Without functioning ecosystems, “everybody’s poop would be everywhere,” says Rachel Ignotofsky, the author and artist behind the new book The Wondrous Workings of Planet Earth. “The world doesn’t work if stuff doesn’t decompose,” she says.
It’s one of the many benefits humans get from our environment that Ignotofsky’s art-covered pages explore. The book hopscotches through ecosystems across the globe, shrinking complex food webs down to the size of specimen bottles. “It was kind of this whimsical idea that if it was small enough to see, then you would be able to understand and care for it as easily as you could care for a fish in your aquarium or a plant on your desk,” Ignotofsky told The Verge.
Published by Ten Speed Press, the new book will be available on September 18th. It’s written at the middle school level, Ignotofsky says, but she hopes the book will be accessible to all ages and backgrounds. “It’s like a reimagined textbook,” she says. “But really, it’s just a beautiful, illustrated journey through our world.”
Stops on that journey include explanations of how carbon, water, and nutrients cycle through our environment. That might sound as dry as a middle school science class, but Ignotofsky enlivens the concepts by illustrating them, showing how carbon moves through a sheep snacking on grass, pooping on the ground, and exhaling into the air. That’s one of the few sections where the illustrations aren’t contained in a jar or terrarium, a visual theme that otherwise extends across the pages. “The metaphor throughout this book is that the Earth is precious and needs our protection,” Ignotofsky says. “And it’s in the palm of our hands.”
The Verge spoke to Ignotofsky about velvet worms, how art is like a scab, and why mistakes are a key part of style.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What drove you to write a book about the planet?
There were two major things. One is the big, big one, which is that I believe the biggest problem that we face is climate change and an overuse of our limited natural resources. And the first step in properly protecting our planet is educating people about exactly how it works, how energy and matter move through our environment, and why it’s important to protect them. Secondly, writing Women in Science and learning about some of the great conservationists throughout history — like Rachel Carson, Sylvia Earle, Jane Goodall, Marjory Stoneman Douglas — and how getting their research seen by the public was able to affect powerful people. So I just hope this little cartoon book gets into the hands of as many people as possible and gets them excited about learning.
What’s your favorite page?
That’s a hard question. I don’t want to choose between my children. But I will say that one of my favorite ones to draw and to learn about would have to be the Tasmanian temperate rain forest, mainly because the fun facts about the animals were just so great. I couldn’t stop watching videos of little Tasmanian devils scream at each other. And I think my all-time favorite animal is in that page: the velvet worm.
The velvet worm is what we all should aspire to be. One: they are, like, older than dirt. They are living fossils, and they’re still going around doing their thing. Two: they’re matriarchal and they hunt in packs like wolves. And they cover their prey in gross slime that shoots out of their face, and I’m just like, “These fierce, wise old queens are just doing their thing, wiggling around still in the Tasmanian temperate rain forest.”
Which section kept you up at night?
The phosphorus and nitrogen cycles. I had it quadruple-checked by a bunch of scientists, a bunch of teachers. The nitrogen cycle is such a complicated cycle, and I’m trying to get it so that even a second grader could understand all the different paths that nitrogen has to take in order to be accessible to plants. Just explaining that kept me up at night.
It’s really important. It’s easy to look around nature and say, “This is so beautiful. This is so majestic.” But really, every day, the cycles of life and death, the relationships between predator and prey, the way that life has evolved at this time on this planet makes it possible for us to be alive on it. The only reason we have access to some of the basic building blocks of life is because of the little tiny microbes that are in the soil. So I hope all the hard work I took to explain those complicated cycles lets people really understand a little deeper why these animals and plants and all this biodiversity is so important.
How do you approach the illustrations?
I’m very old school about it actually, compared to other artists right now. I take it into Adobe Illustrator first, and I lay out the whole thing with basic shapes: where the type is going to go, what size the type is going to be, where all the information is going to be placed. There’s so much information on each page, and the hierarchy of information is so important to me. Then, I print that out, and I use a Micron pen and tracing paper, and I draw in my own hand all of the little happy faces and squirrels and skulls.
Then, I take it into the computer, and I clean it up. I’m basically using Photoshop like it’s Microsoft Paint. But the reason I still do so much of it by hand are those happy accidents, and I don’t want to lose my mistakes completely. Especially with going completely digital, I think it’s really easy to make your stuff look homogenized and like everyone else’s. And at the end of the day, no one’s going to be your little hand wiggling on the page. I think there’s something to be said about just having confidence in yourself and your lines and knowing that even if you “mess up” when you’re drawing, it’s actually part of the process, and it’s what makes it great. People like to scratch at their artwork like it’s a scab, and I try not to do that.
What surprised you as you were working on this book?
What shook me and kind of spooked me the most while reading about these different places all over the world is how they have become so deeply affected by climate change in so many different ways — whether we’re talking about the acidification of the oceans, which is causing coral reefs to bleach, or animals in the Alps being like, “It’s not cold enough for me to survive. I need to keep moving up or migrating more and more north.” Or the big one, which is the fact that our sea levels are rising, we’re having more extreme storms, and our ice caps are melting. Droughts are more severe in places that are more prone to drought. It didn’t surprise me, per se, but it just really hit home with me. After people read it, I want people to walk away being like, “Climate change is real. This is a big deal.”