nature around her, and see what she sees on her search for the missing links between humans and the natural world that our ancestors once knew so well. At the book’s beginning, she ponders that  “the way people viewed their relationship to nature affected how they lived with it — destructively, admiringly, thoughtlessly. I began to question whether my own ignorance of nature was associated with the damage societies wrought on it.”

She first sensed her own disconnect from nature when she realized that she didn’t have a favorite wildflower — unlike her grandmother, whose favorite flower was a common dog-violet, and who lived in an era when people knew the plants and animals of their surrounding environment. Throughout the book, Challenger struggles with her lack of a sense of place to which she feels a strong connection and learns the intricacies of the natural world.

One of Challenger’s areas of personal interest is the history of language and words. Like a linguistic detective, she uncovers clues to how our relationship with nature changed as the nuances of words evolved and took modern shapes. For example, the word “ruin” has roots in the ancient English word dustsceavwung, which translates to the fascination experienced by someone looking at a ruin, “a pondering of that which has been lost,” as she puts it.

Challenger’s writing is lovely, with deft turns of phrase and descriptive imagery that capture places few have the privilege of traveling to. Packed with a depth of feeling and emotion that’s missing in so many sterile accounts of the world’s natural environment, Challenger’s lyrical prose allows us to get to know her through voice and ideas. On a solo walk, she writes, “I saw the white heart of Antarctica as a gigantic symbol of memory and forgetfulness, its twin processes of melting and freezing suggestive of what societies preserve and what they consign to oblivion.”

Meticulously researched and mapped, Challenger’s book is heavily influenced by the combination of her background in poetry and fascination with the natural world, as evidenced in the detailed connections she makes between the concept of extinction and literature, science and history. In addition to interviewing locals — characters she helps us see, hear, and understand — and learning the histories of the areas she visits, she draws on everything from classic literature to Darwin and other pre-20th-century scientists. Her themes of extinction, loss and sense of place find threads to Edward Elgar’s “Cello Concerto,” climate change and even Dracula. While at times these links can seem tangential and overloaded with detail (for example, when she draws associations from specific entries of Darwin’s journals), taken as a whole, the author’s points are valid and full of insight.

Nostalgia — yearning for a past way of life or past way of nature — becomes central to Challenger’s self-discovery and journey. “I became convinced that the nostalgic sensation that many people experience for things both disappearing and eternally lost might prove essential to fostering a more favourable approach to nature.” In the end, our nostalgia may be the basis for a turning point. Challenger concludes that the way to slow and perhaps reverse our destructive path is to return to “a daily closeness with the natural world.”

This book is also a plea for us to stop exploiting nature to the point of ruin, and to learn more about imperiled species, languages, industrial knowledge, past ways of life and cultures, and how we can prevent their extinction. She hopes that “in this way, nostalgia and inventiveness can come together to counteract our species’ destructive tendencies.”

On Extinction is a thoughtful, unique personal reflection and rumination on a foreboding topic and what it means for us as a global people. Readers will get a lesson in geography as well as linguistics, literature, history and philosophy, and will reach the final pages feeling as if they’ve just returned from a most fascinating — and enlightening — odyssey.


Carrie Madren of Northern Virginia is a freelance journalist who writes about the environment, sustainability and science.

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