To get an idea of how much germs can
help, consider what happened when, a few
years ago, scientists raised some germless
mice. These mice were delivered by Caesarean, fed sterile food, and raised in a
germ-free bubble — you might expect they
would be models of health. Instead they
were born malformed—guts too small,
hearts, lungs, and livers reduced, even
their brains visibly altered.
When just one type of bacteria was
added to the mice’s guts, much returned
to normal in their bodies — so long as the
addition was an “old friend” (a bacteria
that mice had evolved with as a chronic
condition) and not a new invasive disease.
Pooping under the same tree with the
rest of your family, drinking water that’s
not the cleanest, feeding the baby your
prechewed food, having hookworm and
hepatitis from infancy on — this has been
the human condition for most of our evolution. The question raised here is how to
find a happy medium, preventing disease,
but keeping old friends around to calibrate
the immune system, help it fight o= the invasives, help the system balance.
In the first chapter, the author is driving to Mexico in order to infect himself
with hookworms in an attempt to cure
his alopecia, an autoimmune disease that results
in no hair anywhere on the
body. Although this quest is
a great way to open a book,
the rest of the book does
not make for light reading.
is not quite to the level of
Mary Roach’s or Malcolm
Gladwell’s in terms of pulling out a central image or
scene to clarify the point
and make the book hum. However his
writing is crisp and clean, and the sheer
amount of information he includes is
mind boggling, covering everything from
autism and cancer to depression, weight
gain, inflammation, and multiple sclerosis.
Overall, the book becomes something
like a Russian saga with a dizzying number of names and details. But also, like the
saga, the content sticks with you long after
you close the book and changes the way
you think. It makes you look at the antimicrobial soaps and a scrubbed-clean home
in a much less genial way. It makes you
want to move to a family farm and start
mucking the cows out, only wiping your
hands casually on your pants before grabbing your sandwich.
You are an ecosystem. If you don’t want
your aspen eaten down to the nubs, your
birds decimated, and massive erosion
along your banks, you need to bring back
BY MELANIE CHALLENGER
Counterpoint, 2012. $28, 332 pages.
THE covER oF Melanie Challenger’s book
On Extinction: How We Became Estranged
from Nature is stark and haunting: an empty
bird’s nest sketched on a white ground.
It’s a fitting image for an extended rumination on the loss of species, languages, and ways
of life—what extinction
means culturally, biologically, and personally—as
she travels across the globe.
The book’s three sections,
or “peregrinations,” as she
calls them, describe three
separate journeys: the first,
on foot, across the Cornwall
region of her native England; the second, by sea, to
Antarctica and the Falkland Islands; the
third, by ship, train, and turboprop, to the
Canadian High Arctic.
Most writing about extinction focuses
on tragic stories of individual species: the
Reclaiming the Heart in
BY DAVID SOBEL
This landmark book from
Orion, newly updated,
provides ideas and resources
for teachers, parents, and
communities seeking to
nurture the relationship
between children and nature.
Purchase your copy at
great auk, the Eskimo curlew, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the passenger pigeon.
Challenger views extinction through a human lens. She seeks out ruins: the Ding
Dong mine in Cornwall; defunct whaling
stations in South Georgia; an abandoned
settlement in the Falkland Islands. These
are remains of once-thriving industries
that tied people intimately to the natural
world. In her travels from pole to pole, she
finds evidence of the same blind trajectory:
a small-scale extractive industry morphs
into larger and larger iterations, wiping out