Persephone Pearl is the director of ONCA, a environmental and social advocacy group based in Brighton, UK. She is one of the organizers that runs the Remembrance Day for Lost Species, an annual memorial dedicated to species and places forever lost to us.
“We will do something. We will do something beautiful. We will act in defiance. We will try something ridiculous in the face of this kind of overwhelming sorrow. That’s kind of permission-giving and then tears can follow once laughter has been generated.”
It is a day of music, fire (they call it a pollinator pyre), poetry and performance, all themed around a sense of universal loss for the whole planet.
“Simply put, Earth is in the early stages of the sixth mass extinction and we’re losing biodiversity at a breakneck speed. And creatures and plants and all sorts of living things are disappearing at a rate that is hard to comprehend or keep up with. My friends and I, and a lot of people, had the sense that we need to make spaces to focus on, think about, reflect on these kinds of changes.”
Each year commemorates a different extinct species. In 2018, they’re mourning the loss of the Steller’s sea cow, a large marine mammal whose living relatives are the dugong and the manatee. Steller’s sea cow was last seen in 1768 in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia. 2018 marks the 250th anniversary of its extinction, just a few years after it was first observed and named by Europeans.
Pearl knows the topic is overwhelming, discouraging and painful. But she says it’s vital to approach it in a spirit of hope. And – yes – laughter is allowed.
“It’s absolutely ok to laugh, I think laughter is really important because it’s part of it, isn’t it? It’s part of feeling. And I don’t think any particular feelings are forbidden. All feelings are welcome and I think we just want to cut into a space where feelings are welcome and difficult emotions just being swept aside or just blocked out – because I think a lot of the time…there is so much terrible stuff happening all around us, all the time. It’s overwhelming. Tired of bad news that surrounds us. You have to be quite careful with your feelings. You can’t feel too much or you feel like you might be losing your mind.”
Listen to the full interview here: http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/tapestry/segment/15551082
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.
Extinction is not a formulaic process that abides to a singular set of rules and experiences. Rather, ‘extinction is experienced, resisted, measured, enunciated, performed, and narrated in a variety of ways to which we must attend’ (De Vos, 2007; van Doreen, 2014 cited in Rose, van Doreen and Chrulew, 2017). Explorations of loss manifest themselves differently across varying disciplines, sites and individuals. Therefore, to approach the study of extinction we must be prepared to engage with the varying range of disciplines, sites and narratives that are actively participating in dialogues of loss and extinction. One such way I am seeking to do this in my own research is by looking beyond the boundaries of academia, and asking how both art as a discipline and artists as individuals are responding to matters of extinction. This focus point led me to the gallery ONCA , based in Brighton. ONCA is bringing together a diverse and global range of artists to engage with the ‘Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2017’ (RDLS). ONCA has been observing Remembrance Day for Lost Species for around six years now, and this year’s theme is specifically upon lost pollinators. ONCA’s aim is to offer a space or site in which people can begin to, or further, engage with the feelings of loss and grief that are so closely intertwined with experiences of extinction. The reach of RDLS has been global, with artists from all walks of life observing the day, and creating art in response to it. It is written on their website that:
Remembrance Day for Lost Species, November 30th, is a chance each year to explore the stories of species, cultures, lifeways and habitats driven extinct by unjust power structures and exploitation, past and ongoing.
It emphasises that these losses are rooted in violent, racist and discriminatory economic and political practices. It provides an opportunity for people to renew commitments to all that remains, and supports the development of creative and practical tools of resistance.
I joined ONCA for a workshop meeting to discuss the upcoming RDLS, as well as to visit the artists that are using their creative skills to open up a space in which to think about and explore feelings of environmental grief. Specifically, the grief we feel for many of the species that are being lost in the modern world. What became evident to me was that the topic of extinction has reached far beyond the realms of natural sciences, to which it was traditionally confined, and has begun to trigger responses from individuals from an extensive range of backgrounds, interests and cultures.
But what is the role of art in helping us question the current ecological state, and shaping the future of ecology? As Robert Macfarlane (2016) recently asked: ‘How might a novel or a poem possibly account for our authorship of global-scale environmental change across millennia – let alone shape the nature of that change?’. Yet, artistic interest in ecological matters is a core way in which individuals outside of the environmental or academic spheres have begun to question the assumptions about humans’ place on Earth, and grapple with the uncertainties of our impacts upon ecosystems, environments and non-human others. From speaking to those involved in RDLS it is clear that artistic expression, whether it be fine art, performance art or sculptural art, has the ability to reach out to a diverse range of audiences and evoke powerful questions regarding the state of the world around us.
In answer to Macfarlane, I would contend that art has a powerful role in both representing and influencing the perceptions and assumptions of the society within which it is being created and practiced. Art performs, but it also challenges, questions, engages and creates new forms of knowledge. As the global involvement in RDLS has shown, it can reach out across the world and capture the attention of people of many different cultures and backgrounds, engaging us in the key questions that need to be addressed about the future of all living creatures on Earth.
De Vos, R. (2007). “Extinction Stories: Performing Abscence(s).” In: Knowing Animals. Edited by: Laurence Simmons and Philip Armstrong. Leiden: Brill. pp. 183-195.
MacFarlane, R. (2016). Generation Anthropocene: How Humans Have Altered the Plant Forever. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/01/generation-anthropocene-altered-planet-for-ever. Last Accessed 14th November, 2017.
Rose, D.B., Van Doreen, T. and Chrulew, M. (2017). Introduction: Telling Extinction Stories. In: Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death and Generation. Edited by: Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Doreen, and Matthew Chrulew. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 1-17.
Van Doreen, T. (2014). Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. New York: Coumbia University Press.
Article shared with the permission of the author. See more at https://www.extinction-network.com
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.
This article is reproduced with the author’s permission from Huffington Post.
I saw my first Remembrance Poppy last week. It was big, faded and taped to the inside of a cottage window. It had obviously seen several years’ reuse, and it called to mind the time I collected up poppies discarded by my classmates after Remembrance Sunday, not from an urge to conserve, but in a spirit of adolescent provocation. I’d decided to wear one throughout the year and daily replaced those yanked from my buttonhole by scandalised teachers and prefects. I’m a little reproached by that memory as I am by that of my schoolboy self annually fidgeting through the two-minutes’ silence marking Armistice. The remembrance statistics are dismally familiar: over 1.25 million UK military personnel killed since 1914; many times that shattered by injury, trauma or both; just one year since 1945 during which a serving member of Britain’s armed forces has not been killed.
Last month reports of a casualty of a different sort of conflict went viral. Apparently the Great Barrier Reef, a vast living structure, bigger than the UK, Holland and Switzerland put together, had died. Though marine biologists later denounced the obituary as premature, none questioned the assessment of Charlie Veron, former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, that, “We are precipitating the conditions for a mass extinction .. Up near Lizard Island there’s hardly any coral at all. It looks like a war zone.” For years the reef has been under sustained attack on two fronts: from acidification of the ocean, stemming from our relentless pumping of CO2 into the atmosphere, and from declining water quality, caused by run off of nitrogen fertilizers used in intensive agriculture.
And of course corals aren’t the only species besieged by human behaviour. Our erosion of biodiversity has its own dismal and ever expanding set of statistics. Extinction rates are conservatively estimated to be 1,000 times higher than normal; credible research puts the global decline of wildlife at over 50% since 1970; and Megan Hollingsworth of Extinction Witness talks of the human assault on biodiversity as, “a war pushing an estimated 75 to 200 species each day over the sharp edge of extinction.” If it is a war, it’s one that, despite its scale and shocking implications, is largely ignored.
In contrast, the lead up to Remembrance Sunday will bring the military losses of human-on-human conflict into sharp focus. This will include those suffered at the Battle of the Somme, the anniversary of which it is this year. Among the British and Commonwealth men who perished there, a vast number were lost without trace. Though it was impossible to locate their bodies for burial, their 72,000 names are immortalised on the imposing Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. Hollingsworth’s upper estimate for current species extinction per year is a similar 73,000. The vast majority of these species – not individuals, but species – will vanish without any media or public acknowledgement. Nor will governments be commissioning a memorial to them anytime soon.
It was frustration at the collective failure to observe and mourn these colossal losses that in 2010 spurred a coalition of artists and educators to launch Remembrance Day for Lost Species, which now takes place annually on November 30th. If the naming and timing of the initiative looks provocative, it’s not intended to be. Those involved grasp the power of the customs, ceremonies and emblems employed by the Poppy Appeal in memorialising the dead, and see a strong case for a comparable approach to honouring and drawing attention to lost species. Writer Nick Hunt explains Remembrance Day for Lost Species as an opportunity for
“developing rituals for coping with loss as much as it’s about education and awareness. It’s a recognition that telling facts about extinction doesn’t always reach people on an emotional level. We hope Remembrance for Lost Species can jolt people into a different sort of awareness.”
Something needs to. Our species’ talent for denial is a special one. And there is a sense in some quarters that only emotion can help us cross the no mans land between facts and figures, and action. It’s more than 50 years since marine biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, the book that exposed the pervasive poisoning from chemical pesticides, and that is often said to have launched the modern environmental movement. The specific peril of DDT may have been largely erased, but there remains a horrible suspicion of inevitability to Carson’s vision of
“a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”
Thinking back to that boy who struggled through a mere two-minutes’ silence, I really hope we humans find a way to truly feel what it is we are doing to our planet; that through our feeling, we act to spare our own offspring a much deeper, far more dreadful silence. In the coming days as the nation pays respect to those who fell in battle, I will also be looking to a future which embraces Remembrance for Lost Species with conviction, a time when whole communities process, lay wreaths, recite poems or enact other rituals out of respect for the species we have killed, and as a mark of our commitment to add no others to the roll; a time when no one will be reproached for wearing a Remembrance for Lost Species badge all year round.
It is 2016 – a year of perpetual progress, demanding deadlines and heedless haste. Seconds spared for personal reflection, far between as they may be, are often consumed with personalized distraction to help in avoiding impending circumstances which this generation has no choice but to eventually face. Amid the discord caused by the inflation of humanity, there is the loss of countless lives of other creatures. At our own expense, the animal kingdom has lost over half of its beings- and the rate of loss continues to accelerate with entire species becoming extinct.
We are entering into what has officially been coined the Anthropocene epoch, translating to the “age of humans”. The epoch began in the 1950s, where the nuclear age, use of plastics and large population spikes began after the war. Recognized as the era when global destruction is profound, it reveals that the next great period of extinction is well under way.
What has been occurring are successive events manipulated by human activity- climate change and alterations of whole cycles and ecosystems caused by events such as colonization and agriculture. These are impacts that we can decidedly control yet have only exacerbated.
Peoples’ ability to cope with the process is telling; despite the need to adjust lifestyles into something more sustainable, humanity seems stuck somewhere between feelings of denial and helplessness. The 3 species we permanently lose every hour are often addressed by the scientific community, yet are seldom culturally understood.
Founded in 2011, Remembrance Day for Lost Species is a series of events determined to honour the lost creatures of this epoch using theatre, storytelling, and memorial services. Each November 30th, anyone interested is invited to partake in rituals that assist us in engaging with the grief of extensive loss. In this way people can transform their experience of extinction into a will of action instead of one of despair or inertia through confronting ecological loss through a cultural ritual.
Persephone Pearl, co-director of ONCA and Feral Theatre who host the major Remembrance Day events, reflects on the significance of hosting such memorials. “It’s not science or statistics, it’s history, it’s real life- and in an age of cultural amnesia, storytelling inspired by historical events is a way to learn lessons from the past.” Such events can remind participants of past mistakes in human history, urging people to act upon the emotions they may be confronted with.
Humanity has engaged with many poor actions when it comes to operating society responsibly, especially by separating the human culture from the rest of nature. At the same time, there has been a lack of effort to reverse the wrongdoings we are now aware of. “The stories of extinct species are powerful, intelligible warnings about the consequences of human [in]action” Persephone asserts.
Use of ceremony and storytelling play a crucial part in bringing people to terms with the truth about our history and additionally with the challenges we will face ahead. When loved ones die, a procession commences and we can fully acknowledge that the deceased will be gone forever. Thus we become more capable of moving on due to closure. Similarly when animal species become completely extinct, they will never return to exist in any form- yet there is otherwise no such procession for ecological losses.
Death and loss are topics that are generally avoided when possible, however Feral Theatre aspires to transform those feelings into a channeling of collective hope. Through performance, the isolation or fear that are often associated with dying can instead take on a process of beauty and community. Events like Remembrance Day offer room for discussion and confrontation for topics such as environmental change that can otherwise fail to be addressed as often as they should.
Rituals have included ceremonies with poems and processions, songs and large-scale models of species that have been lost. For instance in 2011, a sculpture consisting of waste materials modeled into the image of the Bali Tiger was burned on a pyre after a procession similar to the style of a Balinese royal funeral. The merging of cultural and natural events brings honour to species that are otherwise only named and catalogued. It invites people to grieve for the species that are already gone.
Remembrance Day For Lost Species has been expanding its following in the UK and internationally since its beginnings, with scientists and historians becoming involved, as well as school students, who are in some cases already marking the date on their calendars. The separation of science and art continues to dissolve in most places, encouraging a broader group of participants to emerge. It is clear that the influence will continue to grow as the necessity for the event is further realized.
As an international event, people from everywhere are invited to hold their own events to honour extinct species. Every effort counts toward the momentum being assembled to confront the Anthropocene epoch. “Participation can be as simple as lighting a candle or holding a moment’s silence, or as extensive as a community parade or bell casting” says Persephone. Participants are encouraged to send their Remembrance Day efforts as photographs, videos and writings to ONCA to be collected and shared.