At home I am making an origami boat out of paper. It is covered in scrim, dried teabag papers and used coffee filter papers and adorned with natural materials – moss, lichen, bark, sheep’s wool. It ‘s to be a “spirit boat” for a ritual to mourn the many species which have been lost or are at risk of going extinct.
In the shamanistic tradition of Arctic Europe, spirit boats were made to journey to other realms of reality or to carry the souls of the departed on to the next world. I am making several spirit boats each with a different theme. I have sewn the found bones of a rabbit on to the sides of one boat and used a rabbit skull as a figurehead. This boat is to commemorate extinct mammals and will carry the names of those that have recently disappeared – the Javan Tiger, the Quagga, the Pyrenean Ibex…
On another boat I’ve attached feathers, twigs and eggshells; this one is for the extinct birds and it too carries names of recently extinct species – the Passenger Pigeon, the Great Auk, the Kangaroo Island Emu, the Laughing Owl, the Crested Shelduck, Mariana Mallard…
A third boat carries the names of recently extinct insects and other invertebrates – the Levuana Moth, the Cascade Funnel-Web Spider, the Polynesian Tree Snail, the Pearly Mussel. It shall have paper wings.
Yet another will be for plants and forests.
As habitat destruction continues with climate change, urbanisation, changes in agricultural practice and other wanton human practices, habitats and species of all kinds around the world are dwindling and disappearing faster than ever.
On 30th November, Remembrance Day for Lost Species, I shall take my spirit boats to a favourite stretch of the River Adur in Sussex where lines of pollarded willows stand on the dishevelled floodplain. There the water is still like glass, rippled only by passing swans. A dead tree stands sentry-like, its contorted limbs reflected in the mirror waters below. As the sun sets I shall lower my boats into the water, each lit up by a tea light and as dusk settles they shall drift off with the gentle current as a last farewell.
This article on Remembrance Day for Lost Species is reproduced from the Guardian with the permission of the author Jeremy Hance.
In early 2010, artist, activist and mother, Persephone Pearl, headed to the Bristol Museum. Like many concerned about the fate of the planet, she was in despair over the failed climate talks in Copenhagen that winter. She sat on a bench and looked at a stuffed animal behind glass: a thylacine. Before then, she’d never heard of the marsupial carnivore that went extinct in 1936.
“Here was this beautiful mysterious lost creature locked in a glass case,” she said. “It struck me suddenly as unbearably undignified. And I had this sudden vision of smashing the glass, lifting the body out, carrying the thylacine out into the fields, stroking its body, speaking to it, washing it with my tears, and burying it by a river so that it could return to the earth.”
Pearl felt grief, deep grief, over the loss of a creature she’d never once seen in life, a species that had been shot to extinction because European settlers had deemed it vermin. Yet, how do we grieve for extinct species when there are no set rituals, no extinction funerals, no catharsis for the pain caused by a loss that in many ways is simply beyond human comprehension? We have been obliterating species for over ten thousand years – beginning with the megafauna of the Pleistocene like woolly rhinos, short-faced bears and giant sloths – yet we have no way of mourning them.
Still, Pearl didn’t push the grief under or ignore it. Instead, she sought to share it. In 2011 Pearl, who is the co-director of the arts group, ONCA, and the theatre group Feral in Brighton, helped organise the first ever Remembrance Day for Lost Species. Held every November 30th, it’s since become a day for activists, artists and mourners to find creative ways to share their grief for extinct species – and reinvigorate their love for the natural world.
“We hope the Remembrance events will function as funerals for humans do,” Rachel Porter, a co-founder of Remembrance Day for Lost Species and a movement therapist, said. “Such rituals are ancient, embedded within us. We are just placing this common ritual into an unfamiliar context.”
Most of these events are not large – they are not thousands of people marching on government buildings – but more like the number of people who would attend a funeral for a loved one. They are communal and largely intimate events, full of things you might expect and others you might not: such as burning pyres, chanting, poetry reading, bell tolling and processionals.
But there are no rules to the Remembrance Day for Lost Species and anyone can start a public event or hold a private ceremony. This year, they are going on all over the world, including a dinner for the dodo in London, a poetry reading in Berlin, and a remembrance ritual for the thylacine outside of Brisbane, Australia.
Graphic designer and art therapist Julia Peddie, who is hosting the thylacine ritual in Australia this year, said she remembers as a child first learning about how humans wiped out the dodo – and how the knowledge crushed her.
“I can only imagine how children feel now, witnessing such enormous losses, and wonder if they are desensitising in order to cope,” she said. “Remembrance Day for Lost Species provides an opportunity for children and adults to connect with their grief, and in doing so, reclaim a part of themselves.”
War memorial to the passenger pigeon by Camilla Schofield
The vitality of grief
But let’s be honest, many of us probably find the idea of attending a funeral or walking in a processional for a vanished species a little foolish. It may even make us feel something more profound: vulnerable. But Pearl said this is only to be expected.
“If grieving for a lost person is difficult, grieving for ecosystems and species is entirely novel and challenging.”
She said that as a global society we have lost the knowledge of how to grieve even for our closest loved ones, quoting teacher and author Stephen Jenkinson who writes that our society is “death phobic and grief illiterate.”
“We struggle to talk about death and dying,” Pearl said. “It is seen as a terrible thing, to be avoided at all costs. We are afraid of upsetting people, and of awkward conversations.”
But at what cost? According to Porter, our inability to show grief – or even allow ourselves to feel it – may lead to mental illness.
“The grief might become misplaced if it’s not recognised and misguided grief could be destructive, it could manifest as depression or anxiety.”
In contrast, displaying grief can result in catharsis. In an emotional process first described by Aristotle over 2,000 years ago, pent up, intense feelings are allowed safe release through ritual. Afterwards, mourners are able to move forward, maybe even with more wisdom than before.
“Actual grief is hardly practiced today,” Megan Hollingsworth, a poet and founder of the collaborative art project ex·tinc·tion wit·ness, said. “If it were, children would neither be murdered in war nor would they go hungry and homeless in the streets of the world’s ‘wealthiest’ nations. Water would be protected. The desires of ‘grown’ men and women would not ever trump the needs of any single child, let alone whole communities.”
Hollingsworth, also one of the founders of the Remembrance Day for Lost Species, will be holding a bell tolling ceremony in Montana on the 30th.
Tear your hair for the extinct
But grief doesn’t occur only when we lose loved ones. Ask anyone who has seen a local forest they once played in as a child demolished for another cookie-cutter development or has watched as fewer bees and butterflies show up in their garden each summer. Or ask any conservationist who has to witness year-after-year as the species they work with slowly vanish, ask any marine biologist about coral reefs or any Arctic biologist about sea ice. Grief can extend far beyond our human parochialism.
“We realised that there was a hunger for a way of grieving ecological loss through ritual,” said Porter who in 2011 directed a Funeral for Lost Species through her group, Feral Theatre. This was an outdoor theatrical performance in a churchyard that included various traditional forms of mourning and tilted between somber and whimsical.
Porter believes many people are simply “stuck in a kind of denial” when it comes to extinction, biodiversity loss and environmental crises.
“If we face it honestly and fully we have to face our own collective shadow, our out-of-control destructive urges and acts. These are terrible, terrifying things to face alone,” she said.
Part of this denial is also due to our growing disconnect from nature.
“Many humans now solely interact with domesticated animals and plants. Some have no experience whatsoever of intact forest, field, and aquatic community. The total loss of other community members, their families, and life affirming ways then is an utterly distant abstraction,” Hollingsworth said. “Yet in grief, as in love, humans are wired for intimacy. “
According to the founders of the Remembrance Day for Lost Species, grieving in a ritualised ceremony removes our isolation from other mourners – we are after all grieving communally – and cuts through the denial.
“For those in denial bearing witness to acts of remembrance and honouring reminds them non-aggressively of something that they are pushing away. That is why making these rituals public is so very important,” Porter said.
In the end such rituals may help people transform their perfectly understandable anger – which is “connected to the disregard and destruction of the natural world,” according to Porter – into something ultimately productive.
Providing a real outlet for grief could help people finally take action and change the world for the better.
“Potentially, in our sadness, we can vow not to continue to let it happen, and acknowledge the role we humans are playing in causing the extinctions,” Peddie said. “Grief can provide a pathway for taking responsibility, and making a commitment to take action.”
Such rituals also allow us to view extinction in a novel way. So much of the information we receive about extinctions and biodiversity decline today comes from science, not from personal experience in the wild. And while science is necessary, it is often represented in wonky papers or press release that are bloodless, cold, even inhuman – a recitation of facts rather than a proper elegy for the lost.
But many probably fear that allowing themselves to feel the grief – really feel it – will result in a personal collapse. Hollingsworth said that an environmental studies professor once told her: “‘I can’t think of this as grief. That would be endless.’”
But this is “where the misconception lies,” according to Hollingsworth. Grieving doesn’t bring endless suffering, but healing and health.
“What happens when I don’t grieve someone’s death? What does it mean not to feel or express sorrow when someone passes unnecessarily due to my negligence? Just the thought of this is chilling to me as the sociopath is brought to mind,” she said.
Grief can be funny too
This doesn’t mean such events have to be sombre and drowned in tears. No emotion is wrong, according to the founders of the Remembrance Day for Lost Species. They are not afraid to throw humour and whimsy into their rituals.
“Often at human funerals people share funny stories about the dead person and it gives a relief, a release from weight of loss, and it can bring a celebratory feel,” said Porter.
Laughter can be incredibly powerful, even during a ritual mourning.
“Humour allows us to softly break through denial and isolation, to damp down the tempers fire, to create space in between the agony, the fear, the chaos,” said Porter.
Recently, Pearl attended the Stories of the Anthropocene Festival in Stockholm where she held a remembrance ceremony for the thylacine. Attendees were asked to share their stories about extinction – but first they had to step through a glitter curtain.
“If you can make people laugh, you are halfway to love. You can take people to deep places. You can encourage them to take risks,” she said.
But sombreness is okay, too, the founders insist. It all depends on what you are hoping to create within the context of the ritual.
Grieving in the Anthropocene
Legend says the world’s last thylacine died cold and alone. The story is that it was mistakenly locked out of its nighttime quarters at the zoo in Hobart, Tasmania during an unusually cold night in 1936. The animal, which was never even identified as a male or female, perished from exposure. That was 80 years ago this year.
While the last thylacine may not have actually died from the cold, it certainly died in a kind of loneliness that is almost impossible for humans – seven billion and rising – to comprehend. It was, after all, an endling. The last of its kind.
And yet do we barely remember it, let alone weep for it.
Julia Peddie said the 80th Anniversary of the extinction of the thylacine “went fairly unnoticed in the mainstream media” even in its native Australia.
Despite little media around the anniversary, Australia still has a lot of “nostalgia” for the thylacine, said Peddie, to the extent that some people believe it still inhabits the wild lands of Tasmania.
Perhaps, this is a kind of denial in action, an inability to accept the extinction of what once was; a denial that may continue to allow Australians – and people around the world – to ignore the losses going on right in front of them.
Australia is an epicentre of extinction. It has the highest mammal loss of any country on Earth. Since European arrival, the country has lost at least 30 species of mammal. And another was lost just this year: the Bramble Cay melomys, the world’s first mammal known to have gone extinct due to climate change.
“The stories of lost species remind us that things do end, they do die, that we are causing irrevocable and deeply distressing changes – but that the ending’s not yet written for the stories of rhinoceros, of hedgehogs, of phytoplankton,” said Pearl.
So, really, why don’t we grieve for the passenger pigeon, the golden toad, or the Yangtze River dolphin? Or how about Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog which just vanished from the Earth in September? Why don’t we rend our garments for the woolly mammoth, or tear our hair for the dodo or smear our windows with ash for the great moas that once roamed New Zealand? It can’t hurt. It could only heal.
“We need to imagine and invent new rituals for the Anthropocene,” said Pearl. “What would a memorial for the Caspian tiger or the elephant bird look like? A memorial for the Great Barrier Reef? For 350 parts per million of atmospheric CO2?”
The age of the Anthropocene is an age of grief, put simply. Not showing, sharing or indeed feeling that grief will make it all the more unbearable. But a collective keening may be key to moving forward and creating a new society that fully respects and cherishes the millions of life forms that call this planet home.
Take your pick. Claim space. This is pluralistic, exploratory, inventive work that urgently needs doing by as many people as possible in as many ways as possible.
The ritual structure here has been put together by Chicago-based Christian elder and minister Terri MacKenzie who welcomes anyone to use or adapt any part of it for Lost Species Day. We will share more structures and suggestions for approaches here in coming days.
Extinction Grieving Prayer
Use two candles; prepare suggested (or other) music and video. Directions are starred. Adapt in any way that facilitates use.
Call to Prayer
“Today, the dusky seaside sparrow became extinct. It may never be as famous as the pterodactyl or the dodo, but the last one died today… ” – An excerpt from “Science” by Alison Hawthorne Deming
What you call resources, we call our relatives. – Source unknown.
* Light the first candle. It honours all the species that have gone extinct in our lifetimes.
Great Giver of Life, we pause to remember our place at the beginning of the Sixth Great Extinction on Planet Earth. For 13.8 billion years creation has been groaning: bringing to birth, becoming more complex, more organised, more conscious. The other great extinctions during the past 450 million years happened by forces beyond anyone’s control. Now, for the first time, our species is ruining whole ecosystems, aborting entire groups of interdependent species.
We acknowledge that we play a part in this dying by our carelessness, ignorance, and indifference. Forgive us our part in the death of healthy ecosystems and the resulting extinction of creatures in whom we believe divinity lives and acts.
Litany of Affirmation
We affirm the Sacred Mystery that caused and continues Creation.
We affirm the 13.8 billion years of our Universe.
We affirm the billions of galaxies, each with its billions of solar systems and stars.
We affirm the multiple transformations during the 4.5 billion years of Mother Earth’s life so far, and the relentless evolution towards ever-greater consciousness in the future.
We affirm the millions of species that have inhabited our planet in beautifully-webbed communities: microorganisms, plants, fish, birds, mammals . . .
We affirm that we came from Earth and exist, like all species, in a communion of subjects.
Litany of Grief
We grieve humans’ lack of awareness of, and concern about, the destruction of interdependent communities that have taken billions of years to develop.
We grieve the climate disaster that is extinguishing habitats and the multiple species within them.
We grieve the more than one-in-four flowering plants, the one-in-five mammals, the nearly one – in-three amphibians, and the one-in-eight birds that are vulnerable to being wiped out completely. (International Union for the Conservation of Nature)
We grieve the Golden Toad, native to Costa Rica. It has not been seen since 1989, when a single male was found, the last of its species.
We grieve the Pyrenean Ibex. The last of this species naturally born was a female, Celia, who died in 2000.
We grieve the St. Helena Olive, a small spreading tree, the last of which perished in 2003 primarily due to deforestation and invasive plants.
We grieve all our extinct brother and sister species, the amphibians, fish, birds, mammals, plants and trees, and their diminished habitats.
We grieve the humans whose sustenance and livelihoods are threatened by this disruption in the food web.
We grieve the deaths of ecological martyrs: Sister Dorothy Stang, Dian Fossey, Chico Mendes, and the over 900 other activists slain since 2004. (Global Witness)
* Listen to and/or Sing: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Perhaps for v. 2 and 3: species, workers. (If needed, Joan Baez’ version)
* Extinguish first candle. Light second candle. It honours the threatened species that remain and our desire to protect them.
* Quiet reflection: For believers, our faith is tested by our concern and care for creation. U. S. Catholic Bishops: “Renewing the Earth” 1991
We are grateful that 90% of species under the protection of the Endangered Species Act (U.S.) are recovering at the rate specified by their federal recovery plan.
We are grateful that British oil company Soco International agreed (June 2014) to suspend exploration in a national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), home to half the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas (pictured here) and thousands of other species. We thank the over 750,000 people who signed a petition to stop the oil drilling.
We are grateful that the Zoological Society of London released its list of birds most at risk of extinction based on evolutionary distinctness and global endangerment (EDGE) in April 2014. This information will help conservationists decide where efforts should focus first.
We are grateful that the population of the California Least Tern, listed as endangered in 1970, grew from 225 recorded then to 6,568 recorded in 2010.
We are grateful for all of the habitats that have been saved so the interdependent species within them can escape extinction.
We are grateful for the many people throughout the world who dedicate their time and efforts to keeping habitats and species alive so they can give praise to their creator by their distinct lineages, attributes, and contributions to the web of life.
Let us not leave in our wake a swath of destruction and death which will affect our own lives and those of future generations. – Pope Francis
To save species, we must save ecosystems. To save ecosystems, we must reduce climate change, pollution, poaching, invasive species, and over-consumption. Mentally check the things on p. 4 that you already do for this. There might be something else there that you would want to do.
* Read quietly: Consciously deepen appreciation of the glory of creation, its long story, the place of Divine Mystery in it, and humans’ dependence upon it.
Pray for the healing of creation.
Reduce all energy use.
Transition to renewable energy sources (for electricity).
Encourage institutions to invest in renewable energy and to divest from fossil fuels.
Drive less and/or reduce gas use by not exceeding 60 mph on the highways (and other ways).
Avoid produce, meat, and poultry from factory farms.
Buy recycled products.
Reduced use of plastic.
Carry water in a thermos (not bottled water).
Avoid genetically modified foods (GMOs).
Lobby for laws to protect habitats and species.
Include Earth-care concerns when choosing legislators.
Join (or cooperate with) a group working to conserve, restore and protect habitats and species.
* Discuss: Einstein said Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge points to all that is. Imagination points to all that could be. What kind of Earth “could be”? How can we contribute to co-creating it?
Great Giver of Life, we come from, and we dwell in, the magnificent world in which you live and act. Our species is causing extinctions; our species can prevent them. Let us not be thwarted by the immensity of the challenge, for the Power working within us can do more than we could ask or imagine. May the flame of this candle continue burning in our hearts, reminding us to help our threatened relatives.
* Extinguish second candle.
Enlighten us to find you in all Creation; empower us to treat it accordingly. Through Jesus Christ, whose respect for Earth inspires us to live as he did. Amen.
* Sing: “The Heavens Are Telling the Glory of God” or “Touch the Earth” (Kathy Sherman, C.S.J.) or another appropriate song
* Share a sign of hope with one another (or a sign of peace)
My days are filled with warmth, food and loved ones, with creative work, with the beauties of a slowly turning mild Autumn.
But my nights are running with the blood of children, with flood waters, with tears. My dreams are filled with running, with searching for home, with people who will never go back home. In the night, we leave home in a rush, but I insist on carrying our pond above our heads because the frogs are spawning. I dream of fishing boats heading down the Thames, in front of the Houses of Parliament, piled with dead people like so much compost in a wheelbarrow. I dream I am trying to buy farmhouses in France to house all the children from the Calais jungle.
I’ve absorbed the stories of the day and they play back repeatedly in the dark. But truly, my nightmares contain less pain, less torn flesh, than the reality behind these stories.
Terror is abroad. Each day a new toll, like a clock of cities, already struck or waiting. But terror has truly made itself at home in Syria. Despite truces, the bombs keep falling on the hospitals and remaining civilians. It’s a Gordian knot, a hell ball of fighting. Hundreds of children bloodied, forever traumatised and killed in Aleppo, and Russians poised to inflict more crude damage.
Thousands of lone children wandering, clustering in places that are unsafe and cold. The questions run through our heads constantly: How can we bear it? How can our own lives be so beautiful while this happens? How can we do something, some action, that will be enough, without breaking up the beauty of our own life and facing this darkness, enough?
Everyone in the world, however far from the US, has tinnitus from the ticking time bomb that is the orange fascist Trump running for President and leading in the polls. Trump who has 75 legal battles about his personal conduct, including a trial for child rape.
In the UK, a nation is cleft by the EU referendum and our PM insists on bypassing all our nation’s parliaments to press ahead with a hard Brexit. Despite the High Court ruling today that the Royal Prerogative cannot be used to trigger Article 50, Theresa May immediately appealed the ruling. Hard-right Brexiteers have immediately begun calling for blood, the most extreme petitioning HM Forces to take over the Government and suggesting that Jo Cox’s fate will come to all MPs they disagree with.
Brexiteers seem to misunderstand time, thinking that Brexit has already happened, saying ‘see, the economy hasn’t crashed yet’. But Brexit hasn’t happened yet. And anyway the pound is falling, to a 168 year low, and is still falling. It will surely be an unfolding story of crashes and losses over many years, and potentially leading to the crashing of the EU itself.
And this also is happening: It has been 56C in Kuwait and Iraq on some days this summer, the hottest temperature ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, hotter than is possible for many animals to be outside. American and Russian forests have been burning. Louisiana, India and China have seen historic flooding. Warnings of more and more species on the brink of extinction. The maths on climate change have had to be entirely recalibrated. 2C of warming is already baked in.
And there are small pieces of good news – a cancelled dam in the Amazon, millions of trees planted in India, cities pledging to divest from fossil fuels, small or even grand acts of heroism and design – but at the rate of the bad things happening, there have to be some good things.
I am seeking explanations, and solutions. I spend inordinate hours reading articles and trying to come up with logical disentanglements of the situation. The explanations I sit with for longest are the ones that admit complexity, that go to root causes, and therefore do not have easy solutions. When confusion kicks in those of us who ask questions lose the will or the consensus to act, while those who have simple answers step in and mount campaigns.
Here’s my latest inadequate and pompous-sounding attempt at an explanation.
Human exploitation of the planet’s resources, in particular fossil fuels, is causing catastrophic collapse of the biosphere. The 1%’s exploitation of the poor, in the process of extracting and processing these resources, and selling stuff to people that makes them sick and addicted to consumption, is causing unmanageable inequality and social dis-ease. This is the spirit of wetiko, humans cannibalising their own life-world as if they are separately alive from it. With this spirit rampant, we have overshot our global ecological limits and are now experiencing what military risk analysts call ‘resource insecurity’. These analysts have long warned that resource insecurity risks stirring conflict as people migrate and fight over territories and resources, and have to migrate again. Most states have not heeded warnings and not yet transitioned enough to renewable energy or local ecological agriculture, or to deliberative democracy. The powerful states prioritise controlling the supply of fossil fuels that are at the root of their capacity to provide for their citizens and accumulate wealth for a few. The Middle East is the crucible of conflict, catalysed by drought and food prices, and interventions by oil hungry nations. From this crucible come the victims, the displaced, and they are seen as terrorists by the xenophobes of the so-far protected states. Individuals who seek the most power in this state of chaos play off different interest groups against each other. They have no values other than the desire for power. The people supporting these demagogues feel liberated – they see the potential for licence to be as bad as they can be. Their self-enhancing, self-protecting tendencies are reflected back at them in these populist leaders. Power is promoted as a good. Therefore violence to protect self-interests is seen as a good. It is a vicious downward spiral – like the Ant Spiral of Death – people following each other into a mill of entropy.
But, the complex and clumsy explanations like these are not in the news, at least not at the forefront of the big channels, because big media channels are owned or influenced by the corporate and political elites upholding the system that is causing collapse. The only thing we can do is to try to explain and share what we think.
That’s why I started a Facebook group called Everyday Ecocide. It highlights how our everyday thinking and communications are blind to the environment. Our culture does not have an ecological way of knowing. By neglecting to include and value what is other-than-human, we not only fail to notice its damage and depletion, we contribute to it. Ecocide means the destruction of the natural environment. This group aims to highlight incidents in media, institutions or everyday society, of forgetting or obscuring of ecosystems, biodiversity, non-human persons, the importance of climate change, or ecological solutions. Do go to Facebook and request to join.
Another way of exploring what is really happening is to pay attention to the members of our community who cannot speak, many of whom are not only losing their habitats but losing their entire line of inheritance. These are the species losing their entire existence. They can be honoured, celebrated and mourned – in creative ways – on the Remembrance Day for Lost Species on 30th November.
I started Sew The SEEDS, a project making quilt panels about endangered species with kids, back in 2013. It was an incredibly wonderful and fulfilling experience. At the same time I began making panels of my own for extinct species with the ultimate plan of making an extinction quilt with eight panels. Somewhere along the line I started feeling the burden of the slowness of my process as compared to the speed with which we are losing species daily. As someone who enjoys making, I also began feeling that I was losing the ‘magic’ that I needed to sustain myself and the work. Into this equation crept Agnes Richter.
Agnes Richter was a German seamstress living in an insane asylum during the 1890s. She covered her uniform jacket (it is often erroneously referred to as a straitjacket) in thoughts, pictures, and often undecipherable ramblings. Her jacket, along with the works of other patients, was collected by Hans Prinzhorn, who later published ‘Artistry of the Mentally Ill’.
Agnes’ Jacket is part of the Prinzhorn collection at the University Hospital in Heidelberg. It has a special place for stitchers, and as a piece of outsider art. For me it has always had a kind of magic, exactly the kind of magic I was missing. Here then was a way of back to the magic. Here was a quicker way to record the passings. A name is something. Sometimes something very important. A lament circles the neck, followed by the five previous major extinction events; and then the sixth, the Anthropocene. 666666 etc. The rest to be filled with names. As things progressed, brief stories and thoughts on the process found their way in, and the extinction symbol.
Is this penance, she wonders.
Sherrell Biggerstaff Cuneo is founder of Sew the Seeds community arts quilt project
Over the 31 days of October I have been on a journey of remembering the Steller’s Sea Cow, who disappeared from our oceans over 250 years ago. It is at this time of Samhain, the beginning of winter and the thinning of veils that I say goodbye to this dear friend of mine. It has been an honour and I have paid tribute to this gentle, giant creature in the only way I know how. It has been within acts of mark making, stillness and noticing, walking and chance encounters that I have come to know of this great Sirenian. Through simple, quiet gestures of remembering I find a door that is revealing and shifting. It has been an opening for connection and tenderness, a place of loss, and of deep grief.
At the foot of a weeping willow, marking charcoal onto rock, in a harvest of cosmos and calendula is where I find you.
A once free and watery world
This extraordinary species was named after its discoverer, naturalist Georg W. Steller, who accompanied the Great Northern Expedition, 1741 – 42, and recorded his first sightings whilst shipwrecked on what is now known as Bering Island, the largest of the Commander Islands in the Russian far east. The Steller’s Sea Cow, a slow-natured, already vulnerable population, had been hunted to extinction less than three decades later .
Defenceless, harmless, these gracious giants inhabited a once free and watery world, grazing on a rich abundance of seaweeds, kelp and other aquatic grasses. They were the largest members of the Sirenia, an order of fully aquatic, herbivorous mammals, their skin thick, dark, like the bark of ancient oak.
The Steller’s Sea Cow was tame, with no teeth and no manus, no hooks and no claws, soft and placid at every turn.
A shared journey
As my own personal connection for the Steller’s Sea cow grew I became increasingly curious to fnd out what those nearest to me and in my community might imagine this creature to look like. With only a name to go by what kind of imagery would be evoked?. I managed to get into the habit of travelling about with a small sketch book dedicated to the collection of Steller’s Sea Cow drawings. There were many wonderful depictions and imaginings, each and every one with its own unique story to tell.
I see you
Over these last autumn days I have in one way or another tried to mark the life and legacy of this extraordinary species. A simple sketch, a passing thought or chance encounter, the Steller’s Sea cow has never been far from my mind. And as the days have gone by so has the season turned.
I have seen you gently move across the river, your form shimmer on the woodland floor, your tail dancing at the roots of rambling Beech tree. And you, playful you, etched in the pavements that lead me home…
Jess Tanner is a Wiltshire-based artist and environmental educator
I need to introduce you again. Introduce again this practice of writing to you every day for 180 days, the industrial lifespan for your species, Sus scrofa domesticus. I do it to come closer to your life. To try, at least. I began the experiment after finishing my book about pigs in industrial farming. I didn’t know happens when you finish a book in which the subjects of your work are killed. I thought about getting a tattoo of you. I felt responsible. I knew I couldn’t just leave you in the machine, treated as a machine. I needed to stay close; I couldn’t just blow you out in my head like a candle.
So here we are. We’ve got an audience. To recap, I’ve told you already in these letters about: who you are, who I am; explained—as poor as those explanations were—what happens to you in the first three weeks of birthing; about my mother, your mother; then onto philosophy, Thomas Nagel, bats, nature, nature writing, how the media represents you (badly); how I am planning to get you out of there.
Today I’m writing about extinction. Specifically, the connection between where you are, in that factory farm in Iowa, or the warehouse-like hangar in China, and the global crisis of species extinction. Extinction, Anton, is the process by which a species, animal or vegetable (and mineral?) is completely wiped out. That it no longer exists, except in memory, fossils and books. Sometimes we humans say “extinct in the wild” to mean we still imprison other individuals of that species somewhere, usually in zoos, mostly so people can stare at them. I know… All of this is alien to you, as your species is caught in an endlessly renewed hell, a regeneration of billions of individuals every year, every half a year. It’s what the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, a friend to animals, especially cats, a philosophical Doolittle—(so much in that name, Doolittle, when it comes to animals)—calls a perverse cycle of anthropocentric power, a constant re-birthing of life so we can kill it, and eat it. Eat you. And at ever growing cost.
Extinction, Anton, is relevant to your existence. Relevant, not least because of the massive numbers in which your species takes up the space of the ever dwindling numbers of other species outside the animal agriculture industry. (This is not your fault.) The question is not whether there is a link between extinction and the industrial animal agriculture that imprisons you, but rather how to make the existing bondage clearer.
Through statistics? What, by simply telling people that slaughter—the violent killing of billions of individuals from a tiny number of unlucky species—is the largest single contributing industry to the greenhouse gases causing climate change? By telling them that it is the major contributor to deforestation (91% of the Amazon clear cut for grazing and soy for feedlots) and loss of wildlife habitat? That it is the industry most responsible for water use and water pollution? That the industrial animal agriculture complex is the way we choose to prop up our growing global population’s calorific needs, even though there are (much) more sensible and sustainable means? That industrial animal agriculture is our manifest sloth and greed: producing meat and dairy that no one needs? In fact, knowing what we know, that the consumption of animal products is slowly killing us through cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, dementia…? The links are all there, Anton. But telling people doesn’t seem to work.
The species that is perhaps most surprisingly critically endangered by industrial animal agriculture, my friend, is us. We humans.
Not that that’s any comfort to you. Quicker, you say. Quicker.
I can hear the arguments against this, Anton. It’s all indirect. Industrial slaughter isn’t directly killing the white rhino. Animal agriculture isn’t directly responsible for the disappearance of the Asiatic cheetah, in the way that hunting was directly responsible for the disappearance of… oh, so many. Okay, no. Industrial animal agriculture is only directly responsible for the 80,000,000,000 (80 billion) land animals it slaughters per annum—one of whom is going to be you—and the 3,000,000,000,000 (three trillion) or so sea creatures. Mostly, they’re replaced. See you next year.
Remember your mother, Anton?
You don’t, I know. But I do.
This is where another concept may be useful: entanglement. That is, we are all entangled in mind–body–world relations, and that what happens to each one of us can both cause and be caused by changes to the mind–body–world realities of others. Including the nonhuman other. The philosopher Lori Gruen talks about “entangled empathy” and that we need to give our “moral attention” to the other bodies with whom we are already entangled. Perhaps an example: a person who eats the body parts of another is entangled with that other, yes? Benefiting from that being’s energy? So the relation demands a moral attention, right? But when a human being eats the leg of a lamb these days, there is little moral attention given to the relation. Only economic attention. To convenience. Only the luxury of the taste. (I wrote this during #LoveLambWeek.)
Where has moral attention disappeared to, Anton? Why did we stop feeling empathy for the infant sheep whose legs we eat? There is no moral attention given today, Anton, by 98% of the world’s population, to the desires of those of you trapped in that interminable hell, where there is no living, survival is all. There is no recognition of the already existing entanglements between mind–body–world beings. And that’s because no one wants to be re-minded that there was an entanglement with not only the leg but also the mind of a young lamb, skipping with delight, bleating for its mum. No one, that is, Anton (and this is the mess we’ve got ourselves into) who wants to take direct responsibility.
Anton, I feel that I’m failing. I feel like I’m not doing justice here to the issue of convincing people of the connection between animal agriculture’s slaughter of billions, land and sea, year upon year, and that other slaughter of life: extinction. Maybe that’s because we’re all failing, Anton. Failing you, failing the Asiatic Cheetah, failing all of the red-listed creatures. Do numbers work? They’ve been shown not to. But it’s all I’ve got. Today 225,000,000 (225 million) of your domesticated brethren will be slaughtered for food; and 225,000 new humans will be added to the earth to eat that food; and 80 species will become extinct to make way. Just today. Tomorrow, again. Life shoved out by death. The monoculture of a species: homo rapiens, as John Gray calls us.
So, okay. The connection between slaughter and extinction? Or rather, the connector? Imagine it this way. In the middle you have the Great Human Baby that needs feeding if it’s to keep growing (growth is all!), its two grasping hands seeking sustenance. On one side you have a big pile of slaughtered animal products. On the other side you have a pile of those lovely wooden toys in the shape of animals, a child’s Noah’s Ark and its exotic megafauna. But the Great Human Baby needs to eat, so it grabs at either pile, indiscriminately, and like all babies, it will thrust whatever it finds into its mouth. Burger or snow leopard. Pork chop or parakeet. Cutlet or cloud forest. They’re all being consumed by the same source. Consumption here as both literal and metaphor. The shameful thing, my friend, is that we, the parents, the adults, keep shovelling the animals onto the piles, keep loading them up, so the baby can eat and eat and eat. And aged two (remember: metaphor and literal!) it is already obese. Already has diabetes and chronic heart disease.
It’s too much for me, Anton. Too much. And what have I done for you today other than depress you? You in your metal cavern, in the ammonia reek of your middle-age, the waste-stinking runnels, your wretched Iowan life. How has any of this helped you understand the connection between the extinction of species and the death that is looming for you?
Agh. I can’t give in to this helplessness. I am still looking for a way to help you escape. I know this is also what drives those who are working so hard, in conservation for example, to save individual animals who are, unlike you, part of a species not endlessly reproduced for its economic value.
Who’s better off, though? Those endangered lemurs and frogs, or you pigs? And why do conservationists still smother apple sauce on your belly and legs?
It’s a misnomer, isn’t it, Anton, this word extinction? When all we really need to call it is killing. Then perhaps we can see a little more clearly the connection between the two: industrial slaughter and the wiping out of non-economic nonhuman animals and ecosystems. Because to quibble over directness or indirectness is to simply betray an anthropocentric comfort with the question.
Oh, humans are saying, you mean the connection is us?
Oh, too miserable, Anton! Where have I gone with this?
I’ll get you out of there. Ninety four days gone; I have eight six days left. You are over half-way through your industrial lifespan (not 1/40th of your natural life expectancy) but I will use these days well. I just need to persuade 6,500,000,000 (6.5 billion) more humans that they’re already entangled with you too…
Alex Lockwood is a writer living in Newcastle and senior lecturer in the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sunderland. He completed a PhD in Creative Writing at Newcastle University, exploring self-identity, psychoanalysis and affect. His book The Pig in Thin Air explores the place of the body in animal advocacy, and chronicles Alex’s journey around Canada and the United States in 2014, exploring animal advocacy and the animal rights movement there.