Volume 17: Editor’s Note — The Significance of Scale

by Rochelle Gandour and Vivian Kimball, Editors

Just as this volume was coming together, the oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, belching 200-foot flames that were visible from 35 miles away and immediately taking the lives of eleven crewmen. Two days later, as the fire burned uncontrollably, the rig was finally consumed by flames and sank 5,000 feet to the seafloor. Over the next weeks, as we finished our editing, BP discovered the leak—and then leaks—of crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. As we reviewed illustrations, we also watched images of the various tactics that BP and the United States government were using to try to disperse, contain, slow, and stop the crude. While brainstorming what to write here, we could think of nothing else.

Yet we are editors of a publication that comes out just once a year and is expected to remain, in some ways, timeless. Our advisors warned us not to date our issue with current events that would fade from public consciousness, causing our volume to “expire.” So we went back into brainstorming mode, trying to reshape this note into a larger piece about human-made disasters. How physically large must a problem be to be considered a disaster? How acute? How toxic? How persistent? Should we mention disasters of the past? Exxon Valdez? Chernobyl? The bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Or should we invoke the catastrophes that truly span the globe? Forest depletion and soil degradation? Ocean acidification? Climate change? Or maybe we should just talk about what we’re really talking about here: the ongoing Holocene extinction event.

The problems just keep getting bigger and bigger, and we struggle to grasp the meaning of any of them. Some environmental disasters are too big, too large, too long, and, frankly, too terrifying to think about in any depth. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is perhaps too massive and far-reaching to really understand, but at least we can think of some questions to ask as we try to comprehend. For starters, just how deep is 5,000 feet, anyway?

In terms of being sunk at the bottom of the ocean, 5,000 feet sounds abysmal. But stretched across the earth’s surface, it is easier to imagine at just under one mile. At the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico, transuranic radioactive waste lies just a half-mile below the surface. Not very deep. Or is it? Can we imagine being half a mile below the earth’s crust? What kinds of feelings arise? Again it becomes unfathomable, perhaps even triggering claustrophobia or taphophobia (a fear of being buried alive). In her essay, “Troglodytes,” Pat Musick brings us deep into the Carlsbad Caverns and considers not only the depth of these ancient salt formations, but also their impermanence, and our ability to comprehend and plan for vast geologic timescales.

How much are we really affected by these vast expanses of time? Are our lives actually impacted by happenings on the earth more than a billion years ago? Charles Siebert suggests one answer to these questions in “The Cellularist Manifesto.” In examining our bodies on a microscopic scale—the intricate workings of organelles and the wholes of which they are parts—he finds an unexpected connection to the distant past.

But these workings are disrupted, as described in Tamara Adkins’s “How Wide Is the Ocean.” She introduces us to a few of the compounds that surround us as we move through low concentrations of by-products of the industrial age—and as those by-products move through us. How do we choose to engage with this knowledge and this reality? Do we even have choices?

Sandra Steingraber spent some time one morning talking with us about these questions. She has devoted a lifetime to studying the occurrence of cancer, mapping it out over space and time, and bringing an ecological paradigm to human health. These stories are told in the choices of generations and in the stories of individuals.

Throughout his life, Seth Kantner has been observing his home state of Alaska. He has been watching the mountains and the rivers, the herds of caribou and the lone wolves, and his family and neighbors in warm summers and frigid winters. Over time, people have wrought changes on both the physical and cultural landscapes. While those changes play out in that boundless terrain, Richard Wagner sits a world away in Aruba. But the changes Wagner observes occur in a single instant, in a singular place—an eclipse, on a tiny island—both stretching longer and longer as two families fall further and further apart.

To examine the expanses of small spaces, Kerry Ruef peers through a jeweler’s loupe at mosses, leaves, and flowers, searching for underlying patterns and fresh connections to the natural world. Making these connections and knowing when to attend and when to ignore our magnified vision are absolutely vital skills in the delicate balancing act of conservation. This becomes clear in Charles Curtin’s examination of resource management on land and in the ocean. In our attempts to perceive the vastness of ocean waters, we have failed to see fisheries as the small, complex populations that they are.

The ability to identify and blend the best features from large and small systems is something that Jeffrey Hollender has illustrated in the evolution of Seventh Generation, Inc. In “Big, Small, and the Bridge Between,” he details some of their best practices, sharing some ways of doing business that challenge widely-held notions of how corporations should run.

Kathleen Dean Moore makes a case for this type of activism, for small changes and individual protests. She describes to us “Refugia of the Toads” on the post-eruption landscape of Mt. St. Helens and asks us to imagine what flourishing we might nourish. Nicole Wooten, this year’s winner of the New Terrain Award for emerging writers, answers with the story of one small protest, one small pocket of flourishing, in “Thank the Stars.”

So, that’s what we have to offer you: writings that will exist on these pages of paper that will eventually degrade and disappear. Perhaps this will happen in our lifetimes, or perhaps beyond. We can only hope that, while they last, they may provide some scope for imagination, some room to explore and endeavor to understand the ever-growing changes facing us.


Rochelle Gandour has just finished her master’s degree in environmental studies at Antioch University New England, where she focused on environmental education. She is currently the youth education coordinator for Trout Unlimited, where she develops coldwater education resources for youth, teachers, and volunteers. In her spare time, Rochelle dances and sings in various community art projects.

Vivian Kimball is finishing her master’s degree in environmental studies at Antioch University New England, with a concentration in conservation biology. She is fascinated by the intersections of science and art, and of people and nature, and looks forward to merging her interests in conservation biology, psychology, and graphic design.