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