Artist and writer Bridget McKenzie has created an insect alphabet and poem to honour pollinators.
You are welcome to use the font – please acknowledge the artist and share what you make with us!
Artist and writer Bridget McKenzie has created an insect alphabet and poem to honour pollinators.
You are welcome to use the font – please acknowledge the artist and share what you make with us!
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:
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 Quarterly, The 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
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.
The mission of ‘What Is Missing’ is to create, through science-based artworks, an awareness about the present sixth mass extinction of species, connect this loss of species to habitat degradation and loss, and emphasise that by protecting and restoring habitat, we can both reduce carbon emissions and protect species. As Maya Lin’s final memorial, it asks us to look at a memorial not as a singular, static object, but as work that can exist in multiple forms and places around the world. Loss is merely the departure point for this wake up call and call to action. The What Is Missing? Foundation is equally focused on action and hope, showing individuals what they can do in their own lives to make a difference, presenting plausible scenarios for a sustainable planet, and showcasing examples of what is being done around the world. It is within our power to make a difference. Head to the website, whatismissing.net/#add-a-
Map of Marizy by Emma Pavans de Ceccatty
Emma Pavans de Ceccatty and Joanne Matthews met on a permaculture design course in 2015 and have since developed a dialogue about art and sustainability. Both are artists, environmental explorers, and alchemists of empathy, experience and fact.
Over the month of November 2016 we collaborated in response to a call out for Remembrance Day for Lost Species. Delving into the systemic reasons for loss of species, we encountered the disconnect between humans in the city and their environment. The project, (re)visiting Marizy, was an intuitive and experimental series of attempts at connection with place.
Emma focused on reviving the relationship with her homeland, Marizy, France. Inspired by Emma’s place-specific intention, Joanne explored what it means to have empathy for a distant and abstract land. The Aral Sea, Uzbekistan, called to Joanne and she intuitively attempted to develop empathy for this place, as if it were her home.
Through conversations and creative exchanges, we embarked on this experimental collaboration. The on-going project flows in a reflective and constructive way, learning from our experiments to hone the next steps. The process has manifested in a series of performances, actions, rituals, paintings and poems, documented on a dedicated blog http://revisitingmarizy.wordpress.com
Ritual documentation by Emma Pavans de Ceccatty
Marizy, in the Saône-et-Loire area region of France, is a green and marshy land shaped by hedges, lakes, rivers, streams and ponds. It is lauded for its resilient ecosystem. As a predominantly smallholding, cow-grazing agricultural area, people’s livelihoods depend on the health of the land and the water. There has consequently been real effort and concern for the wellbeing of the wildlife and environment, though this is drying out with the urbanisation and industrialisation of local minds.
‘So far, the results of my exploration and connection with this land have brought me to challenge my assumptions that Marizy was an unhealthy landscape. I wonder now, is what I see here what stewarding Nature looks like? Is this contemporary romanticism?’
The Aral Sea was once the third-largest saltwater lake in the world. It is now reduced to a tenth of its original size, leaving a bare and deserted landscape behind. Industrial needs and large-scale agricultural greed drained and dammed the lake, ending the century-old fishing tradition and livelihood from the surrounding villages, in just one generation.
Ghost Factory sketch/ Aral Sea by Joanne Matthews
‘My relationship with the Aral Sea has just begun. I was drawn to the body of water through no logical means. I feel sad and regretful for the water’s demise, torture and the many disappearing species that have been lost.’
Through this place-specific attempt at connection, Emma and Joanne process and translate their intellectual research and embodied experience into illustrations, audio work, writing and performance language. We are continuing our work together beyond this initial month-long research period to now focus on the themes and questions that we have uncovered.
Voice of the New Caledonian Owlet-Nightjar, visualised by Pellathy
“First, it should be stated that the single most significant threat to bird populations is habitat destruction, in all of its forms and with all of its causes.” – Sibley Guide Book
“Sounds, once generated, never die; they fade but continue to reverberate as sound waves across the universe” – Guglielmo Marconi, radio pioneer.
So many things are disappearing at such an alarming rate that perhaps we will only have a catalogue of objects to remember what they were and how they existed in our environment. How can we begin the conversation to preserve?
Using the dense audio resources found at the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the voices of the top ten most endangered birds of the world are cataloged, collected and charted becoming objects and prints representing the voices of these birds. The bird songs are mapped in sound editing so ware and then traced in 3D modelling soft ware and 3D printed. Digital drawings, made by removing the router bit from a CNC machine and replacing it with a ball- point pen, and following the tool path of a stereo-lithograph, accompany the 3D prints.
The bird calls become more than just records – instead an encounter with a frozen instant of time. A visualized model charts the intangible and elicits reaction on the fleeting nature of what is here now, but may not last. A moment of reflection with individual species from endangered bird species possesses a poetic quality. I think of the objects and prints as a catalogue of the disappearing, much like an 18th century wonder-cabinet.
The display serves to rarify the object, contain it and isolate it. The bell jars reference a specimen that has been collected and displayed which also becomes a commodity to be owned. Perhaps the viewers will contemplate the collective idea of objectifying the experience of the natural world.
Elisabeth Pellathy is an artist and academic based at University of Alabama, Birmingham.
And so the creatures of the former
Squirm and squeeze
Dense in their numbers
Soft in their flesh.
They sit in our darkness
In our folklore
Yet we are told
There is no dark side
Of the moon.
If we are all stardust (to dust)
Then why do I wake
in the night
Looking to the sky
For those missing constellations?
Words and painting by Nat Hough
For over 25 years, Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd have worked together to produce innovative environmental art which inhabits a unique juncture between performance art and climate science, organic process and artificial preservation, personal response and public space. Their artistic practice ranges across photography, sculpture, architecture, and installation to tackle a range of issues from global warming and international politics to arboreal ecology and biodiversity loss. Following their high-profile Radical Action Reaction at COP21 last year and this year’s large-scale exhibition and architectural work at the University of Cambridge, Fred Carter caught up with Harvey and Ackroyd at their Surrey studio to discuss what it means to be an artist in the midst of environmental crisis.
FRED: I first came across your work in relation to the Cape Farewell Project way back in the early 2000s, which highlighted the threats to polar ecosystems and Arctic ice. But I think the way we talk about climate change has changed a lot since then. What do you think has changed in our relationship with climate science and the challenges to representation that face environmental art?
HEATHER: Well, what was then called the greenhouse effect just kind of pinned itself into my consciousness in 1988. That was the very first time that James E. Hansen, who at the time was the leading atmospheric scientist working for NASA, popped his head up above the parapet and said that we’ve got a major problem going on here. He said I am 99% sure that it’s because of the fact that humankind is burning so much fossil fuel. So this is always within my consciousness.
I think from a very early point meeting Dan, our work was going on in urban spaces and in found spaces. It could have been a disused domestic property or disused factory spaces and we would bring these dynamic materials into them: water, mud, germination, fire, mould, and sprouting elements. So we’d act upon these architectural carcasses and bring in these disruptive materials that we would then shape and create quite formally and aesthetically to make these pieces.
Implanted Spirit, 1991
Our work in a way was always addressing this edge, these precipices where the urban stakes claim, takes away, or erases nature. Where it takes away an orchard or takes away a garden or takes away a field or an overgrown parking lot and places in the bricks. But we just felt there was this incredible vulnerability to it. Going to places like Australia and working on the west coast in Perth, where you felt all of this colonisation which seemed very European, you saw all of these houses with their patch of grass and water sprinklers throwing water all over the place… and yet it was on desert.
DAN: It was a thin veneer of civilisation and of Europeanization.
HEATHER: You felt as though if you were a giant you could just take a palette knife and just scrape it all away and just flick it away. It felt just superficial in some way. It was that sense of tenuousness; that humanity holds its place by threads of existence at times.
So I think when we first went up with Cape Farewell to the high Arctic we were kind of enthralled and inspired and found the whole experience very profoundly moving. In a way, out of that experience came this very large piece of work that we just showed at the David Attenborough building called Stranded, where we were working with the carcass of a whale.
DAN: The whale was always one of those iconic creatures, I suppose a bit like the polar bear in some ways, and the idea was to try and get hold of a carcass and to subvert and do this chemical process on it.
But I think what I’ve found interesting since 2003, when I first went up to Svalbard with the Cape Farewell project, was that you got a feeling that actually information was getting out there and people did start to believe the story of climate change. Then suddenly there was this movement back again. Channel Four did a program called The Great Climate Change Swindle and that did so much damage. I think there are still people who believe that. There’s so much denial still going on and yet it’s so stupid because it could be so easy to actually switch now, the technologies are there. Everything is there but we’re still being led by this because the power is still in the hands of the mad men.
HEATHER: I think now what we’ve realised through all our reading and all our interactions is that even though the physics and the science of climate change is actually relatively straightforward, the political and economic machinations are huge. It plays out on so many levels to do with monopolies of power and deliberate attempts to vandalise the science. Absolutely calculated attempts to introduce chaos and confusion into the thinking. And that happened very early on. After James E. Hansen made his statement that generated all manner of revolt from the corporate ranks and from the fossil fuel industry. They sensed danger and they reacted in a very calculated and intellectually corrupt way. And that’s still playing out.
My thinking now is to ask what kind of work do we make that really has resonance and is doing something more than awakening. I think the communications in and around climate change were done very effectively by the cultural sector many years ago. We’re in a different situation now and I have to really work out how to use our artistry, our understanding, and our perception to best effect. And we did a big piece in Paris…
FRED: Yes, I wanted to ask about that as well. There’s a general trend that I can see in your work from those very domestic spaces to begin with – houses, churches, chairs – towards a more political stage. And in fact the piece in Paris at COP21 was a stage in itself. Do you think your work has changed in response to that changing space?
HEATHER: I think Dan and I have always been very adaptive in the way we work and, in a way, the found space gave us an autonomy in a way that the gallery couldn’t. The exterior space, again, gives us access to the accidental audience.
DAN: Yes, you’re not really tied to the elite or to the people who always go to galleries. In a found space people are curious to see it because they’ve walked past it and it’s always been boarded up and in a public space you’re just confronted straight away with it. So immediately you have a much larger audience.
Radical Action Reaction, 2015
FRED: So do you see something like Radical Action Reaction to be a public piece of art in a similar sense to one of the early found spaces?
HEATHER: Yes because if you do something inside, even if the door is open, there’s still that metaphorical threshold. Somebody has to make that decision to go through the doorway. If you do something in a public space like the Botanic Garden [in Cambridge] then you’ve got people running, you’ve got children, and suddenly they’re going “what’s that?”
DAN: So you sort of hook them in. One of the beautiful things about the living medium of grass is that it has a vibrancy and a colour to it that you know instinctively isn’t synthetic and when it’s grown like the curtains we used in Radical Action Reaction it is really quite lush, quite sensual.
HEATHER: We wanted to bring our dark arts. We wanted to bring something tantalisingly sensual and seductive, so beautiful so that people would go “what’s that?” Because they were quietly enthralled with the piece and they were realising that it was living grass, they then stopped and read what was being said. I’ve never seen so many people sit and read. It was just great because what we did was that we caught their attention and their curiosity.
Actually, at that point we were framing the tree within that urban setting and saying that we need to plant our cities, following Joseph Beuys, and that we have to make our cities as green and forest-like as we can on every level.
FRED: It’s interesting that you mention Joseph Beuys. His idea of the gezamkunstwerk sees the artwork as something interactive – a social sculpture – and some of your pieces really necessitate engagement. In Seeing Red… Overdrawn, for example, the act of writing on the artwork is a very powerful thing and a way of engaging with scientific knowledge and Latin names in a way that we don’t normally in museums. Is that something conscious?
DAN: Well over the years we’ve used the IUCN Red List of critically endangered animals quite a lot, but when you look at the list like that on a computer you might only get 20 names or something up on your screen. There were 4,734 when we downloaded it and had it printed. When you actually stand in front of a three metre by seven metre wall with those names on, even if you’ve been standing in front of it for a week, you still see new names coming out. There’s something about the scale of that piece that meant that even though there was a lot of information there, you could sort of access it all at once visually which I think is something that you couldn’t do in a book or on a computer screen. It was like a huge war memorial and yet each name wasn’t a name of a person, it was an entire species. I think when you understand that, it really hits home.
We had very good invigilators with iPads looking up the species and things so that there was also this interaction with the public.
Seeing Red… Overdrawn, 2016
HEATHER: If someone said “what is that? I love the Latin but what is that?” then we could find out for you, so that became quite interactive as well.
DAN: And on the performance side of it too, you had to wear white cotton gloves before you were given the pen so you took it seriously and then maybe you had to climb the ladder to reach one at the top. I think it was a very successful piece in the end.
HEATHER: But it came through quite late. We had a meeting with Tim Cluttenbrock, who works in the zoology department, very early on in our R&D phase and he struck the table and said; “what are you going to do about the fact that it’s five to midnight on the planet?” That just stayed with us and I kept saying to Dan “I just don’t think we’ve got our five-to-midnight piece yet.” Then that piece just kind of punched through.
DAN: It’s certainly a piece we’d like to do again… the list is already much longer.
FRED: Absolutely. Do you feel a “five-minutes-to-midnight” sense of immediacy in your work now that maybe you didn’t before?
HEATHER: Yes… but I think for me a lot of it is just about tempering the anxiety. I think it’s been there for a long, long while and I just think it’s increasing. I just read a George Monbiot article online where he’s saying that unless we just do not draw up to the surface what’s there in reserves, then we’re not going to hold to the Paris Agreement figure of 1.5 degrees. We’ve also got the whole lag in the system still to play out. A lot of people I’ve met say that we passed 1.5 degrees probably about 8 years ago. I can feel the stomach tightening but I don’t wish to get depressed. I’d rather use the anger and the anxiety to creative effect, I’d rather turn it into something visible, visual, and aesthetic. I’d rather channel the emotion into that.
Yet we don’t want to hit people with it. With the Cambridge piece, we were actually working on eight different pieces in tandem. It’s like an orchestration. So you may have one piece that’s slightly more “in-your-face” or “activist” and some other pieces that are really more nuanced, very subtle and, very poetic although they may allude to various crises. The exhibition in the Attenborough building was like that. We had Stranded alongside The Polar Diamond and the IUCN Red List, then the light boxes for the spirits and the trees. So there were many different levels to it and many different emotions. It’s orchestration at times.
Spirit + Conflicted Seeds, 2016
FRED: Something that struck me in your work is that so much of it is to do with preserving, as well as memorialising. The Spirit piece uses this very antiquated way of preserving and a lot of your early work with research into grass is concerned with how to preserve and how to keep things. Is there a sense of not mourning a loss but of trying to retain something?
HEATHER: Actually we’re working at the moment on a project to do with Ash Dieback disease and Ash conservation.
DAN: The brief is to celebrate the Ash but when you go round these forests in Kent where 80 percent of the trees were Ash, out of that 80 percent are dead already and now, once you start to see it you see it everywhere. It’s really shocking. It’s really hard to actually celebrate a tree when you know that you’re losing it all the time.
I think with this work about trying to preserve and conserve, so much of our work has been ephemeral that possibly now in our work with the trees and so on there’s a lot more longevity to them. They’re going to improve with time, provided the trees stay healthy. There are certain trees that actually have the possibility to be immortal, to live forever. It’s only exterior things that will kill them. That, to me, is really intriguing. There’s a lot, too, that we’re still learning about trees and I find that really fascinating. That’s perhaps one of the reasons we’ve started working with trees is that they are going to be around a lot longer than we are, for one thing, whereas a lot of the grass works were impermanent.
The first grass works, the exterior pieces not the photosynthesis works, they very much go through a process of growing, changing, and finally decaying, being stripped back. With the photographic work there has always been that thing with the fleeting image and trying to fix the image, a bit like the early black and white photographers. I think that’s why we really pushed to keep photos for longer and, with the chlorophyll in the grass we use now, we can keep them provided they have a low light level. If you put them in stronger sunlight they would fade within a week or so because it’s a natural pigment, the chlorophyll. We do live in an unstable world.
HEATHER: It is that thing about bringing stability into a situation. I don’t see stability as being somehow boring or status quo. You have to work at stability, in a way. It’s not a given. Going back to how they used to preserve the museum specimens, it’s amazing how you can still see this creature that was killed around 120 years ago. It’s amazing that it’s all still there, it’s all preserved.
FRED: I was really interested in something you’d written in Signs of Life, you said you’d been interested first in the arcane arts and the folklore of grass, before you got into the scientific rigour. I wondered how you saw that develop in your work or what was the tension between these sacral spaces of the church and the more rationalistic, scientific side?
HEATHER: Well that’s the beauty of being an artist and not a scientist, you can get it all in! Actually the other project we’re working on is with an organisation called ArtAkt, it’s being curated by Marina Wallace who is also curating an exhibition that will be at the Ashmolean in Oxford called Spellbound: Magical Thinking Past and Present. We’re working specifically with Sophie Paige, who is a senior historian at University College of London, and her specialist area is medieval cosmology. So we are now steeping ourselves in magic and astrology. I’m reading C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image right now and you know what, it feels so good to be back! It’s back with the names and the people that I was frequenting and falling asleep with when I was in my twenties when I was reading a lot of stuff about alchemy and magic and Karl Jung.
DAN: It’s interesting to really understand what it was like in medieval Britain and the way the mind worked then because it’s very different from the way we see the world now. There have been enormous shifts in perception and yet we still believe in a type of magic. If you ask someone for their wedding ring and say that you can replace it with an exactly identical copy, they’ll want their wedding ring back because they believe it’s imbued with something.
HEATHER: In a way I think we tend to ascribe a certain logic and rationality but actually it’s not working like that. I keep thinking that I’m kidding myself to think that politics is logical and rational. It’s not about that.
At the moment we’ve not quite found the right form for it yet but I’m thinking you almost need something like a post-Dadaist response to what’s happening now. It’s just so absurd. I cannot take Boris Johnson seriously, I cannot take Trump seriously. It’s just absurd. It sickens me.
The Dadaists were brilliant, their response to the atrocities of the First World War was brilliant. They said; “how do we begin to make sense of this, you cannot make sense of it.” I feel a little bit like that at the moment, you know. It’s coming at it from the flank, highly lateral and subversive. I want to dig deep, to disappear and come up; to draw those arcane arts back into it.
7000 Oaks, 2014
FRED: Finally, I hear you’re also about to do a TedX talk together, which is a new kind of format for you. It’s a very short 20 minutes, so if someone could take away one thing what should it be?
HEATHER: I don’t know, I think something we will definitely talk about is how the haem molecule, in the blood, and the structure of the chlorophyll molecule are incredibly similar. It’s old knowledge for us on some levels but I think we need to understand we are of nature. We’re not superior, we’re not an advanced life form; we are of nature. And we need to find within us the guardianship and the custodianship that comes with it.
But we’ve got to pick it right, because anyone can just say, “that’s bloody worthy innit!”
DAN: I think the thing is, though, that everything is interconnected and we are part of everything. We can all make a difference. It’s not being worthy, really, it’s just being aware.
HEATHER: Yet still, in a way, that rhetoric is easy. You can use words to get everyone going “yes, yes, yes!” But I don’t think I’m going to go for a single point or a single message, I’m going to go for a chain because that’s how my brain works anyway. I think for me it’s slightly more elusive and I think I probably work more through an agency of charm and incantation… and whatever we put in their drinks!
Fred: I’m looking forward to it! Thank you for your time guys.
With her new work, Music for Elephants, interdisciplinary artist Jenny Kendler algorithmically translates data predicting future poaching of African elephants into a score for a vintage ivory-keyed player piano. Each note played on a restored player piano from 1921 represents the number of elephants who may die in the future from ivory poaching in a single month. Much as an elephant would caress the tusks of a loved one who has died, a ghostly absence seems to play these notes. As was common before the 1970s, the keys of this beautiful, antique instrument were crafted from ivory, the very material that drives people to kill elephants for their tusks. Though pianos are no longer made with ivory, this piece serves as a haunting reminder of how our unchecked or ill-informed desires can have devastating impacts our ecosystem and other beings.
The score, both eerie and meditative, counts down month by month, from a population of around 400,000 African elephants remaining today, predicting how many elephants may die in each month that the world does nothing to stop ivory poaching and illegal trade. Lower, longer notes represent greater numbers killed for their ivory. During the 10 minute piece, poaching increases at rate of only 1.5% annually—but after only 300 months (25 years), the count of living elephants falls to zero, the piano’s ivory keys fall silent…and elephants are extinct. Sadly, scientists warn us that extinction could happen even sooner, if rates of poaching and regional instability increase even further.
To create this work, artist Kendler partnered with wildlife specialists at environmental non-profit NRDC. The data they gained access to shows unequivocally that African elephant populations have been declining precipitously in past decades. Extrapolating from data she gathered on elephants’s natural births, deaths and rates of illegal poaching, Kendler’s algorithm shows a dark future of what could be—if we are unwilling as a species to undertake meaningful action to protect these magnificent beings with whom we share the Earth.
A Brief History of Elephants and the Ivory Trade
The African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) is a species known to us all, and beloved by many. Deeply social, long lived and with a famously long memory, elephants are much like us. Like us, they are highly communicative in ways we are only just beginning to understand. Like us, they change their environment, keeping savannas open and grassy—something that may have allowed for our own evolution. Like us, they care for their families. Elephants are known to mourn their dead, habitually revisiting the sites where loved ones have died to caress their bones, and pass ivory tusks between family members. We can only imagine that like us, they know love and loss. And like us, their only real threat are humans.
We don’t know how many elephants there were before humans began carving up their land, capturing them for work or warfare and killing them for meat and ivory. We do know that from several million at the beginning of the 20th century, their population is now around 400,000—for perspective on the increasing direness of the situation, over 100,000 African elephants were massacred between 2010–12 alone. By far the largest cause of these deaths is the illegal poaching of elephants for their ivory tusks.
In the 19th century, King Leopold of Belgium’s desire for access to this “white gold” led to a devastating colonial occupation of Congo, a country now in free fall, which continues to be a major source of poached ivory. In the 1970s, before international trade was banned, ivory was used mainly for carvings and piano key tops, with about 40% of ivory going to Japan, 40% to Europe and N. America, and the rest staying in Africa. Today, illegal ivory often funds murderous regional militias like Sudan’s Janjaweed and Joseph Kony’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, and is traded through international criminal networks. Most of this ends up in Asia, where an economically booming China consumes over 70%. The murdered elephants’s tusks are carved up and sold for upwards of a thousand dollars a pound, to be made into chopsticks, rings and other wealth-demonstrating consumer trinkets.
Notes from the 6th Extinction: A Time of Choosing
Since ivory first became associated with power and wealth and traded as part of global capitalism, the hunger for ivory—and the associated devastating consequences—have only grown.
It is now up to us as a species to decide what matters. The way human beings feel about a species is now one of the main factors in its survival—so our empathy, or lack thereof, has become an ecological force.
If we give in to our desire for more, we may lose the chance to ever understand the minds of these remarkable others, so much like our own. There are those who long to make contact with alien minds from other distant stars—but we have them here, on our planet, if we can only put aside our greed and sense of ‘human exceptionalism’ and recognize our kin.
If you’d like to help, Save the Elephants is doing excellent work on the ground in Africa to monitor populations, support anti-poaching efforts, and build paths to human/elephant co-existence.
Special thanks to the artist’s husband Brian Kirkbride for invaluable assistance in writing the software to generate the score. Thanks also to environmental non-profit NRDC, where Jenny Kendler is Artist-in-Residence, to NRDC’s Elly Pepper for her assistance in gaining access to and interpreting poaching data, to Artprize curatorial fellow Alison Erazmus and to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Coordinator of Public Programs and Interpretive Practices, Ann Meisinger.
Find out more about Jenny Kendler’s work here.
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?’
What words can do justice to the disorientating, vertiginous experience of loss that accompanies an awareness of the unfolding of the sixth mass extinction? These words by Nick Hunt were used at a DIY ritual event held at the Dark Mountain Uncivilisation festival in 2013. Juxtaposing humour and the mundane with the epic and unknowable, they are offered here by Nick as inspiration for Lost Species events this year. Please write your own extinction liturgies and eulogies, and share them here too.
Ladies and gentlemen, men and women, friends, humans, homo sapiens, homo heidelbergensis, neanderthalensis, finders, losers, St. Lucy giant rice rats, loves, lost loves, dears, Schomburgk’s deers, darlings, Darling Downs hopping mice, American lions, Tasmanian tigers, Bermuda night herons, Bermuda triangles, objects, possessions, lost keys, Geeze, Nagumi, Etruscan, Eyak, Basque-Icelandic pigdin, passenger pigeons, words, languages, memories, laughter, laughing owls, Ilin Island cloudrunners, short-faced bears, sharp-snouted dayfrogs, welcome to the Liturgy of Loss.
We ask you now to throw our loved ones’ ashes in the Ganges, to wrap their bodies in flags and drop them in the sea, to stand around the cold church hall eating canapes, to slam our whisky glasses down on the coffin, and finally recline on the topmost tower and let the vultures carry our bones away.
And let us also check five times in the same pocket for your missing mobile phone, and the train ticket that has joined the odd socks in the cupboard under the stairwell of the night
And let us also search in vain for the word for the memory conjured by the particular smell of our mother leaving the house in a rainstorm while potato cakes almost burn in the oven while the cat sicks up the pine needles of last year’s Christmas tree.
And let us also remember our never-to-be-realised childhood dreams of employment as bears, robots, kings of volcanoes, revolutionaries, outlaws and millionaires.
And let us also remember all that we’ve lost without knowing: the sound of the wings of the passenger pigeons that no longer darken the sky whistling over the empty grassland where there is no grass any more and soon there will be no land. The phantom limbs of our orchards, hayricks and other bucolic appendages. The rusted bicycle frame with no gears, no wheels, no brakes, no bicycle, locked outside a boarded-up shop on a street you no longer walk down.
We ask you all to sing of the sadness of things you love and let them go, to laugh at longing, to celebrate the seasonal and circadian rhythms of loss and return.
Ladies and gentlemen, nonhumans, broad-faced potoroos, root-spine palms, dinogorgons, Karankawas, golems, bigfoots, pravoslaverias, you are in the Liturgy of Loss…
We will now forge a Liturgy of farewell for vanishing things. These three certified ritualologists will lead you outside to speak of the things that you love and the things that you’ve lost. We ask you to make a simple offering, a sketch or a few words to represent a personal absence for the forthcoming Immolation of the Darlings, the culmination of our ceremony.You will bring your songs and offerings back here, and the Liturgy will begin.
Ladies and gentlemen! Tarpans! Great auks! Aurochs! Lacunae! Misplaced ephemera! Pieces of the world! Fragments! Missing jigsaw puzzle pieces! Extinct hominids and the extant cousins of extinct hominids! Come! Gather! Make haste! Scurry! Eroded statues! Runes that can’t be read! Please proceed back inside, please proceed back inside, for the Liturgy of Loss is about to begin, the Liturgy is about to commence! Loss! Loss! Loss! Loss! People! Ex-people! Missing persons of the future! Small but essential lost pre-fabricated garden furniture fittings! Soviet notions of a utopian future! The Liturgy is about to begin!
After words, after songs, come only flames and silence. We ask you now to proceed to the Fire of Forgetting for the Immolation of the Darlings, to finally lose the things you’ve lost, and then to go your way in peace and lose yourselves in the world.
Image: mandala from Feral Theatre’s Remembering the Javan Tiger. Photograph by Abi Horn