On Extinction: How We Became Estranged From Nature, By Melanie Challenger

In memory of the things we have lost

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The Independent Culture

When she was a child, Melanie Challenger became fascinated by the display of a blue whale in London's Natural History Museum.

As she entered adulthood, the whale's endangered status made it into a powerful symbol of extinction for her. But Challenger's survey of extinction is not limited to vanishing species, enormous though that subject is of itself. She widens her scrutiny beyond biology to include industrial and cultural disappearances.

It is a strikingly peripatetic project, both geographically and intellectually. We begin in Cornwall at the remains of a tin mining works. Next comes a trip with the British Antarctic Survey, in tandem with a visit to the Falklands. Then there's a stop-off in Whitby, followed by a sojourn on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, before finishing in Cambridgeshire.

Challenger is an award-winning poet as well as a writer, so perhaps it is unsurprising that much of the strength of On Extinction lies in her descriptive powers. Of the landscape around the abandoned mine she writes: "There was a stone feeding trough, purloined now by birds, their brown heads bowing to the water like worshippers. A gauze of bushes and moss stretched over ancient field systems, greying into the distance. There, the dark back of the sea slowly heaved."

Tying her trips together are extended perspectives on our environmental destructiveness. She examines all the main suspects, unpacking religion, philosophy and economics, but dwells most on our estrangement from nature. This archetypal refrain is lent fresh vitality by stratagems that include her spending a spell with the Inuit.

The ruined mine and the remains of a whaling station in Antarctica are eerily evocative. Challenger discusses the nostalgia that they represent, along with our mourning for its passing. These emotional concomitants of loss could, she thinks, help curb our depredations.

Her discourses draw upon a huge range of thinkers, from Rousseau and Darwin through to contemporary scientists, incorporating everything from a literary critique of Dracula to the science of global warming. It is an approach which relies less upon forging strong conclusions and more upon pointing out resonances between the diverse strands of her researches. Nevertheless, her prose paintings are memorable and her digressions consistently thought provoking. The result is enjoyably ruminative.