The Clearing, a UK-based magazine, recently published a special issue devoted to extinction and endangered life in honour of Lost Species Day. Here are the essays.
The Clearing, a UK-based magazine, recently published a special issue devoted to extinction and endangered life in honour of Lost Species Day. Here are the essays.
Next Saturday June 16th is the 9th annual Global Earth Exchange Day. Organisers Radical Joy for Hard Times invites people to ‘find and make beauty in wounded places”. http://www.radicaljoyforhardtimes.org/events/2018-global-earth-exchange/
There are 7 simple steps to doing an Earth Exchange:
This year, the Global Earth Exchange kicks off PEOPLE BINDING THE EARTH, a year-long project in which participants’ gifts to their beloved places will include marigold yellow yarn.
Where is your beloved, wounded place? Will you join in?
This is a 2.5 minute brief on 2017 Remembrance Day for Lost Species, November 30th events at Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge in Oakland, California.
Thanks to Kristin Tieche and Susan Bradley for recording and finishing this film. As well, to event partners Toni Tone of Giant Puppets Save the World and Tora Rocha of Pollinator Posse, participating artists and musicians, including Cello Joe and Heather Normandale and Biketopia Music Collective, the anonymous event sponsor, and ALL who participated.
Extinction Witness and Giant Puppets Save the World connected at Bioneers in 2016 and again this year. Our gratitude goes to Bioneers for the annual conference and year-round communications, which serve as a hub for inspired networking and creative, healing collaborations.
To learn more about Lucille’s Regenerative Memorials, please visit regenerativememorials.com.
Megan Hollingsworth, writer & creative director, Extinction Witness
Type honeybee into Google, and a drop-down menu appears with a list of suggested search terms. I add a ‘c’ and it throws up honeybee collection or collapse; add a ‘d’, and it’s declines or decorations for your home. I work my way through the alphabet; ‘l’ is unequivocal. Honeybee losses 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014.
Some days I can’t tell if honeybees are coming or going. In a sense, they’re everywhere – collecting on our shelves, decorating our homes. In the supermarket this week I passed bee-themed mugs, place mats, bath towels and lunchboxes – not to mention the honey (I LOVE bees, the girl at the checkout told me, when I told her I was a beekeeper. She showed me her bee earrings and a bee-shaped pendant. I really love them, she said, tucking the necklace back inside her shirt collar). And yet, elsewhere, out there, where the real bees live, we’re told there are losses and declines and last month I heard a new word, insectageddon.
That came from an article about a study in Germany, among the first of its kind. Between 1989 and 2016, 1,500 insect samples were collected across 63 sites – a total haul of over 50kg, and several million flying creatures. The results are disturbing: a 76% drop in numbers, over 27 years.
Since the paper was published, more scientists have stepped forward to suggest the findings are likely to reflect a pattern occurring across Europe and beyond.
We’ve heard already about losses to honeybee, butterfly and bumblebee populations; these findings dramatically extend the scale. Around one third of our global food supply is dependent upon honeybees and other pollinating species – if flying insects were to disappear, not only would we lose individual species; our landscapes, our ecologies, our diets and so even the stuff of our own bodies, would also be radically changed.
It’s one thing to read headlines like these; another to absorb them. The words are big. They’re dramatic, they’re catastrophic. I imagine they’re probably driving the appetite for honeybee mugs and bath towels – loss can make us grabby. Yet when I look out of the window, it is not catastrophe, not ageddon, that I see.
A few years ago, when I was living in Oxford and about to become keeper to a colony of bees, this was something I’d been struggling with. I’d read about honeybee losses in the papers. It sounded bad, but it felt remote; I wondered what would happen if I stepped to one side of the newspaper headlines and got to know a colony firsthand. Would I sense a slippage, a thinning? And would I, in my slim end terrace with a weedy garden out back and a work/life balance tipping dangerously towards collapse, find a way of sustaining the bees in my care – of keeping them?
I bought a suit. I got a colony. I was suddenly more involved in another creature than I had been for years. I tended them, fretted over them. I hefted pieces of hive and beekeeping equipment. It was both a love and a labour.
My garden was bordered by a crumbling wall, a hedge and a high fence; standing inside it, I couldn’t see very far at all. I could see the sky. I could see a warehouse roof, our neighbours’ house, the tops of the trees lining the allotments. I could hear the traffic on the road outside, and the man who shouted as he walked. I wasn’t mindful of much of this; I was busy focusing on the hive. I had to become very attentive to what was happening inside it; to watch for slight shifts in the activity of the colony that might signal disease or pests or a drop in available forage. I wanted to get to know their rhythms, understand their processes (these were different, I realised, on different days – a colony is as changeable as the weather).
Up close like this, I learned a little about the landscape. A little about how bees make sense of the world, how they perceive it. And, by watching their journeys, by looking forwhat they were bringing back, I learned something about what they were finding out there, beyond the fence; about what their world was composed of. Honeybees collect pollen for feeding young and nectar for making honey; they temporarily ingest the nectar when they carry it back to the hive, and stick the pollen to their knees. A few months in, a friend showed me how to tell the source of these pollen nubs by their colour, and so make a fairly reasoned guess as to where the bees had flown. Deep yellow might be dogwood; soft green was probably meadowsweet. I felt like a detective, sifting for clues. Except that, for the most part, the clues were in a language I didn’t speak.
A honeybee colony is like nothing else. It froths and boils and quivers and shakes; it murmurs and thrums and whines. Lifting the lid of a hive and taking a look inside can be a disorienting experience – the bees are so foreign, so far from your familiar, they can make you feel completely lost; they can also turn you around, and inside out – they can rearrange how you see. They rearranged and reorientated me.
I’m writing this on a wooden stool, in the window of a small cafe. They have baklava and free wifi. I can look out and see a road and a row of houses; I can look out and see the silvery rim of a stand of beeches, a heap of ivy hanging over a wooden fence, two kids in jeans with mud on their knees kicking a punctured football at a wall. For the last half hour, I haven’t actually looked out of this window at all; I’ve been reading about that German study, the one that prompted calls of an insectageddon.
Today I am interested not so much in the findings, but the method. I have been learning(as the football bounced off the window of a passing car, and the car stopped, and the boys made a run for it,) about malaise traps. A malaise trap is like a tent on stilts, pitched at one end and made of netting. Inside the pitched roof there’s a funnel leading to a collecting cylinder with a quantity of ethanol inside, a killing agent. The other end of the tent is wide open; when insects fly in, they head up through the funnel and get trapped in the collecting cylinder. The basic design was invented in 1934 by René Malaise, hence the name. It was the sole means of sampling in the German study.
Over the past 27 years, between the months of March and October, malaise traps were placed in 63 nature reserves across west Germany. The cylinders were emptied and their contents weighed every few days. The work was done not by scientists but amateur entomologists, who visited and monitored the traps and made detailed recordings of the weather. They had strict instructions. The samples were weighed (with minute accuracy, since the creatures were featherlight); the weights later combined and compared. Leaving a trap open for a prolonged period can be harmful to local insect populations, so those used in the study tended to be moved from one year to the next, and for this reason the pattern that emerges reflects not the individual stories of specific sites, but something more like an accretion; a collecting up and laying out through time of umpteen temporaryand scrupulously recorded views.
I wonder about those amateur entomologists who emptied the collecting cylinders, who tramped down to the tents each week. Did they have a sense, as they tipped the alcohol-soaked specimens onto the weighing scales, of the extent of the pattern unfolding? Did they sense disaster? Or was the change was too small, too slight to notice week-to-week?
Nature reserves exist with the sole purpose of preserving ecosystem functions and biodiversity, so to find such a sharp decline in resident species is alarming. The researchers studied the findings; they factored in changes to land use and the weather. Neither could account for the declines, which occurred throughout the growing season, and irrespective of habitat type. Large scale factors must be involved, they reasoned – but such factors lie beyond the scope of their investigations.
A nature reserve is a protected space but it is also a form of island, and recording only the environmental changes inside the parks will never give a complete picture because islands don’t exist in isolation. Almost every reserve included in the study was surrounded by agricultural land, which over the last half century has undergone a process of rapid intensification. Farmland has very little to offer for any wild creature, Professor Dave Goulson, one of the researchers, is quoted as saying. With the loss of field margins, increased pesticide use and year-round tillage, vast tracts of land [are now] inhospitable to most forms of life. It is possible that insects were flying beyond the perimeter of the reserves to find their foraging and nesting habitats had disappeared; or that chemicals present in the wider landscape were directly harming them.
There is an urgent need to uncover the causes of this decline, the researchers conclude. And so call upon all of us –scientists, amateur entomologists, beekeepers, supermarket cashiers, and people sitting in cafe windows – to join in the work of uncovering. To come close enough to see the detail, to pay attention to small things with the express aim of extending our range of vision, of better reading and making sense of the whole. Such a task will involve getting lost, giving up some of our go-to means of understanding the world, and drawing connections in places we hadn’t before. It will be a love and a labour. And it can start right now.
As part of our series of blog posts on pollinators and pollinator-inspired art in the lead-up to this year’s Remembrance Day for Lost Species, we are showcasing the creative work of scientist Simon Park.
Infected and its sister project Bee-Jewelled blend horror and beauty to explore the effects of pesticides on bee populations.
Infected, 2017. Medium: a found dead bumble bee and elemental Sulphur
This work imagines pollen contaminated with bee-killing pesticides as an infectious crystallising agent that slowly kills its host by infiltrating its biology and gradually transforming it into an inanimate and yellow crystalline form. It is “much inspired” by J.G Ballard’s The Crystal World.
Bee-Jewelled was inspired when Park found out that bees, like airborne swarm filter feeders, concentrate environmental pollutants, like pesticides and fungicides. This makes them hypersensitive to a natural parasite called Nosema cerenae.
As Park explains: “With a nod to Ackroyd and Harvey, Roger Hiorns and J.G. Ballard, this work reflects the ability of bees to concentrate environmental chemicals and highlights fears for their extinction.”
Simon Park on his practice:
“I’m not an artist, but a liberal scientist whose work explores the deep connections of the natural world… My goal is simple: to explore the inherent creativity of the natural world and to reveal its subtle, and usually hidden narratives, and above all to reveal its wonder. My hope is that my works will allow the interested observer to perceive biological phenomena that would otherwise be perpetually invisible, so that the hidden machinations of the natural world are brought to light.”
A “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades means a sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is under way and is more severe than previously feared, according to research.
Scientists analysed both common and rare species and found billions of regional or local populations have been lost. They blame human overpopulation and overconsumption for the crisis and warn that it threatens the survival of human civilisation, with just a short window of time in which to act.
The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, eschews the normally sober tone of scientific papers and calls the massive loss of wildlife a “biological annihilation” that represents a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilisation”.
Prof Gerardo Ceballos, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, who led the work, said: “The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language.”
Previous studies have shown species are becoming extinct at a significantly faster rate than for millions of years before, but even so extinctions remain relatively rare giving the impression of a gradual loss of biodiversity. The new work instead takes a broader view, assessing many common species which are losing populations all over the world as their ranges shrink, but remain present elsewhere.
The scientists found that a third of the thousands of species losing populations are not currently considered endangered and that up to 50% of all individual animals have been lost in recent decades. Detailed data is available for land mammals, and almost half of these have lost 80% of their range in the last century. The scientists found billions of populations of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians have been lost all over the planet, leading them to say a sixth mass extinction has already progressed further than was thought.
The scientists conclude: “The resulting biological annihilation obviously will have serious ecological, economic and social consequences. Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe.”
They say, while action to halt the decline remains possible, the prospects do not look good: “All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life.”
Wildlife is dying out due to habitat destruction, overhunting, toxic pollution, invasion by alien species and climate change. But the ultimate cause of all of these factors is “human overpopulation and continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich”, say the scientists, who include Prof Paul Ehrlich, at Stanford University in the US, whose 1968 book The Population Bomb is a seminal, if controversial, work.
“The serious warning in our paper needs to be heeded because civilisation depends utterly on the plants, animals, and microorganisms of Earth that supply it with essential ecosystem services ranging from crop pollination and protection to supplying food from the sea and maintaining a livable climate,” Ehrlich told the Guardian. Other ecosystem services include clean air and water.
“The time to act is very short,” he said. “It will, sadly, take a long time to humanely begin the population shrinkage required if civilisation is to long survive, but much could be done on the consumption front and with ‘band aids’ – wildlife reserves, diversity protection laws – in the meantime.” Ceballos said an international institution was needed to fund global wildlife conservation.
The research analysed data on 27,500 species of land vertebrates from the IUCN and found the ranges of a third have shrunk in recent decades. Many of these are common species and Ceballos gave an example from close to home: “We used to have swallows nesting every year in my home near Mexico city – but for the last 10 years there are none.”
The researchers also point to the “emblematic” case of the lion: “The lion was historically distributed over most of Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East, all the way to northwestern India. [Now] the vast majority of lion populations are gone.”
Read the full article in the Guardian online.
Baiji by Lucy Campbell – courtesy of the artist
Chinese history stretches back thousands of years, with much of the modern nation’s heartland falling under the control of a single dynasty before the Romans even finished conquering Italy. In the ensuing millennia the Yangtze, Earth’s third-longest river, would become a major focal point of East Asia’s grandest civilisation.
In the days of Imperial China, the waters of what would come to be known as the “Long River” held a multitude of marvels. Amidst the ranks of the Yangtze’s endemic fish species were the high-fin loach, nicknamed an “ugly duckling in reverse” and the mighty Yangtze paddlefish, reaching lengths of over twelve feet. Besides the fish were other giants and oddities, including soft-shelled turtles weighing as much as a lion and diminutive finless porpoises.
Arguably the most celebrated of all the river’s residents was Lipotes vexillifer, the “Goddess of the Yangtze”. Commonly known as the baiji, this species of river dolphin occupies a special place in ancient Chinese mythology. The fable once told of the baiji is infused with human suffering and death, as indeed was these animals’ ultimate fate.
The story goes that a beautiful young girl lived on the banks of the Yangtze with her cruel stepfather. One day, he took the girl onto the river by boat, meaning to sell her at market. En route, he became intoxicated by her beauty, deciding to take advantage of her. The girl freed herself by plunging into the river, whereupon a storm sank her stepfather’s boat. Once the storm passed, a beautiful dolphin was seen swimming and taken to be the incarnation of the girl. The animal was dubbed the Goddess of the Yangtze: a symbol of peace, prosperity and protection.
Painting of a baiji, Geisler et al. via Wikimedia Commons
For millennia, thousands of these blue-and-cream cetaceans swam in the Yangtze beneath the sailboats of traders and fishermen. But nothing lasts forever, and two centuries of bloody upheaval would end Imperial China and the baiji alike. In 1793, a British diplomatic mission to the Chinese Emperor was haughtily dismissed as a rabble of barbarians. However the “barbarians” would return, with a strength born of their Industrial Revolution, sailing thousands of troops up the Yangtze into the heart of China. By the mid-nineteenth century, steam-powered Western gunboats patrolled the Emperor’s greatest waterway.
China’s national humiliation and brutal treatment by the West, and later the Japanese, triggered the overthrow both of the imperial regime and its republican successor. This second Chinese revolution, concluding in 1949, would have grave consequences indeed. Following decades of brutal war, the Communist leader Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. Mao sought to restore his ravaged homeland’s once paramount standing amongst nations. China would be forever changed.
In 1950, the lower Yangtze held around six thousand baiji, much the same number as when China’s first imperial dynasty was founded. In 1958 Mao initiated China’s “Great Leap Forward”. This attempt to create industrialised socialism in the People’s Republic was a cataclysmic disaster. Perhaps as many as fifty-five million Chinese died in the resulting famine. The Great Leap Forward also proved an ecological catastrophe. A massive nationwide furnace-building drive led to rampant deforestation to provide fuel, which in turn exacerbated desertification. Certain traditions were also denounced, including the venerated status of the baiji.
No longer protected by custom, the dolphins were made horribly vulnerable at a stroke. Against a backdrop of famine, they were hunted for their meat. A grisly cottage industry also emerged, with baiji skin being cut and stitched into handbags and gloves. Whilst the Great Leap Forward only lasted four appalling years, severe damage had been done. The Goddess of the Yangtze was in deep trouble.
China’s rapid population growth after the famine meant ever more mouths to feed. Fishing activity in the baiji’s home waters intensified, with motorised boats dragging thousands of hooks each behind them through the cloudy river. Baiji became entangled in this new fishing apparatus and drowned, with others scythed to death by propellers.
In 1979 China’s government officially declared the dolphins endangered. By now, maybe a tenth of their mid-century population remained. In the following decades, attempts were made to save the baiji, but time was already short and the odds were ever-mounting against the species’ survival.
A surfacing baiji, image public domain
In 2006, a six-week survey of the Yangtze by thirty researchers found no sign of the baiji. They were declared functionally extinct in December that year, since fewer were thought to survive than the continuation of the species required.
Research indicates that the loss of the baiji is of particular significance: it was the sole representative of the Lipotidae, an entire cetacean family. More than twenty million years of unique evolutionary history gave Earth the baiji. We took about one-millionth of that time to drive them to the brink of extinction.
Scientists’ despondency about the baiji is sadly well-placed. Almost a half-billion people inhabit the Yangtze drainage basin. The river itself is astoundingly polluted, fringed by over four hundred-thousand “chemical enterprises”, turning former baiji habitat into what PRC state media call a “pollution belt”. Unsurprisingly, many of the river’s other species are at risk of following the dolphins into oblivion.
The suffering of China’s people in the centuries since a newly-industrialised West first turned its sights on the vast Qing Empire has been mirrored by the suffering of its wildlife and ecosystems. Unfortunately, another sinister innovation of Mao’s now has environmental repercussions far beyond the People’s Republic: namely his promotion of “Traditional Chinese Medicine”. This highly-lucrative field is a now a major driver of species endangerment worldwide.
One poignant example of this endangerment is the vaquita, native to the Gulf of California. This child-sized porpoise may soon vanish due to insatiable Chinese demand for the swim bladders of the totoaba fish who share its habitat. Nearly all Earth’s vaquita have already drowned in the nets of Mexico’s totoaba fishery. It would be a grim irony indeed if two disparate cetacean species were lost in such quick succession, paying the ultimate price for China’s bitter struggle to reclaim its former glory.
A pair of vaquita, image public domain
Lucy Campbell’s works explore the worlds of lost, disappearing and mythical creatures. Her baiji painting was made as part of a shared project with storyteller Andreas Kornevall – read Andreas’ version of the ancient baiji myth, illustrated by Lucy, on his website.
The last Scottish Wildcat is about to be exterminated – because developers are chasing windfarm subsidies.
This week The Herald carried a story about the wildcat queen that lives on the hillside opposite my cottage, where I am a shepherd. She has already been ousted from the den where she reared a kitten two seasons ago, when quarry was excavated to create hard-standing for a single wind turbine. Scottish Natural Heritage did not come out of that smelling of roses, as the developers flouted recommendations for wildcat protection on a number of occasions, and the response was along the lines of ‘O dear, perhaps we should have given our advice earlier, but now we’ve left it too long and it’s too late – the wildcat won’t be around now so we’ll not do anything about it.’ There was no ‘policing’ and penalty or even warning was issued to the landowner.
This time, there are seven turbines to be erected on the adjacent slope – where we have captured the same queen on night camera. And Scottish Natural Heritage has omitted its previous advice to ‘avoid activity during the breeding season, March – August inclusive.’ However, Scottish Wildlife Trust HAS asked Perth and Kinross Council to impose this condition. But so far, there has been no response.
We are petitioning Perth and Kinross Council to include this protective condition. One breeding season for one female could be the writing on the tombstone for the species, felis sylvestris sylvestris.
Scottish Natural Heritage is playing the popularity game with the developers, and saying that wind farms won’t destroy too much habitat (though earlier I have them on record as saying they don’t know enough about HOW much habitat a wildcat does require ). They are concentrating on cross-breeding with feral cats as being the biggest threat to the species. When, however, there is evidence of an apparently ‘pure’ wild cat on our hill, shouldn’t they be doing all they can to protect her, on all fronts?
It may come to camping out in front of the diggers… Is anyone going to join me? Or at least bring me a flask of tea? I’ve never done anything like this – so please advise me or support me. Please, if you have not already done so, would you sign the petition to Perth and Kinross Council? It can be found by using the link below.
Helen Douglas (- I cannot check email regularly while I am lambing sheep in a remote area during May – but would appreciate help/advice and will reply when I do have internet access!) firstname.lastname@example.org
The mission of ‘What Is Missing’ is to create, through science-based artworks, an awareness about the present sixth mass extinction of species, connect this loss of species to habitat degradation and loss, and emphasise that by protecting and restoring habitat, we can both reduce carbon emissions and protect species. As Maya Lin’s final memorial, it asks us to look at a memorial not as a singular, static object, but as work that can exist in multiple forms and places around the world. Loss is merely the departure point for this wake up call and call to action. The What Is Missing? Foundation is equally focused on action and hope, showing individuals what they can do in their own lives to make a difference, presenting plausible scenarios for a sustainable planet, and showcasing examples of what is being done around the world. It is within our power to make a difference. Head to the website, whatismissing.net/#add-a-
Map of Marizy by Emma Pavans de Ceccatty
Emma Pavans de Ceccatty and Joanne Matthews met on a permaculture design course in 2015 and have since developed a dialogue about art and sustainability. Both are artists, environmental explorers, and alchemists of empathy, experience and fact.
Over the month of November 2016 we collaborated in response to a call out for Remembrance Day for Lost Species. Delving into the systemic reasons for loss of species, we encountered the disconnect between humans in the city and their environment. The project, (re)visiting Marizy, was an intuitive and experimental series of attempts at connection with place.
Emma focused on reviving the relationship with her homeland, Marizy, France. Inspired by Emma’s place-specific intention, Joanne explored what it means to have empathy for a distant and abstract land. The Aral Sea, Uzbekistan, called to Joanne and she intuitively attempted to develop empathy for this place, as if it were her home.
Through conversations and creative exchanges, we embarked on this experimental collaboration. The on-going project flows in a reflective and constructive way, learning from our experiments to hone the next steps. The process has manifested in a series of performances, actions, rituals, paintings and poems, documented on a dedicated blog http://revisitingmarizy.wordpress.com
Ritual documentation by Emma Pavans de Ceccatty
Marizy, in the Saône-et-Loire area region of France, is a green and marshy land shaped by hedges, lakes, rivers, streams and ponds. It is lauded for its resilient ecosystem. As a predominantly smallholding, cow-grazing agricultural area, people’s livelihoods depend on the health of the land and the water. There has consequently been real effort and concern for the wellbeing of the wildlife and environment, though this is drying out with the urbanisation and industrialisation of local minds.
‘So far, the results of my exploration and connection with this land have brought me to challenge my assumptions that Marizy was an unhealthy landscape. I wonder now, is what I see here what stewarding Nature looks like? Is this contemporary romanticism?’
The Aral Sea was once the third-largest saltwater lake in the world. It is now reduced to a tenth of its original size, leaving a bare and deserted landscape behind. Industrial needs and large-scale agricultural greed drained and dammed the lake, ending the century-old fishing tradition and livelihood from the surrounding villages, in just one generation.
Ghost Factory sketch/ Aral Sea by Joanne Matthews
‘My relationship with the Aral Sea has just begun. I was drawn to the body of water through no logical means. I feel sad and regretful for the water’s demise, torture and the many disappearing species that have been lost.’
Through this place-specific attempt at connection, Emma and Joanne process and translate their intellectual research and embodied experience into illustrations, audio work, writing and performance language. We are continuing our work together beyond this initial month-long research period to now focus on the themes and questions that we have uncovered.