Liquid Loss: Learning to Mourn Our Companion Species and Landscapes – by Teresa Dillon

This essay was published in Screen City Biennial Journal, October 2019

Terike Haapoja, Entropy (2004). Video still.

“The world tells a big story: living arrangements that took millions of years to put into place are being undone in the blink of an eye.”[1] 

In 2015, a team of biologists, zoologists and ecologists[2] published a paper that examined whether human activities are causing a mass extinction. Using “conservative assumptions”, they compared base rates of animal and species loss with previous extinction periods. Their analysis indicated that the current extinction rates of mammal and vertebrate species vastly exceed natural average background rates[3], their conclusion stating that the sixth extinction, the “biological annihilation” of species, was well on its way[4]. The opening quote, drawn from Tsing et al.’s edited collection ‘Arts of Living on A Damaged Planet’, refers to this death as the “undoing of living arrangements”, and while this ruin may not be even, or equally distributed, it does affect us all. For instance, pollinator communities critically impact agricultural systems, their decline disproportionately affecting the livelihood of subsistence farmers and local producers, whose goods sustain global food supplies[5]

Whether one chooses to consciously pay attention to such loss or not, what I would like to put forward in this short paper relates not just to the registration of this death as a statistic or number, but as a particular form of grief that is intuited at levels that go beyond the measurable and tangible. 

Grief and mourning are considered as ‘natural’, legitimate processes through which loss becomes graspable. If we are to make the assumption that all life on earth is interconnected, and the loss of species through extinction is ‘felt’ on a human level, then the question arises, how do we legitimise the sorrow that accompanies such passing, without further complicating or pathologising such grief? 

As homo sapiens we practise a myriad of funeral rituals that help us to come to terms with human kin death; we have developed complex post-death rituals, burial behaviours and remembrance symbols that can last generations. We have approaches, treatments and performances that dictate how we manage corpses that are governed and protected. We have developed theories on the impact of human bereavement, including models and coping mechanisms to recognise and guide us through it. If we are moving towards or returning to a more-than-human position, how then do we treat the loss of our fellow creatures with the same compassion? How do we begin to accept, cope with and understand the mourning that accompanies the loss of companion species and landscapes?

Situating Grief and Mourning

“So do I grieve for my lovely dogwoods, or not? Reducing uncertainty and disbelief is important in getting grief off to a good start. For that reason, many hospitals and religious groups stress seeing the body. In fact, this step is considered so important to coping with grief that it is built into certain hospitals’ sudden-death protocols. With the dogwoods, however, it is unclear whether I should look for bodies or cultivate hope. Even if I decided to grieve, how would I go about doing it?” [6]

The above quote is taken from the writing of environmentalist, hospital chaplain and grief counsellor Phyllis Windle. Situating her work within the field of ecopsychology, that is the study and practices associated with human emotional relation to the natural world,[7], Windle suggests that mourning for environmental losses has no simple or predictable path, as our external and internal worlds may make such losses difficult to mourn. Writing in 1995, Windle observes, “we have almost no social support for expressing this grief”[8]. Yet our understanding of human grief has a rich history, including theories of attachment and loss[9] that have been instrumental in understanding how one of our most primary human motivations is to seek, through our attachments to each other, a safe haven. Attachment, experienced in childhood as an embodied form of care and its associated loss, termination or closure, can leave life-long marks. When the ‘affectional bond’ is broken, grief is a natural response. 

Extending on and working with Bowlby, Colin Murray Parkes[10], whose research into bereavement provided some of the first empirical studies of grief, identified the four stages: shock and numbness—the immediate first stage, which allows one to survive the immediate loss; yearning and searching—the pining for the deceased’s return, during which many emotions, including weeping, anger, anxiety, preoccupation and confusion are expressed; despair and disorganisation—characterised by withdrawal, disengagement, depression, apathy and other low feelings, as the transition to living without a loved one has come to terms with; reorganisation and recovery—the return to the ‘normal’ state. While the loss is not forgotten, grief is now managed; positive memories and associations are preserved as new orderings emerge. Similarly, Kübler-Ross[11] refers to five stages of grief including denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Although criticised for its lack of clinical evidence,[12] his research continues to influence therapeutic intervention and has been foundational in raising awareness about the mourning process. Models of mourning additionally add to such analysis and include, for example, Worden’s Four Tasks[13]: Task 1) to accept the reality of the loss; Task 2) to work through the pain and grief; Task 3) to adjust to the new environment; and Task 4) to find an enduring connection to the deceased while moving forward with life. Likewise, Rando’s Six Processes, or Six Rs, acknowledge the necessity to:

  1. recognise the loss—that is acknowledge and understand the death;
  2. react to separation—experience the pain;
  3. recollect and re-experience—develop a realistic review of the relationship with the deceased;
  4. relinquish and re-experience;
  5. readjust—adapt to the new world, not forgetting the old; and
  6. reinvest—in new relationships. 

The point in naming these theories, models and stages is not to provide an extensive review or critique, but to illustrate that alongside deeply rooted rituals and customs we have well-established models of the significance that loss, grief and mourning have to a human life. Bonanno, who runs the Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab at Columbia University, also extends the thinking in the field by focusing on natural resilience as a key factor in determining how people manage grief. While this cannot be taught, his lab looks towards ways in which it can be designed into programmes and highlights how other responses, such as laughter and humour, can also act as legitimate ways to mourn. Research has also emphasised that the grieving process also depends on a number of individual socio-emotional factors such as the mode of loss, personal vulnerability, personal character and social support[14].

In light of this research, and returning to Windle’s example of the loss of the flowering woody tree, the dogwood, while Windle recognises the loss, she also acknowledges there is no clear way to process it. As there are no accepted social norms this adds further to a sense of dislocation. Such grief could be described as disenfranchised grief[15], in that the anguish or sorrow cannot be openly acknowledged for reasons such as lack of social acceptance and appropriate social norms through which to process the grief, personal angst, fear of embarrassment, or appearing as foolish or weak. Such feelings in turn distort one’s reality, further complicating the mourning process and in the worst cases pathologising the loss. One field that has begun to recognise the ‘realness’ of the grief associated with non-human death is the veterinary sciences. Findings from this discipline and other disciplines dealing with this matter are explored in the following section. 

Understanding Companion Loss

Over the last two decades, within the fields of veterinary science and human environment studies, there has been a growing number of reports of the awareness of end-of-life care, grief and bereavement of “companion animals”[16]. Additionally, as development psychologist Gail Melson[17] notes, studies of children’s development have “largely… been limited to children’s relationships with other humans”[18], resulting in our relation to companion animals being largely ignored—and this can be extended to adult development and how we conceptualise the notion of affectional bonds in the first place. For clarity, “companion animal” typically refers to a domestic pet that we have a meaningful relationship with, but this can and does extend to animal relations in other contexts, such as farm, zoo and sanctuary settings. What is necessary to flag here is that the term “companion animal” (from now on referred to as companion/pet) tends to refer to domesticated or captivated species relationships. Intentionally here, and in relation to the conversation on extinction, similar to Haraway[19], the use of the term “companion species” within this paper refers to all creatures (domestic and wild), as well as companion landscapes (soil, rivers, lakes, mountains, seas) with which we share the earth. 

Returning to the research, the surge in pet animal relationships and their associated care is in line with increases in the global growth in pet ownership, with over half of people internationally having a least one pet[20]. As a result, it is now common for people to refer to their companion animals as a friend or member of the family, and therefore vets and animal support carers have begun to recognise the need to support people when their companion/pet animal dies. Chur-Hanson[21] notes that despite the rise in companion/pet numbers, much work has to be done in understanding the grief that accompanies their death. Writing from an Austrialian perspective, Chur-Hanson discuss how the cremation of pets is often procedural rather than ritual, and that animal crematorium staff are not necessarily trained in counselling or managing grief. Additionally, Chur-Hanson points out that there are no recognised or standard funeral services for animals and there is little guidance on such matters for some religious leaders. In Japan, however, Buddhist temples and privately owned pet cemeteries recognise the importance of pet memorialisation and provide concrete manifestations of the ritual treatment of dead pets[22]. Such rituals are in part explained by traditional Japanese values, where animals had once been regarded as powerful and even vengeful spiritual forces, which could wreak havoc on humans, depending on how they were cared for during their lifetime. While, from a Buddhist perspective, animals are sentient beings with the “potential for better rebirth and salvation”, there are no “Buddhist scriptures specifically for animals, let alone pets”[23].

What is key to take away from this contemporary research is that companion, namely pet animal grief, bereavement and loss is now recognised as a growing field of concern, practice and care. This development, as noted, reflects the number of animal and species relations that we now have in our domestic setting. As the number of creatures we constitute as pets has increased, the number of extinct species, recorded, witnessed and accounted for has become manifold. While one could potentially read our close relations to pets as an inverse or perhaps even subconscious reaction to this trend, the literature on companion pet loss illustrates how in bringing animals into our familial folds, their death and loss can impact us as much as the death of a human significant. Equally, there is the recognition that we have yet to develop appropriate rituals to support the grief that accompanies pet loss, with recommendations also being provided for counsellors on how to deal with disenfranchised grief, such as another’s response that it was “only a dog”. Findings from veterinary science, human environment studies and child development provide important indicators as to how we might approach species loss that is less tangent on our domestic pet relations and more broadly associated with the mass extinction of species, climate change and environmental degradation. Taking this logic and applying it to how we might move forward with dealing with the disenfranchised grief associated with extinction, the following stories provide insight into how artists, public institutions and concerned citizens are approaching this matter. Considering these stories as exemplars, that act as navigable paths or ley lines, each provides a glimpse into ways that we are beginning to explore and express the forms of grief and mourning, which I later describe in this paper as liquid loss.

Contemporary Responses to Loss and Grief 

In 2008, I curated (with support from CADA and Margarida Mendes) the UM Media Art Festival in Lisboa. This particular edition dealt with the notion of gesture, and as part of the exhibition we showed the work Entropy by the Finnish artist Terike Happoja. Entropy is a one-channel video work, which uses an infrared camera to show the cooling down of a horse’s body after its death. The piece, which lasts twenty-five minutes, is an edit of the original recording, which lasts nine hours. Projected onto the large white walls of a disused garage in downtown Lisboa, the work is a meditative reflection that captures the heat leaving the horse’s body. The work is currently contextualised on Haapoja’s website[24] as an example of how “the image reveals something of the invisible reality” that conceals other realities. With emphasis placed on processes of visualisation, what we define as the ‘moment of death’, opens up and is captured by the artist who in turn creates a tangible space through which the viewer can contemplate the horse’s death and life. The thermal image captures the cooler temperatures of the horse’s body in blue, purple, and green, with red, orange, or yellow expressing warmer zones. Over the course of the video, the warm colours slowly diminish, as the horse’s final living moments are silently recorded. Reflecting on processes of mourning, one could refer to the work as a homage and celebration of the horse’s life. 

As a piece of art, Entropy works on many levels, and holds a space, a space through which we can, say goodbye to the animal in the simplest way. It also acts as a commemorate act similar to how, on the death of a loved one, we select portrait images to remember them. Entropy is a portrait of another kind that alludes not just to the form, shape and being of the horse as a living creature, but also—as the title suggests—to the degradation of matter, energy, to death and disorder. Haapoja, who has gone on to create a number of works that take the ‘animal’ as central, recently wrote that we need to move “beyond an order that organizes beings into those protected and those killable by using animality and humanity as its divider”[25]. Drawing on the work of American philosopher Cora Diamond[26], Haapoja speaks to “letting go of a binary logic” that divides human and animal, so that new forms of kinships can flourish. Adding to Haapoja’s viewpoint, creating compassionate spaces where the loss of kin species is acknowledged and held is part of work required to dissolve such binary positions.

Almost a decade after showing Entropy, on the 30th of November 2016, we gather at the Digital Culture Research Centre, UWE and Pervasive Media Studio, Bristol, to raise a glass of port wine in memory of the blue stag beetle and the short-haired bumblebee. The act is a small gesture to mark the ‘Remembrance Day for Lost Species’, which since 2011 has been set aside as a day to memorialise extinct species. The project website (lostspeciesday.org) documents activities associated with the day and provides recommendations for remembrance, restoration and recuperation. Co-founded by Feral Theatre (in partnership with The Life Cairn), the day is based on previous work by both groups, including ‘A Funeral for Lost Species’[27] (Feral Theatre) and The Life Cairn project, initiated in 2011 by artist, storyteller and rewilder Andreas Kornevall and Rev Peter Owen Jones, as a means to mark species loss[28]. The word “cairn” is derived from the Scottish Gaelic tradition of creating a marker from the layering of dry stones on top of each other. Adopting this process as a ritual to mark species loss, cairns are now recreated across the world. Reviewing the work of Lost Species Day, journalist Jeremy Hance[29] notes how the work provides a space for a grieving process that extends beyond our human parochialism.

Feral Theatre, A Funeral for Lost Species (2011). Image credit: Abigail Horn

‘Remembrance Day for Lost Species’ and The Life Cairn project are therefore acts of mourning, which register the need to create spaces through which to grieve species and landscape loss. In a similar act of registration, Bristol Museum recently responded to the IPBES report on global biodiversity, as well as to demands from school children to tell the truth about the animals on display in its World Wildlife Gallery. In August 2019 museum staff shrouded endangered species in black mourning veils, to highlight the seriousness of the threat of extinction[30]

Since 2018, funeral processions[31] for lost species and plants have been widely used by members of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement as a means through which to enact a sense of solidarity and remembrance for extinct companion animals and landscapes, while also drawing attention to the cause and the seriousness of the situation. The aesthetic choice to appropriate funeral symbols (coffin, veils, mourning dress), expresses not only “biological annihilation” but also through silence and pageant, often and intentionally enacted in densely populated urban centres, creates space through which loss can be acknowledged and mourning publicly legitimised. Founded in 2018 in the southwest of England (Bristol and Stroud), XR is a non-political movement, which uses civil disobedience as a means to incite government change on climate breakdown, biological loss and ecological collapse. It is focused on three central demands that include declaring a climate emergency, reducing carbon emissions by 2025 and establishing citizen assemblies as a means of participatory governance. Regular and consistent protest and disturbance is central to the XR approach, and to support this the Bristol-based performance group Invisible Circus created the ‘Red Rebel Brigade’, which is now replicated around the world at various XR protests. Walking in slow motion and using mime to create a series of living tableaux during protests, the ‘Red Rebel Brigade’ covers the body entirely with their distinctive red costume that includes full-length robes, headdress, veils and long-sleeved gloves. Performers’ faces are completely painted in white, with eyes outlined in black and lips in red, their presence symbolising not just the common blood we share with all species, but also acting as a warning of the destruction that could come if we do not act now[32].

Red Rebel Brigade, Invisible Circus (2018). Image credit: Jeremy Peters

Liquid Loss: Naming, Co-creating and Legitimising Rituals for Ecological Loss

The above works are intentionally selected to illustrate how different styles of artistic and performance practice (Haapoja, Feral Theatre, The Life Cairn), concerned citizens (Extinction Rebellion) and public institutions (Bristol Museum) are now deeply engaged in what I view as mourning processes associated with companion species loss, mass extinction and environmental degradation. The intention with this short paper is to provide a primary view on how such expressions have emerged over the last fifteen years, with heightened actions (funerals, processions, remembrance days) in the last four to five years acting as release valves that illustrate our human need to negate the disenfranchised and marginalised forms of grief that arise from the sense of companion species and landscape loss that are not yet formally accepted within the mainstream. 

Furthermore, these works constitute what I would also consider to be cogent responses to liquid loss, which I define as the loss associated with the death of organisms, niches, landscapes, the loss of the tundra, heather, reef, Caribbean monk seal and moa. Liquid loss is also the fluid, runny loss of icecaps and bog land. It additionally refers to the lack of etiquette or procedures to navigate this new territory, as the protocols for such loss have yet to come fully into this world. By acknowledging liquid loss, we return to the gooey warmth of the compost heap, to the knotted and entangled experience of living together in human and non-human worlds. This acknowledgement is a process whereby the acceptance of such death, as well as the need to recover from it, runs parallel to a process of recovering from the trauma of having been so utterly divorced in the first place from our environs[33]. This divorce can also be constituted, as ethnographer Bird Rose notes, as the “drag of the shimmer”—the shimmer referring to the diminishing of the brilliance, which Yolngu, Aboriginal artists refer to as the bir’yun that is the ancestral force, the ecological pulse and rhythm of earth:

“…what is actually occurring is more dire than the numbers indicate. There are the functional extinctions, the extinction cascades, the extinction vortexes; these are ways in which, as things start to slip down that death road, other things start going too. Relationships unravel, mutualities falter, dependence becomes a peril rather than a blessing, and whole worlds of knowledge and practice diminish. We are looking at worlds of loss that are much greater than species extinction numbers suggest.”[34]

There is an urgency here that comes with this loss that requires us to dig deep, to go beyond human-centric mourning rituals and ways. Liquid loss is an attempt to articulate the sensibilities and sensitivities that we need to adapt, in order to deal with the cascades and vortexes that are left behind by mass extinction. Rooted in emerging new rituals, practices and expressions of companion species and landscape mourning, liquid loss is an act of profound connection and love that articulates an aesthetics of attention and healing, which on the one hand acknowledges the abstracted alienation and dislocation that has resulted from centuries of capitalocene logics and, on the other, supports stepping beyond binary taxonomies. In attending to liquid loss we begin to create and hold spaces through which we can regain the sense of “we-ness” that attunes us once more to the shimmer of our earthbound existence.

October 2019

REFERENCES AND NOTES

[1] Tsing, Anna, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan and Nils Bubandt. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017, p. 1.

[2] Ceballos, Gerardo, Paul Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, Robert M. Pringle, and Todd M. Palmer, “Accelerated Modern Human-induced Species Losses: Entering the Sixth Mass Extinction” in Science Advances 1, no. 5 (June 2015), e1400253 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.

[3] Background rate is the rate at which species would go extinct without human activity.

[4] Ceballos, Gerardo, Paul Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, Robert M. Pringle, and Todd M. Palmer. “Biological Annihilation via the Ongoing Sixth Mass Extinction Signalled by Vertebrate Population Losses and Declines.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(30), E6089-E6096. 

[5] IPBES. The Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production. S.G. Potts, V.L. Imperatriz-Fonseca, and H.T. Ngo (eds.). Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Bonn, Germany, 2016. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3402856

[6] Windle, Phyllis. “The Ecology of Grief” in Ecopsychology. Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes and Allen D. Kanner, 136-145. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1995, p. 142.

[7] Refer to Shepard, Paul. “Introduction: Ecology and Man – A Viewpoint” in The Subversive Science: Essays Toward an Ecology of Man, edited by Paul Shepard and Daniel McKinley. Houghton Mifflin Co, 1969 and Roszak, Theodore, Mary E. Gomes and Allen D. Kanner. Ecopsychology. Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1995.

[8] Windle, p. 142.

[9] Bowlby, John. Attachment. Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. New York: Basic Books, 1969. Bowlby, John. Loss: Sadness & Depression. Attachment and Loss: Vol. 3. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1980.

[10] Parkes, Colin Murray. “The Nature of Grief.” International Journal of Psychiatry 3, No. 5 (June 1967), pp. 435-8. Parkes, Colin Murray. “Models of Bereavement Care.” Death Studies 11, No. 4 (July 1987): 257-261. Parkes, Colin Murray. “Coping with Loss: Bereavement in Adult Life.” British Medical Journal 1998; Mar 14; 316(7134), pp. 856–859.

[11]  Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1969.

[12] Bonanno, George A. The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss. New York: Basic Books, reprint edition, December 2010. 

[13] Wordon, William J. Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy, Fifth Edition: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner – Grief Counselling Handbook on Treatment of Grief, Loss and Bereavement. Springer Publishing Company, 4th edition, 2009.

[14] Parkes, Ibid.

[15] Doka, Kenneth J., ed. Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1989.

[16] For example see Chur-Hansen, Anna. “Grief and Bereavement Issues and the Loss of a Companion Animal: People Living with a Companion Animal, Owners of Livestock, and Animal Support Workers” in Clinical Psychologist 14, No. 1 (2010): 14-21. Hueberge, Roschelle A., and Jessica Pierce, “Companion-Animal Caregiver Knowledge, Attitudes, and Beliefs Regarding End-of-Life Care” in  Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 20, No. 4 (2017): 313-323. Kolondy, S.W. “Companion Animal Illness and Human Emotion” in Problems in Veterinary Medicine 3, (1991): 1-5. Pierce, Jessica. The Last Walk: Reflections on our Pets at the End of Their Lives. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Tzivian, Lilian, Michael Friger and Talma Kushnir. “Grief and Bereavement of Israeli Dog Owners: Exploring Short-Term Phases Pre- and Post-Euthanization.” Death Studies 38, No. 2 (2014), pp. 109-117.

[17] Melson, Gail F. Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. Melson, Gail F. “Child Development and the Human Companion Animal Bond” in American Behavioral Scientist, 47 (2003), pp. 31-39.

[18] Melson (2003), p. 31.

[19] Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University, 2016.

[20] Growth from Knowledge, Global Study: Pet Ownership, 2016. https://www.gfk.com/global-studies/global-studies-pet-ownership/

[21] Chur-Hansen, 2010.

[22] Ambros, Barbara. “Vengeful Spirits or Loving Spiritual Companions? Changing Views of Animal Spirits” in Contemporary Japan, Asian Ethnology 69, no. 1 (2010), pp. 35-67. Kenny, Elizabeth. “Pet Funerals and Animal Graves in Japan.” Mortality 9, No. 1, February 2004, pp. 24-60.

[23] Ambros, 2010, p. 39.

[24] http://www.terikehaapoja.net/entropy-2004. Last accessed: 7 October, 2019.

[25] Haapoja, Terike. “Ecotopia – Unlearning Animality.” In Shifter 24: Learning and Unlearning, edited by Avi Alpert and Sreshta Rit Premnath, 2019. http://www.terikehaapoja.net/3106-2.

[26] Diamond, Cora. “Eating Meat, Eating People” in Philosophy 53, No. 206 (October 1978), pp. 465-479. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Royal Institute of Philosophy.

[27] A Funeral for Lost Species: https://vimeo.com/25260994, highlights from the performance and sculpture installation at St Peter’s Church, Brighton Fringe Festival, May 2011. Created by Feral Theatre.

[28] Parkins, Keith. “The Life Cairn, A Memorial for Extinct Species” in Medium, December 2013. https://medium.com/dark-mountain/the-life-cairn-1483610d05ab.

[29] Hance, Jeremy. “Why Don’t we Grieve for Extinct Species?”, The Guardian, November 19, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/radical-conservation/2016/nov/19/extinction-remembrance-day-theatre-ritual-thylacine-grief.

[30] Morss, Alex, “Museum shrouds endangered wildlife exhibits in mourning veil”, The Guardian, Wed, 14th Aug, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/14/museum-shrouds-endangered-wildlife-exhibits-in-mourning-veil 

[31] Mounter, Brendan and Hartley, Anna. Extinction Rebellion protesters stage a mock funeral and block the streets in Brisbane CBD, 2019. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-10-10/extinction-rebellion-protest-actions-brisbane-cbd/11588850.

[32] Heardman, Patrick. “The Meaning Behind Extinction Rebellion’s Red-robed Protesters” in Digital Dazed, 26 April, 2019. https://www.dazeddigital.com/politics/article/44238/1/meaning-behind-extinction-rebellions-red-robed-protesters-london-climate-change (note: the group is incorrectly referred to here as the Red Brigade. The correct name is Red Rebel Brigade).

[33] Fisher, Andy. Radical Ecopsychology, Second Edition, Psychology in the Service of Life. Suny Press, 2013, p. 52.

[34]  Bird Rose, Deborah. “Shimmer: When All You Love Is Being Trashed.” In Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan and Nils Bubandt, 51-61. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017, p. 52


TERESA DILLON is an artist and researcher creating performances, installations, sound and texts that tell stories about humans and companion landscapes. Taking the urban as a primary site of habitation, her work explores the embodied nature of techno-civic relations and the influences of technology on human and species living arrangements. From this perspective, reoccuring themes within her work address notions of survival, repair and recuperation, care and hospitality, encountering, commoning, pollution, data governance and surveillance. She is a Humboldt Fellow and has held research and lecture posts at Cambridge University, UK and Trinity College Dublin. Curatorial invites include HACK-THE-CITY (Science Gallery, Dublin, 2012) and transmediale (2016). Since 2013, Teresa has hosted Urban Knights, a programme of talks and workshops, which provokes and promotes practical approaches to rethinking urban governance and ‘smart’ city living. Her work has been published and exhibited internationally (Ars Electronica, Helsinki Design Week, LABoral, 7a*11d, Locws International; Solstice Arts Centre), presented at various conferences and symposia (Make City Festival, ISEA, EcoCity), and reviewed in Nature Magazine and Wire. Teresa currently holds the post of Professor of City Futures at the School of Art and Design, University of the West of England, Bristol, where she leads on the RepairActs programme.

February 18th: Bramble Cay melomys extinction day – by Ewan Davidson

I said I would not forget, and I want to write to you, disembodied totem spirit of an ex-thing that I probably don’t believe in, because I want to bear witness, to envision the end of an existence.

It was, of course, absurd. My friend reminded me of this as we waded out to a bench on the edge of a flooded pond carrying a paper replica island towards a herd of confused and curious swans.  How could it be otherwise?

Firstly death just is.  At an individual level – not in a jolly Halloween cartoon Grim Reaper way, but in a deep epistemological way. We humans can’t comprehend the absence of existence. And we don’t like it. It unsettles us.

It is a further step to imagine the death of something that you didn’t know existed in the first place. That is a loss of opportunity. But also a leap into a gap which the imagination or unconsciousness might fill with projections. My own are of failing to protect something innocent and precious. Was that really you, Bramble Cay Melomys?

IMG_20200121_220243666

I also spend time thinking about rats. Attentive readers will have noticed in the sister post how quickly I conflated the unknown extinct rodent with the common rat. The analogy becomes more problematic when we consider that the survival of the melomys, until climate change finally did for it, occurred mainly because occasional human visitors to Bramble Cay had failed to bring with them the opportunistic and competing rodents which had caused the extinction of other ground-living island dwellers in the area. Real things are always fucking up our best metaphors. But still, as a familiar example of undervalued beings in our midst, rats work pretty well.  We are to be observed by several as we launch our craft.

Around the time of the commemoration I saw an artwork by Marcus Coates. Entitled Extinct Animals it is composed of plaster castes of the artist’s arms, hands or even fingers as he makes shadow figures of various extinct animals. Some of these are frankly very schematic, but that doesn’t really affect the impact much. These creatures no longer cast a shadow, so…

I’ve been drawn to Marcus’ work for several years and soon afterwards I was able to see him talk about it. He described his fascination in embodying a message of communication of some kind  – and I’ve noticed that this is often across  a barrier of some sort, of time, kind, language or even, and often, species. I’ve watched him being interviewed as a Blue Footed Booby on Galapagos TV, attend a community meeting in a condemned council block wearing a deer skull on his head before going into a shamanistic trance, choreograph a number of volunteers sitting in their cars, living rooms and waiting rooms into a replica of the dawn chorus, and take a question from a man dying in a hospice on a journey to and from an ageing woman in a hut in the Peruvian Amazon. Here he is,  encouraging a Canadian island community to apologise to the extinct great auks which used to live there.

None of these admirable projects look anything other than absurd. But they do encourage a way of connecting which is uncanny, disorientating and affecting. I think they tug around our felt senses.


Within the growing field of climate anxiety is a recognition that our response to the evidence of climate change is also necessarily un-canny, and will feel at least some part absurd.

We have the notion that Tim Morton draws from object-orientated ontology of the ‘strange stranger’, the thing that we can only encounter in a phenomenological way without prejudice or preconception, and the hyperobjects he develops from that way of thinking ( I’d suggest that extinction is another hyperobject that is  spreading through us at the moment, like a lump of indissoluble plastic).  In the more cautious and classical philosophical position laid out by Jonathan Lear in Radical Hope,

We do not have to agree with Plato that there is a transcendent source of goodness – that is a source of goodness that transcends the world – to think that the goodness of the world transcends our finite powers to grasp it. The emphasis here is not on some mysterious source of goodness, but on the limited nature of our finite conceptual resources. This, I think most readers will agree, is an appropriate response for finite creatures like ourselves. Indeed, it seems oddly inappropriate – lacking in understanding of oneself as a finite creature – to think that what is good about the world is exhausted by our current understanding of it. Even the most strenuously secular readers ought to be willing to accept this form of transcendence. (pp.121-2, 2006)

Lear’s ‘hero’ ( I think that is fair), the Crow chief Plenty Coups, uses a dream he has interpreted to suggest that his tribe should give up their traditional virtues, and find an accommodation with the crushing forces of American colonisation, which would (and indeed did) allow them to retain their identity and integrity.  His message, however, is that in a situation when our known virtues clearly no longer protect us we must search beyond.

We must find new ways of thinking – whether these come to us from overlooked Indigenous traditions, cyber-identities, art practice, experimental philosophies or paradigm shifts in science. All of these are fruitful responses to the crisis of the Anthropocene.

As, I think, psychogeography might be. Psychogeography is a child of situationism, but has been dallying with shamanism for a while too.  Being inhabited, haunted, dealing with the margins, and the supplements are the business of our trade – using the tricksterish slogan of ‘Seeing Things As They Really Are’ (@Tim Smith) which suggests we live in an illusion of some sort, and that our imaginations might find a reality that is somehow missing (although of course what is missing might in fact be our imagination).

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So digging into this methodology I decided I wanted to create a funeral representation of the absent and unknown creatures.

I don’t actually have these kinds of craft skills – which is, of course, entirely the point. We end up with a green paper tray covered in straw and leaves I gathered from the edges of a new semi-permanent floodpond near my home, some sugar mice purchased hurriedly in something that felt like a drug deal from an olde sweetie shop, and used to mould others out of moss and used kitchen towels, purslane seeds (which apparently grew on Bramble Cay), and some Australian incense (which wouldn’t light in the stormwinds of Edinburgh in February).  The frustrations, dead ends, ineptness and questing for meaning is what I know to be grief work. It is a process to enter that only gives partial outcomes, and usually leaves you somewhere (else).

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Despite the perceived increase in eutrophication (and sugar content) of the already heavily polluted pond, the freezing conditions, and the herd of swans, we launched the tray, which floated out on the strong westerly into the mid distance and sank gradually beneath the water. My friend said it was like watching a feeling happen.


As I struggled with  the process of representation I faced the futility, cost and projections in my task, I was able to ignore or avoid my own decay, overfeed my domestic guest rodents, and engage with what go missing with extinction.  The answer as the ecologist, Daniel Jansen* says in terms of biology, and the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose echoes in human terms, is an opportunity to connect, potentially or actually.

As my work sank under the water, unnoticed by the rest of the world, I felt something of that loss. I may have murmured melomys rubicola under my breath without needing to know exactly what it meant.

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This is not a melomys, it is a gerbil in mild peril, but it is the sort of thing I had in mind.

As we looked for a site for extinction day commemorations I checked out the National Museum of Scotland (NMS). I had only a mild hope that I might find a melomys amongst the stuffed animal collection. What I did find was a  display board listing some animals which had become extinct – which did not include the melomys or indeed any other animals which had disappeared since 2010. Which gave the commemoration another more practical focus.

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Before…

The list of extinct animals I was then to send to the NMS ( including only mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and freshwater fish) covering only the years 2017-19, and  based only on two reputed websites and a cursory check of the IUCN Red List data base, contained 25 names.  It excludes those creatures which live on only in human captivity, which we are best able to watch die out (like the Northern Rhinoceros or the Spixx Macaw).  Some of the species have been declared extinct more than once, as a specimen occasionally blunders out of the undergrowth in some unlooked-for place (usually at around the time it is being levelled to make way for human activity). Others were only ‘created’ as species after they were gone.  So its not really an exact science, but really neither is speciation, which is looking increasingly like an Anthropocene construction.

But what is not in doubt is that many, many types of animals are disappearing and that everywhere in the world the trend is for a reduction in variety and overall number of non-domestic animals. We are living in an age of mass extinction, which human activity is ultimately responsible for. For most of our existence as humans we acknowledged our kinship with other creatures, and it is only in the transformations to capitalism that philosophy and science have created these divisions (and which belatedly both are now striving to close).

To see extinction as a hyperobject is to see it extending, largely unnoticed, into numerous dimensions of existence. Some of these are exemplified in the specific losses noticed by Jansen and Bird Rose – the destabilisation of ecosystems (one wonders what is happening to Bramble Cay without its main herbivore, for example) and the loss of cultural resources (for example the oft-quoted Lost Words which have vanished from the everyday vocabulary of our children), and others are there buried in our psyche. We watch wildlife documentaries, are shamed or activated by images of turtles with plastic around their necks , and maybe are beginning to perceive morality in terms of reducing our environmental impact (or reacting against those perceptions in aggressive, nationalistic justifications of our privilege).

Around us a shadow army of pets, parasites and animal crops provide us with a distorted connection to that legacy. We are becoming used to finding our friends grieving their pets, upset by the truth of food production, or shocked by the running over of roadkill. Grief is, after all, grief, and I suspect that the central part of it is the shock of how fragile life is. Our life.

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After, or at least on Melomys Extinction Day  (February 18).  The NMS has now promised to update the exhibit. We’ll see.

After some correspondence and a brief protest action the NMS offered me a dialogue about how they commemorate extinction as part of climate change. Can I ask them to do it absurdly? I’d like there to be a way in which connections disappear, and the visitor is left increasingly in a void. Ideally this might be subtle, but colour and noise or smell would disappear. Or there is a game where it  becomes a choice of what to save, but the choice has unintended consequences. Or they could suddenly find that all the exhibits in the lower level are under three feet of water.

I realise now that I am going to have to end the article. And in doing so I will feel the loss of the Bramble Cay Melomys, and the rich connections I’ve had from virtually knowing them. And I will also remember the list of the other known, unknown animals which I’ve learnt about after their end. And think about the unknown, unknown animals I haven’t learnt about. Yet, or more probably, at all. And  now I see the image of Sadness from the film Inside Out, who I think should be there to meet us at the exit of the new exhibit. I’m with her now.

*  What escapes the eye when species go extinct is a much more insidious extinction – that of ecological interactions.


Ewan Davidson lives in East Lothian. His blog is River of Things.

Hallowed Ground – by Mother Eagle

For the last 5 years I have been in the habit of producing a collection of work each year according to my own brief. Usually this is an idea that forms within the completion of the previous year and then I have to fight with myself to abandon that one and get on with the new.

And so it was as last year’s Remembrance Day for Lost Species exhibition was being hung that I had begun my Hallowed Ground project. This idea hadn’t come to me fully formed and I’d had to do a lot of casting around for the inspiration to sort of glue together. Part of my process was to research ways that other cultures mark their grief, their death customs. This had led me to discover the practice of Sky Burial and Air Sacrifice.

Both practices are types of excarnation, whereby the corpse is placed outside to be exposed to the elements and scavenging animals. In the Mongolian practice of air sacrifice, I discovered the specific ritual of outlining the body with stones, and when the body has completely degenerated back into the natural world, the space within the stones has become a sacred space.

I found this very moving. Considering this concept and applying it to the world’s most critically endangered species made me think about how their habitats have become so rarefied and equally as threatened as to require reverence. The idea of a negative space as an artistic device representing an extremely special, precious and rare place.

I began to research animals on the IUCN Red List that are classified as Critically Endangered but that also have severely threatened habitats. My intention was to create a representation of their home that was both faithful and fantastical. A grave and an afterlife. A place that draws the viewer in to explore, hopefully to delight, and then to ask questions to discover the story of this rare and absent friend.

Rio Pescado Stubfoot Toad 

The Rio Pescado Stubfoot toad is so critically endangered that it may already be extinct. It lives in a tiny scrap of Ecuadorian lowland forest that is dwindling away, and lives nowhere else. Indeed, it’s loss of habitat due to agriculture, logging and pollution is the main threat to its existence. One third of all frogs and toads are on the verge of extinction, suffering an 80% loss in the last 3 decades.

Sawfish 

The large tooth sawfish is one of the rarest fish in the world, and a living dinosaur, existing for 60 million years at least. Degradation of their preferred habitat of shallow coastal estuaries has removed them from 95% of their historical range. The sawfish has suffered a population decline of 80% since the ‘60s.

Pygmy Three-Toed Sloth 

The Pygmy three-toed sloth is found only in a tiny area of red mangrove forest on Isla Escudo de Veraguas, Panama. Despite being an uninhabited island and designated a protected landscape, a number of domestic and international efforts have been mounted to develop tourism on the island. In addition, their mangrove habitat is also threatened, with one in six species facing extinction.

Seychelles Sheath-Tailed Bat 

One of the world’s rarest mammals, only found on the Seychelles islands of Silhouette and Mahe, there are estimated only 30-100 individuals remaining. Roosting in granite boulder caves, an introduced invasive species of vine block the cave entrances and reduce insect availability, already in decline due to pesticide use.

Geometric Tortoise 

A very small and beautiful tortoise only found in the Cape Floral Kingdom of South Africa. In fact, this is the only species in this series classed as Endangered (not Critically), however destruction of more than 90% of its habitat, an extraordinarily botanically diverse area, itself classed critically endangered as well as ‘100% irreplaceable’, earned its place.

Gooty Tarantula 

This otherworldly electric blue arachnid only exists in the dry deciduous forest of Andhra Pradesh, India. Its habitat is rapidly degrading due to logging and firewood harvesting. Population size is unknown but the combination of a tiny natural range and pressure from illegal pet trade paints a sad picture.

 

Kate Tume is an embroidery artist from Brighton, East Sussex who first learned her craft at her mother’s knee. She attended the Surrey Institute of Art and Design as a Fashion and Illustration student, but is largely self-taught in hand-embroidery techniques. Kate’s work is influenced by folklore, mythology, burial customs and the old Gods. She is currently working on projects around our disappearing natural world, and lost species.

 

I Felt Despair About Climate Change Until a Brush With Death Changed My Mind – by ALISON SPODEK KEIMOWITZ

This piece is an extract from an article published at Slate. You can read the full text here.

I was dying. Not just in the way that we’re all inching inevitably toward our own deaths each moment; I was hurtling toward a specific death with a name, a shape, and a timeline. I was 37 years old and I was dying of leukemia.

I was lying in a hospital bed, so ill that diagnosis, when someone finally named the doom I had been feeling in my body for months, was a relief. At least the sense of vague terror and impending catastrophe I had been feeling had a name. A cure, in the shape of a stem cell transplant, was possible, but it required the complete and utter dissolution of myself, dangling my broken body over the edge of the very cliff a cure is meant to postpone.

It wasn’t just my body that dissolved in those weeks: My mind and soul were also broken apart, fragmented, and brought to the edge of ruin. In medical terms, I became depressed, hallucinatory, and delusional. And in medical terms, the team of doctors really didn’t have jack-shit to prescribe me except for patience.

I was visited by a mindfulness practitioner during this time, but I was too far gone for prolonged mindfulness practice, unable to bring myself to a set of exercises that had sustained me prior to illness. There was simply no self to bring. Instead my visitor asked me to count to four, in line with my breath. And then to do it again. And to come back to this simple counting whenever I needed it. I could get to four, and then four again. I could get through my pain, my nausea, my misery, for the count of four breaths. And then I could ask myself to do it again.

This practice didn’t make me feel better. I was still miserable and broken and absent. But it gave me the space to sit with that misery, call it by its name, and know its shape. That was valuable, just as the name and shape of the leukemia diagnosis had been valuable some months before.

Three months after my stem cell transplant, I returned back to my home, my husband and children, my life. One year later I returned to work as a professor of chemistry and environmental studies, teaching the same material I had taught before my illness. Some of it was banal: procedures for balancing chemical reactions, reassuring in their straightforward clarity. But some of it took on a new emotional significance—specifically, teaching about climate change, biodiversity, and extinction.

This planet is dying. Not just in the way that life on Earth is always, inevitably beginning and ending, that species are rising and falling, that extinction and evolution occur, and that temperature and sea levels cycle dramatically and irregularly. In the 21st century, Earth is hurtling toward a specific death with a shape, a name, and a timeline. It is dying of global warming, climate change, extinction, biological annihilation, and ocean acidification. The exact names and the exact timing is debated, but the overall trajectory of life on Earth is well-understood: We are in the midst of Earth’s sixth mass extinction, and the odds of human civilization reaching the 22nd century are often estimated at no better than 50/50.

You can continue reading this piece at Slate.

By Alison Spodek Keimowitz

Global Earth Exchange – June 16th 2018

“We can’t wait any longer to love the places we’re losing!”

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:

  1. Go, alone or with friends, to a wounded place.
  2. Sit awhile and share your stories about what the place means to you.
  3. Get to know the place as it is now.
  4. Share what you discovered.
  5. Make a simple gift of beauty—often a bird made of materials the place itself provides.
  6. Take photos of the place, your group, your gift.
  7. Send Rad Joy a photo and a short description of what happened for their website.

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?

 

A New Mourning: Remembrance Day for Lost Species – by P.K. Read

In this modern age of nature disconnect, can a ritual lamenting extinct animals and lost habitats help people cope with environmental devastation?

This article is reproduced with the author’s permission from Undark magazine, where it was published in April 2018

AN OVERSIZED PAPER MÂCHÉ sunflower rose like a pale moon against the dusk of a central Brighton park. Amid the shivering group of 30 people on the chilly south coast of England, a funereal gong sounded. Several faces were hidden behind self-made bat masks in black and pink. Some wore construction paper bat ears. One woman sported a set of massive fine-mesh bee spectacles like cartoon aviator goggles. They were all there to participate in a mourning ceremony for the Remembrance Day for Lost Species (RDLS).

I stood among them, maskless and foot-cold, unable to decide whether this was wonderful or absurd. In the grand scheme of conservation, what difference could a ritual for pollinators held in a narrow park between two busy Brighton streets make?

According to a 2016 United Nations-sponsored study, 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species (bees and butterflies) and 16 percent of vertebrate pollinators (bats and birds) are currently threatened with extinction. As pollinators are increasingly endangered due to habitat loss and pesticides, so too are the plants they pollinate — including an estimated one-third of global food crops that rely on insect pollination.

One of the unspoken aspects of extinction is that, with the exception of a few iconic animals (the passenger pigeon, the dodo), knowledge of an extinct animal all but vanishes once the species is gone. The ecosystems in which the animal or plant played its own role will alter, adapt, and depending on which species are lost, survive in one form or another. Barring dedicated research, human knowledge of that animal vanishes because often, our understanding of that species’ place in its system is nascent or non-existent when the animal goes extinct.

When Persephone Pearl, the artist at the center of the group in Brighton, viewed a taxidermic thylacine in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery in 2010, she was deeply moved, first to tears, and then to action. The thylacine, a unique carnivorous marsupial that went extinct mainly due to hunting in Tasmania some 80 years ago, became the inspiration for a ritual that would honor the passage of creatures most people had never heard of. It’s since become something of a mascot for RDLS, which has been held annually since 2011.

RDLS is part of a growing movement that uses art and performance to confront the loss of animals and places to human development. This includes honoring endlings, a sweet word for the last survivors of species doomed to die. What I was watching, it turns out, was performance art, grieving, mourning, and community building, all wrapped into one.

Experiencing sadness at personal loss is as easy as falling down. But how do we mourn a bee or a butterfly, a bat or a bird? Talking about habitat loss is nothing new. Henry David Thoreau wasn’t just complaining about the perils of industriousness for the soul when he wrote about “shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time.” Still, this particular kind of dramatization — dubbed ‘eco-grief’ — was something new for me. RDLS and groups like it are essentially creating outlets for coping with this sadness. The problem with denying death’s stealthy proximity is that, when it comes, we find ourselves unrehearsed.

The rituals of most religions are, by definition, for and about humanity. What we are missing is a conscious preparation for death’s possibility — not necessarily ours, but that of Earth’s other species. This is where artists can step in.

“Most of those heavily involved in RDLS have at least a partial creative background,” says Matthew Stanfield, a relative newcomer who has been closely involved with the Remembrance initiative since 2016. “Artistry has been and continues to be a big part of the initiative.” RDLS is a loose collective that invites anyone to participate; there are no blueprints other than a mutual desire for expression.

Pearl, with bright orange socks and a thick hat that did nothing to disguise her emotional focus, kept her hand on the giant sunflower as if it were a talking stick. Eyes closed, she explained the paper flower and its embellishment of dead flowers was a symbol of pollinators, of the crops that are grown with pesticides that affect pollinators; it was a stand-in for both the natural world and the world of agriculture.

Stanfield, a young man with barely tamed hair and dignified manner, had a prepared statement of the rising necessity of rituals for mourning out of respect for the animal “ghosts of our fellow travelers.” It was a good speech, half improvised and all the more heartfelt for it.

Everyone paused and regarded the sunflower, which was due to be burnt as a pollinator pyre. It was torn and bent in a couple of places from being dinged against lampposts during our procession from the gallery to the park. An older man, greying beard bundled against the cold in a large scarf, exchanged a glance with Pearl and embarked on a more upbeat statement of what can be done, action that can be taken to support and protect pollinators in the U.K.

Before he got more than a couple of sentences in, Pearl stopped him. “I’m sorry, wait. I’m just not ready to move on yet. I’m not in the place for solutions yet. I’m too pissed off.”

She launched into a bitter litany of complaint. She’s as pissed off as someone might be who knew each bee personally, and watched them crumple and die. Her voice shook and she squeezed the tip of a sunflower petal to a sharp paper dart.

This RDLS gathering reminded me of my 1960s California hippie childhood, replete with countless self-fashioned ceremonies in all their messy, well-intentioned glory.

At this point, people pushed up their pink and black bat masks or wore them like scarves. The bumblebee goggles were removed. The procession through the streets had been a cheerful, bumpy rollick, but now the real face of grief and anger behind the absurdist theater was revealed.

One thing I’ve learned is that real spectacle starts where tamed emotion ends. At the pollinator procession, people aired their grievances, and all of the complaints began with anger. Isn’t anger at an original insult, at a profound loss, the very cornerstone of grief?

That might be why, in spite of being there as an observer, I heard my own voice rising with those around the sunflower in Brighton, lamenting a recent loss of my own: an old cherry grove lost to suburban development where I live in rural France, and the numerous birds’ nests in the unfinished house walls that had been smashed one day in early spring.

I only realized how furious I still was while standing there in Brighton. Angry at the impatient developers for not waiting a couple of weeks until the fledglings had flown, angry at the loss of the orchard, angry that I had fed groups of birds through several winters only to have them killed for the expediency of a construction schedule, angry at myself for not doing anything about it. There was a murmur of sad disgust as I finished my story, a moment of shared silence while I pictured the grove in its former glory, rich with birdsong, thick with bees, heavy with summer cherries. Then it was someone else’s turn.

When I was a kid in Golden Gate Park, I used to lie on the lawn, facing the sky, and feel myself as a part of the grass and trees, the park, the life all around me. There was no inkling then that any of it could ever disappear, or that I would be ill-equipped to confront the empty spaces that awaited.

Stanfield told me that learning about endangerment and species loss is how he got involved in the natural world in the first place. In this modern age of nature disconnect, where fewer and fewer people experience nature in a direct way, I suspect he’s not alone. Like Persephone Pearl and many others, Stanfield felt a fascination with certain extinct animals such as the thylacine.

The endearing strangeness of the thylacine draws people in with the seduction of a bygone era, like a crush on a long-dead movie star. Online conversations are replete with shared images and information, affectionate mash notes, and insider tidbits. What prods people into outrage is the injustice and recklessness of thylacine history, the government-sponsored bounty hunting and extirpation of a unique creature. This anger often piques an interest in species that are undergoing the extinction process today, or which have recently become extinct.

Most of the people I spoke with while discussing RDLS are open about experiencing depression. Creating rituals for dead species would seem to be the last thing that would alleviate the blues. But if the colossus of human impact on the environment weighs heavily on their minds and hearts, they say work with RDLS offers comfort.

A 2014 study by researchers Michael I. Norton and Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School on the value of mourning rituals in times of bereavement looked into the role that rituals played in building resilience when dealing with feelings of loss. A key discovery was that ritual — any ritual, private or public, traditional or personal — helped people cope with misfortune, as long as it was actually practiced. From burning the photos of a broken relationship to continuing the activities shared with a deceased spouse, those experiencing loss felt better by processing their grief. If tears and wishes can offer respite from sadness, it’s action that gives us control over grief.

Water, earth, and fire are the ritual standbys of humans, and at the pollinator procession, it was time for fire. The brisk wind (a fourth reliable element of ritual) had risen, so the large paper sunflower was broken into pieces that could be burned in a small fire pit rather than go up in a larger conflagration. The flower was big and took forever to burn down, the air was frigid, and people started to drift off with the ashes into the dark of night. That’s the problem with homemade rituals. It’s hard to tell when they end.

Maybe it was the harsh wind or the smoke from the burning sunflower effigy, but I shed a few tears among strangers in Brighton. Walking alone toward the English Channel afterwards, I was surprised to find that I had actually released some of my anger about the birds that had visited my garden annually, and now were gone.

Grieving is never going to get easier, but it can be shaped. It’s no surprise that the RDLS ceremony was a loose wobble of lament, humor, and ashes. It’s a new approach to a new phenomenon. Of course we should all be doing what we can to prevent habitat loss, to prevent extinction where we can, in whatever way we can. The extinction wave right now, unchecked by immediate human action on a vast scale, will affect and afflict everyone in unpredictable ways.

Pretend it’s not happening or acknowledge that it is, the wave is already crashing, and the horizons are changing. It’s time to figure out what kind of ritual raft will keep us afloat.


P.K. Read is a freelance writer and translator with an interdisciplinary background in history and environmental strategy. Her work has appeared in HuffPost, Litro, The Feminist Wire, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She blogs at champagnewhisky.com.

A Life Cairn for Mauritius

The creation of the first Life Cairn memorial in Mauritius for the Dodo: policemen came in uniform, the two largest environmental groups on the Island were present, mixed with locals, school children and scouts. The youngest and the oldest laid their first stones. The Shankha was blown and we gathered, broken hearted, to lay the memorial for the Dodo and for all the iconic species of Mauritius driven to man-made extinctions.

Thank you especially the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, Eco-Sud Lagon Bleu and Pepper and Mas from Yaima for contributing your beautiful song “the Sacred.” Here is a clip to get a feeling of this extraordinary event.

All life to carry one life, one life to carry all life.

By Andreas Kornevall, Earth Restoration Service

Bestiary – by Joanna Macy

Bronx Zoo, Alexis Rockman, 2012-13

Short-tailed albatross

Whooping crane

Gray wolf

Woodland caribou

Hawksbill sea turtle

Rhinoceros

 

The list of endangered species keeps growing longer every year.  With too many names to hold in our mind, how do we honor the passing of life?  What funerals or farewells are appropriate?

 

Reed warbler

Swallowtail butterfly

Bighorn sheep

Indian python

Howler monkey

Sperm whale

Blue whale

 

Dive me deep, brother whale, in this time we have left. Deep in our mother ocean where I once swam, gilled and finned. The salt from those early seas still runs in my tears. Tears aren’t enough anymore. Give me a song, a song for a sadness too vast for my heart, for a rage too wild for my throat.

 

Giant sable antelope

Wyoming toad

Grizzly bear

Brown bear

Bactrian camel

Nile crocodile

Chinese alligator

 

Ooze me, alligator, in the mud whence I came. Belly me slow in the rich primordial soup, cradle of our molecules. Let me wallow again, before we drain your swamp and pave it over.

 

Gray bat

Ocelot

Pocket mouse

Sockeye salmon

Tasmanian kangaroo

Hawaiian goose

Audouin’s seagull

 

Quick, lift off. Sweep me high over the coast and out, farther out.  Don’t land here. Oilspills coat the beach, rocks, sea. I cannot spread my wings glued with tar.  Fly me from what we have done, fly me far.

 

Golden parakeet

West African ostrich

Florida panther

Galapagos penguin

Imperial pheasant

Snow leopard

Mexican prairie dog

 

Hide me in a hedgerow, badger. Can’t you find one? Dig me a tunnel through leaf-mold and roots, under the trees that once defined our fields. My heart is bulldozed and plowed over.  Burrow me a labyrinth deeper than longing.

 

Thick-billed parrot

San Francisco garter snake

Desert bandicoot

Molokai thrush

California condor

Lotus blue butterfly

 

Crawl me out of here, caterpillar. Spin me a cocoon. Wind me to sleep in a shroud of silk, where in patience my bones will dissolve. I’ll wait as long as all creation if only it will come again — and I take wing.

 

Atlantic ridley turtle

Coho salmon

Helmeted hornbill

Marine otter

Humpback whale

Steller sea-lion

Monk seal

 

Swim me out beyond the ice floes, mama. Where are you? Boots squeeze my ribs, clubs drum my fur, the white world goes black with the taste of my blood.

 

Gibbon

Sand gazelle

Swamp deer

Musk deer

Cheetah

Chinchilla

Asian elephant

African elephant

 

Sway me slowly through the jungle. There still must be jungle somewhere, my heart drips with green secrets. Hose me down by the waterhole; there is buckshot in my hide. Tell me old stories while you can remember.

 

Desert tortoise

Crested ibis

Hook-billed kite

Mountain zebra

Mexican bobcat

Andrew’s frigatebird

 

In the time when his world, like ours, was ending, Noah had a list of the animals, too. We picture him standing by the gangplank, calling their names, checking them off on his scroll. Now we also are checking them off.

 

Ivory-billed woodpecker

Indus river dolphin

West Indian manatee

Wood stork

 

We reenact Noah’s ancient drama, but in reverse, like a film running backwards, the animals exiting.

 

Ferret

Gorilla

Jaguar

Wolf

 

Your tracks are growing fainter. Wait. Wait. This is a hard time.  Don’t leave us alone in a world we have wrecked.

Responding to Loss in Nature – by Daniel Hudon

How do we as citizens and writers respond to loss in the natural world? Since I began to write my book, Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals (now available), several years ago, loss in nature has been frequently on my mind. I gave my first ever poetry workshop on this theme at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival last weekend, and judging by how early the session filled up (soon after the schedule was announced, back in April), people are hungry to engage with the topic.

What have we lost? I asked the participants at the beginning of the session. They answered:

  • fireflies
  • honeybees
  • the flight of the monarch
  • coral reefs
  • clean water
  • the night sky
  • the sounds of nature

and more.

A formidable list, which I supplemented with elephants, tigers, rhinos, pangolins, sharks, orang utans, bluefin tuna, songbirds, amphibians, mangroves, wetlands, neighbourhood trees, sea grass beds, glaciers, mountain tops, and diversity in nature (see the work of Bernard Krause).

Our task as writers is to engage with challenging issues and I would love to see poets take on loss in nature more frequently. Whether to grieve and lament, honour and eulogise, forewarn and remind (not to mention rant and rave!), our responses in poetry can help others process their own feelings regarding environmental change. Look at Mary Oliver’s poem, Lead . After the two inciting incidents (the loons dying over the winter and the friend’s description of one in its death throes) she folds in all the things she loves about loons – the things we all love, including its wild and uncanny call. Her response is our inspiration, a heartbreak that reminds us not to withdraw but to engage.  “Here is a story/ to break your heart”  she begins. And she ends the poem with:

I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

Without this frame, the poem would be incomplete.

Historically, loons nested in Massachusetts but were extirpated in the late 19th century. In 1975, a pair of loons was discovered nesting at Quabbin Reservoir. Today, there are approximately 32 nesting pairs of loons on 14 different lakes, ponds and reservoirs in the Commonwealth. Loons are listed on the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act list as a Species of Special Concern. In general they require 1000 acres of water per nesting pair, islands for nesting and limited human disturbance, which makes the Quabbin Reservoir ideal.

However, loons are being poisoned by ingesting lead fishing gear – hence the title of Mary Oliver’s poem – this is the leading cause of mortality of loons in New England. They do this either by eating the minnows used as bait, then swallowing the hook, line, and sinker or by scooping lead sinkers off the bottom when they ingest small pebbles. Lead sinkers and lead weights less than one ounce are now banned in all inland lakes in Massachusetts in an attempt to curb the problem.

We had a lively discussion about the poem and it seems I could have based my entire session on it. But we also looked at a handful of other poems, chosen from Earth Shattering , a terrific anthology of ecopoems edited by Neil Astley, The Dire Elegies: 59 Poets on Endangered Species of North America, the Amsterdam QuarterlyThe Lost Species Day website and Canary: A Literary Journal of the Environmental Crisis.

While journalists and scientists have to tell stories and present evidence when they write about loss in nature, poets have an advantage in being able to draw from seemingly unrelated events – or from their own experience — in order to evoke particular feelings.

One of the shortest poems we looked at was Condor from The Dire Elegies, by Massachusetts poet Susan Edwards Richmond:

When there is no sky left                                                       
big enough                                                                                
to hold that bird,                                                                    
 let it die.                                                                                                                                                                                          

Then dig my grave close by. 

So terse, and yet so evocative at the same time. I love the prophetic voice she adopts in the first section of the poem. My hunch is that she took a simple detail like the ability of condors to soar, a detail that she loved, and turned it inside out to make it sound fresh and authoritative. Her real response follows in the last line  Then dig my grave close by. As one of the workshop participants said, the success of the condor is our success, and its failure, should that occur, will be our failure too.

In a writing exercise, we tried to get at the prophetic voice she uses in the first section, but we didn’t have time to share responses. Still, I feel we accomplished a lot in that one hour frame. My blurb on the festival website promised, “By challenging ourselves to engage important environmental problems, you’ll come away both with new material and with renewed connection to the natural world.” Ambitious, to be sure. But if only it were that easy to connect with nature! Nevertheless, given the engagement and energy of the participants and the response to the theme, I’m looking forward to doing more such workshops soon.

Daniel Hudon is an author of short fiction, nonfiction and poetry. He is also an educator, working as a lecturer in astronomy, physics, maths, and writing at colleges in the Boston area. Readers can follow his recent writing on the topics of species reduction, ecology, and environmental literature, at his website. His book about the biodiversity crisis, Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader, is now available for pre-order here: http://penandanvil.com/brief-eulogies/ 

Connect with him on Twitter @daniel_hudon.

Broken open – by Persephone Pearl

Broken open

wrung out

limp

eyes tiny swollen things

limbs heavy and immobile

yet I want to stay like this

to lie by the embers while the cold wind whips me

press my face against stones while my tears roll through the gaps between them

shout into blackness and feel the wind push my cries back into my throat

fall down and pummel the ground

my heart so full that it has cracked wide open like a burnt rock from the heart of the pyre

 


Last night in Brighton we held a funeral for the thylacine, extinct since 1936. The meeting point was at ONCA, where we gave people whiskers and Lost Species Day stickers when they arrived. Glitter, fur, black garb, leopard print, tails, ears: the gallery was full of people curious, open, ready for this, tangibly in need of this kind of space.

I preface the procession with a disclaimer/ celebration:

This is an experiment, there are no rules, we are inventing it all together because we need to – 

Then we press pieces of paper with the names of lost species into their hands and pockets, and off we all go, carrying an effigy of Benjamin, the last thylacine. We only made a head and a tail, and they are connected by a great length of white sheet that many people hold and drape over their shoulders. We’re a motley crew: Ellie at the front in her thylacine mask made from an old teddy bear, tolling the Bell for Lost Species as she goes; Gary with his dark glasses and his tambourine like a Krishna devotee; Alex the bewhiskered numb-fingered ukulele player; people with masks with lanterns; my son Felix running around like a paparazzo with a borrowed GoPro. People smile as we pass by, or shake their heads and mutter “bloody humans” when they hear that it’s Remembrance Day for Lost Species.

Wake up, shouts Andreas as the bell tolls. It’s time to wake up!

Is this alright, I am thinking. Is this enough? I want this to be enough. I need it to be enough for the people who have come. Yet what could ever be enough?

Through the Pavilion Gardens – for a moment we nearly end up on the temporary ice rink – then down onto the ink dark beach, crunching over pebbles all the way to the foreshore with this strange snaking hodgepodge creation. It stinks of fish down here but instinctively I want that – to perceive, viscerally, the processes of life and death.

The thylacine-snake is laid out in a circle with head and tail meeting in the middle – a great wonky ouroboros – and we gather shufflingly around it. Matt steps into the centre and tells the story of the thylacine – its uniqueness, its niche, its scapegoating, persecution and extermination.

Then, people speak from the edges of the circle of the things they wish to remember tonight:

I want to remember the wolves and bears of this land shot to extinction

I want to remember the boreal forests of Canada given way to tar sands

I want to remember the great forests of Germany now all but gone

I want to remember the red gazelle, though I never knew of its existence till now

I want to remember Toughie and the lost amphibians

Down, I am sinking down, dropping so far, held by the voice of the sea and this fragile circle of vulnerability

I want to remember the lost forest people of Brazil and Panama

I want to remember Berta Caceres the murdered Honduran indigenous environmental activist

I want to remember the unborn Native American children poisoned by the persistent organic pollutants in the Great Lakes

I want to remember the murdered Thai environmental protector who inspired so many people

Further, let me drop further down –  I am ready for the abyss, I feel the sides rushing past me as I fly – but are others frightened? Is this too much? How much can we bear to look at? 

I hold in my thoughts the protectors at Standing Rock

I hold in my thoughts the bees and the pollinators

I hold in my thoughts the protesters defending the woods of Leith Hill from oil exploration

I hold in my thoughts the web of life that is sustained by the soil and I commit to restoring the soil

I give thanks for the worms

I give thanks for the return of the beavers

I give thanks for the wasps and their great work

I give thanks to all the people who give their lives in service to the earth that they love

I could stay here forever.

And then Ellie is saying, Come on then, let’s burn it, and I am wondering, Is it too much, are people too cold, is it too difficult? And we are stumbling about, placing offerings into the mouth of the thylacine, while Andreas plays Amazing Grace on his flute. Lu-Lu in the lemur hat is lighting the paper and up goes Benjamin, a sudden exquisite blast of brilliance in the dark. Just like that.

I sit by the fire, almost touching it; my friend Flor and I tend the flames and I watch every moment. I must stay until the very end, just as I had to at my mother’s funeral when the gravediggers came with their little digger and pushed the heavy clay over her coffin. The tears come now. All I can do is cry, and hold onto strangers.

My comrade Andreas takes one of my tears and puts it into the fire. He says the earth’s song is out of tune and the tree of life is withered. We need to howl and weep, for how else can we water the withered tree or bring music back into the voice of the earth? He recites a poem by Antonio Machado, taught to us by our friend the brilliant Martin Shaw:

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odour of jasmine.

‘In return for the odour of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odour of your roses.’

‘I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.’

‘Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.’

the wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:
‘What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?’

Remembrance Day for Lost Species – ONCA @LostSpeciesDay from hyperoculus on Vimeo.