In her nonfiction debut, On Extinction: How We Became Estranged from Nature, poet Melanie Challenger meditates on evolutionary changes marked by extinctions, and asks what's next for the human race.
How did you come to believe that we have become "estranged from nature"?
I had a clamoring love of nature, but when I immersed myself in the natural world, I realized how much of my life and knowledge was derived solely from the manufactured social life of human society. This was the catalyst for the book.
Your inquiry takes you on "peregrinations" to some distant and not so distant locations. How did you choose them?
I'm not what one might call a very "professional" writer. I don't design books in my head in advance, I use writing and literature as an instrument to try to sharpen and deepen my understanding of the world. In the case of Antarctica, I went from a childhood fascination with the blue whale to an interest in whaling, and from there to a study of whaling in Antarctica and the Arctic—but the chance to go to Antarctica came from a meeting in a pub with an oceanographer, who I'd contacted to try and help me understand climate change better! The oceanographer told me about the open competition to study in Antarctica as a nonscientist, and I applied for the grant and won a place.
Of the places that you visited, which was the most arduous?
Traveling in the Arctic during the winter while six months pregnant. I was emotionally very volatile and very exhausted. However, the Inuit people were incredibly tender and supportive of me, and they are experts at keeping a pregnant woman safe and well in such conditions. I do remember, however, going for a pee (pregnant women need to pee a lot!) out on a frozen lake, way out on the frozen tundra, and feeling my fingers becoming terrifyingly cold and suddenly bursting into tears at the idea that I might be doing something dangerous to my unborn child. As it is, he's a tough, bold little lad, with a bit of the Arctic spirit in him.
You write about the speed of change and escalation of extinctions in the 20th century. Do you see any signs that our race to extinction might be slowing down?
No. We're a pretty wonderful species and we're absolutely capable of restraint and change. I believe our cultures are failing us. I think we need a seismic shift in how we understand human nature and how we design our lives in light of this understanding. We need to be bold and brave.