Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Artist Misha Maynerick Blaise’s latest publication traverses the universe from microbes to galaxies with a winning mix of scientific curiosity and joyous sparkle. Her volume, This Phenomenal Life: The Amazing Ways We Are Connected with Our Universe, lauds the majesty of starry skies and dense forests, but directs our attention to the wilderness within—the ever-cycling world of growth, death and rebirth invisible to the naked eye.

Through whimsical illustrations and hand lettering, combined with clear-eyed reporting of scientific phenomena, she offers a fresh compendium of reminders that we aren’t as isolated, individual and disconnected as we often fear. Not only are we in proximity to nature at all times — we are, in fact, supremely, profoundly, infinitely integrated with it. Just four elements, all of which began in space, make up most of the universe, she observes. “We are literally made from stars, and the atoms inside of us are as ancient as the universe itself,” she writes.

With a deft hand, she reveals commons misapprehensions of who we are and what we’re made of. Our bodies are flush with microorganisms “so much so that ‘you’ are largely made up of ‘not you’ elements,” she writes of the blurred lines. There’s as much bacteria in our bodies as human cells. Our faces are coated with unscrubbable mites. Microbial clouds surround us. We share significant DNA with bonobos and chimps and also dogs and banana plants.

Blaise also points to the edges of human understanding in ways that prompt inquiry, awe and wonder. The earth’s surface is 71 percent water, yet is largely unknown to us. Less than 5 percent of the seabed has been mapped in depth, she notes, and more people have walked on the moon than plumbed the underwater depths of the Earth. She links these mysteries to those of the water within our own human bodies and the hidden and sizable amount of water used to grow or power the products we create and consume.

Even readers who find little new in the content of her writing will appreciate the freshness, vitality and humor her illustrations bring to matter-of-fact text. The Big Bang, Mitochondrial Eve, and Nature’s internet haven’t been presented quite like this before.

A woman made of stars stands spread-eagled while creepy crawly micoorganisms encircle her. A shirtless biker with a giant Mother Earth tattoo soaks up Vitamin D. Vast networks of mycelium (branching “roots” of mushrooms) flourish beneath the soil and beneath a stilettoed, fish-net stockinged leg, helping plants exchange nutrients–and toxins. A donut lover chews on, unaware of the great dramas of the universe unfolding within him.

Her eye for the perpetual exchange among all elements and beings is a marvel and a gift. And when she concludes, “We are not just IN the universe, we actually ARE THE UNIVERSE,” a nod of agreement seems the best response.