Picking Apart Intricacies

The outside source that I have chosen to incorporate is The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, written by Elizabeth Kolbert. The basic premise of this book may, at first, seem to put it slightly at odds with Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but there are some remarkable connections that can be drawn between the two—indeed, I almost feel as if they are in the same class, the same subgenre, of environmental writing. While Dillard is heavily focused on the explosion of life around her, Kolbert is, by necessity of her topic, focused on the snuffing out of that life. Yet, they both end up addressing the same themes of intricacy, and the sublimity of nature (if they approach this concept differently), and they are both books that strike me as science written for people who may not be scientifically literate. This is not, in any way, a knock against either of these books, but simply an observation about what the target audience seems to be (and is stated to be, in the case of Sixth Extinction).

A recurring theme in Kolbert, and one that is established early, is that everything is connected. Some passages hearken to Dillard’s discussion of the goldfish tail before scaling out to the connection of all the atoms in the world. Only Kolbert starts big in many cases, and then scales in. In her discussion of coral reefs, she begins by talking about the ocean as a single chemical, physical body, before beginning to zoom in on the corals themselves, and then the individual, microscopic organisms that, in their mass-living arrangement, comprise the corals. This is a common theme in a variety of writings on the natural world, and really, it can be traced back to Leopold and, perhaps most notably, Muir, who once wrote that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe”. Even Thoreau discussed versions of this tenant, though I think he never put it quite as eloquently as Muir did. This hitched togetherness is what Dillard identifies as intricacy, and discusses in the context of her goldfish and the leaves that she investigates down to their toothed edges and branching veins.

I think it is the focus on this that, in some ways, characterizes science writing for the masses of people who may not be familiar with scientific concepts. If it can be effectively imparted that everything is intricate on its own level, and that when you scale either in or out, there are still more layers of intricacy, then people begin to get a sense of the true size and scale of the natural world and it’s intertwining threads, without having to understand the exact connections. And once a person is hooked and ready to accept this premise, it’s a lot easier to begin to unravel these threads to show the incredible personality and human drama of the natural world (in Dillard’s case), or the extreme peril presented by picked apart this web of interconnectedness (in Kolbert’s case).

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction : an Unnatural History. New York :Henry Holt and Company, 2014. Print.


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