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On Extinction

Posted on Sep 27, 2013
Counterpoint Press

By Jean Randich

To see long excerpts from “On Extinction” at Google Books, click here.

“On Extinction: How We Became Estranged From Nature”
A book by Melanie Challenger

Melanie Challenger, deep into her book “On Extinction: How We Became Estranged From Nature,” hunkers down in the Arctic with Meeka, an Inuit hunter who reveals the mystery of “yearning.” “She drew this feeling for me,” writes Challenger. “ ‘This is our yearning to return to a close association with the land … In the South,’ she said, ‘you see things … ’ and she drew a straight line along the table. ‘Inuit see things …’ and she drew a coil on the table … The coil, she said, stood for all the generations’ knowledge, and this yearning was a desire in the present to return to that place at the start of the coil, which stood for an experience or perhaps a place in the past. Yearning was the means for the past and present and future to amalgamate in a single sensation.”

Challenger, equal parts poet, historian, philosopher and wanderer, examines this yearning to return to a close association with the land, and asks trenchant questions about our future, present and past: If we are living through another mass extinction of animals and plants, this one due to human behavior, is there nothing we can do about it? Is nature a force to be mined, refined and utilized by technology? Or is it, as the Romantics claim, a holistic antidote to the ills of industrialization? If our philosophical assumptions drive the relentless destruction of nature, how can we recognize those assumptions and learn to change? Aware of her own ignorance, Challenger sets out on a pilgrimage to explore sites of extinction and permanent loss.

She organizes her adventures into three “peregrinations”: First to West Penwith and Cornwall, England; second to South Georgia, Antarctica and the Falkland Islands; and third to North Yorkshire, Manhattan Island and Baffin Island. Challenger chooses geographical regions and philosophical issues entwined with her British heritage. She takes us from the prehistoric mines in Cornwall to abandoned whaling stations in Grytviken, South Georgia, and from an uninhabited Falkland Island to lush wildflowers along England’s River Cam.

She dissects assumptions of imperialism, cultural chauvinism, Christian proselytizing and our deeply human drive to exploit resources, whether animal or fossil fuel, into extinction. And she understands that extinction applies not only to flora and fauna, but also to languages, industries, even ways of life. Within her own family, Challenger notes that her grandmother lived half her life outdoors and knew wildflowers in a way that two generations later seems impossible. 

What drives these journeys into remote, even hostile environments in search of what has been lost forever? Challenger recalls a childhood visit to London’s Natural History Museum where she saw a massive model of a blue whale suspended overhead:

“It was here that I first encountered the slightness of human life. Beneath the magnetic appeal of the giant creatures and plants was a terrifying suggestiveness, the millions of years since their demise. Looking at them with a child’s eyes, I experienced a kind of mental vertigo at the abyssal distances that lie before and after our brief lives.”

The chapter Whales recounts Challenger’s second journey, a British Antarctic Survey she had been invited to join in the fall of 2007. She lands at Grytviken, South Georgia, and examines the ruins of the earliest on-shore whaling station in the Southern Ocean. The early chapters can be a bit of a slog, teetering between travel narrative and intellectual history. Soon she is recalling Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, and her memory, from her early 20s, of meeting Harry Patch, the only surviving soldier from World War I. Then she’s on to Marinetti and Futurism’s cult of speed and aggression. She notes the war technologies that changed the world—the internal combustion engine and the jet aircraft, for example. “Death and earthly transformation became an almost instantaneous reality,” Challenger wrote. “People were terrified of this modern, man-made energy for decades, and each new generation since has had to come to terms with its lethal potential.” By the end of World War II, with 50 million dead, Challenger writes that “One of the defining changes brought about by the industrial technologies of the war years was that people took extinction of life forms and ways of life, of landscapes and cultures, as the norm rather than the exception.”

Returning to the whales, she spends two months at sea without seeing one. In the first 70 years of the 20th century, 1.5 million whales were killed in the Southern Ocean of the Antarctic. Challenger concurs with Colin Clark’s theory of whaling: Hunting whales to extinction is a natural conclusion in the absence of any enforceable curbs. The whalers grew inured to the whales’ impending extinction, perhaps in the same way that Western civilization became inured to death by industrial technology, but it isn’t immediately clear why Challenger’s insightful reflections on war are embedded in this chapter.

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