Travel literature review: On Extinction

On Extinction: How we became estranged from Nature by Melanie Challenger

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Rating: 3 out of 5

Reviewed by Wayne Murphy

Most would agree that the world is changing at an ever-accelerating pace, but fewer seek to examine the rate of change and where it may be leading us as a species. Melanie Challenger is one of those few. In her work On Extinction: How we became estranged from Nature, Challenger explores the concept of extinction from many angles and in locations far removed from the beaten track, often on the edges of regions of the habitable by humanity.

Related article: Travel literature review: From the Forest

Beginning with reminiscences of a visit to London’s Natural History Museum, Challenger introduces a theme that dominates her book, that of whaling. As an industry that has seen near-annihilation both in whales and those preying upon them, whaling proves to be extremely apt as an vehicle for the topic of extinction.

Challenger’s tale begins in Cornwall, with an examination of wildflowers and the tin mining industry. It is not until the middle stages of the book that we follow her on the path of the whalers, from South Georgia to Antarctica to the Falkland Islands, where we learn how extinction can face species, industries and cultures. The final sections of the book take Challenger via North Yorkshire and Manhattan Island to Baffin Island in the north of Canada.

Despite the topic of extinction, Challenger’s work is not a scientific treatise; the book tends more to the poetic than technical details. Her turns of phrase and gently rambling prose are eminently suited to the moody and often windswept locales through which she leads the reader. If you’re interested in facts, figures and other minutiae of climate, species or cultural change, this is not the book for you. But if you’re willing to be drawn on a wandering path replete with digressions and side-trips, then give On Extinction a try.

As the rigours Challenger faces while journeying beyond the Arctic and Antarctic Circles clearly demonstrate, self-guided travel to the icy extremes is not advised for most travellers, but there are many tours that will take you to the far south and north. Challenger’s journey to South Georgia and Antarctica was made at the invitation of the British Antarctic Survey; if you don’t have such opportunities, expect to make your journey south at substantial financial cost. Cornwall and North Yorkshire are much easier destinations to visit, provided you can decipher a British Rail timetable.

Wayne Murphy is a cartographic designer whose degree in History, Geography and Philosophy helped him understand the background, locations and reasoning in this book, if not endear him to icy weather of any kind.

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