The Role of Art in Ecological Transformation – by Rosamond Portus

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. 

 

References: 

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

Decolonizing against extinction part I: extinction is violence – by Audra Mitchell

This essay is reproduced with permission from the author Audra Mitchell from her blog: 

Western scientists* are proclaiming the start of a ‘sixth mass extinction event’ that may involve the destruction of more than three quarters of earth’s currently-existing life forms. In their attempts to explain this phenomenon, most scientists have converged around four major, interlinked drivers: climate change, habitat destruction, species exchange, and the direct killing of plants and animals. In most cases, these drivers are understood as the unintended consequences of generic ‘human’ activity, and as a result of desirable trends such as development or urbanization (Wilson 2002; Barnosky 2014Ceballos 2016).

A crucial driver is missing from this list: transversal structural violence against Indigenous peoples and their relations, and colonial violence in particular.

Structural violence’  involves systemic forms of harm, exclusion and discrimination that disproportionately affect particular groups, and which can take many forms (physical, psychological, economic, gendered and others). They are embedded in and expressed through political, cultural, economic and social structures (Farmer 2009) that can persist across large spans of time and space. I use the term ‘transversal’ to refer to forms of structural violence that extend across multiple boundaries – not only those of nation-states, but also other kinds of nations (human and otherwise), communities or kinship groups, and temporalities. Prime examples of transversal structural violence include: settler colonialism, colonial genocides (Woolford et al 2014); environmental racism  or ‘slow violence’, including toxification and pollution;  and complexes of sexual, physical, communal, spiritual and land-based violence associated with the extractive industries.

Each of these forms of violence is ecologically devastating, and their convergence in European projects of colonisation is even more so. Many formations of transversal structural violence are significant causes of the so-called ‘four horsemen’ of extinction mentioned above. For instance, ‘direct killing’ is carried out to clear land for settlement, and it occurs as a result of ecological damage caused by resource extraction. Settler colonialism, carbon-based economies and regimes of environmental racism also support forms of socio-economic organization (for instance, carbon and energy-intensive urbanized societies) that intensify climate change and increase habitat destruction. Meanwhile, colonization has played a significant role in the ongoing transfer of life forms across the planet – whether unintentionally (e.g. the transfer of fish in the bilge water of ships); as an instrument of agricultural settlement (e.g. cattle ranching), or as a deliberate strategy of violence (e.g. smallpox).

However, transversal structural violence is a driver of extinction in itself, with its own distinct manifestations. First, it involves the disruption or severance of relations and kinship structures between humancommunities and other life forms, and the dissolution of Indigenous systems of governance, laws and protocols that have co-created and sustained plural worlds over millennia (Borrows 2010Atleo 2012Kimmerer 2013). Second, the destruction of Indigenous knowledges through policies of assimilation, expropriation, cultural appropriation and other strategies undermines these forms of order and the relationships they nurture. Third, the displacement of and/or restricted access to land by Indigenous peoples interferes with practices of caring for land or Country that are necessary for the survival of humans and other life forms (Bawaka Country 2015). Colonial genocides embody all of these forms of destruction by killing or displacing Indigenous communities, undermining Indigenous modes of governance and kinship systems, systematically destroying relationships between life forms and erasing knowledge. All of these modes of violence weaken co-constitutive relationships between Indigenous communities, other life forms and ecosystems that have enabled their collaborative survival. This results in disruptions to ecosystems – and climate – that  Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte (2016) has recently argued would have been considered a dystopia by his Ancestors.

In other words, transversal structural violence, and colonial violence in particular, are fundamental drivers of global patterns of extinction. It stands to reason, then, that responses to extinction that focus on managing endangered species or populations, or ‘backing up’ genetic material, are insufficient: they leave the structures of violence intact and may add to their power. Instead, efforts to address extinction need to focus on identifying, confronting and dismantling these formations of violence, and on restoring or strengthening the relations they sever.

Yet responses to global patterns of extinction are overwhelmingly rooted in Western scientific concepts of conservation – a paradigm that emerged within 20th century European colonial government structures (Adams 2004). Contemporary conservation approaches – from the creation of land and marine parks to the archiving of genetic materials – may exacerbate the destruction of relations between Indigenous peoples and their relations. For instance, conservation strategies often involve displacing Indigenous peoples from the land that they care for (Jago 2017Brockington and Igoe 2006), or curtailing of processes such as subsistence hunting, fishing or burning that have enabled the co-survival of Indigenous groups, plants, animals and land for millennia. Meanwhile, ex situ and genetic forms of conservation (including zoos and gene banks) may violate these relationships by instrumentalizing or commodifying kinship relations. Increasingly popular conservation approaches based on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) approaches claim to center Indigenous communities and knowledges. However, they ultimately instrumentalize fragments of Indigenous knowledge systems (for instance, data on climatic change) to test or support Western approaches. As such, they leave the structures of colonization and other forms of transversal structural violence untouched, and may even exacerbate them.

All of this suggests that confronting global patterns of extinction calls for decolonization and other ethos that work to eliminate transversal structural violence – and I don’t mean this metaphorically. Enabling the restoration of relations that can enable the ongoing flourishing of life on earth will require the transfer of land and power back into plural Indigenous peoples and their distinct modes of sovereignty, law and governance (Tuck and Yang 2012). These relationships and forms of order have enabled plural Indigenous peoples and their multitude of relations to co-flourish for millennia, including through periods of rapid climate change, and they are needed to ensure the continuation of this co-flourishing. This means that decolonization is not simply related to global patterns of extinction: it is necessary to ensuring the ongoingness of plural life forms on earth.

* see: (Barnosky et al 2011Ceballos et al 2015Régnier et al 2015; McCauley et al 2015WWF 2016; Brook and Alroy 2017)

Featured photo credit: Tar Sands, Alberta (cc) Dru Oja Jay, Dominion. http://bit.ly/2v3I4f7 

Bugonia – by Nessa Darcy

Admiranda tibi levium spectacula rerum.
I’ll tell of tiny things that make a show well worth your admiration. 

– Virgil

Bugonia is an exhibition of prints, paintings and sound art by creative entomologist Nessa Darcy. Nessa aims to reintroduce humans to their natural habitat through colourful encounters with insects. Much of the work was created during the Bee Time artists’ residency, where a hive of diverse artists engaged with the themes of natural beekeeping and the bee’s relationship with its environment, through discussion, meditation, movement, skill sharing, storytelling, art making, shamanic practices, farm visits and simply “asking the bees”.

Bugonia is an ancient ritual based on the belief that bees could be spontaneously generated from the carcass of an ox, as described in Virgil’s Georgics. To the artist, it represents our tangled relationship with nature. Humans feel, simultaneously:

  • a detachment from factual ecological knowledge;
  • wonder and fear at the forces of nature;
  • and a longing to restore that which we need but have destroyed.

The word also sounds like an appropriate name for an insects’ utopia, which we have the power to preserve and create. Both wonder and knowledge are key to rescuing insects from the rapid decline they are currently suffering “because we don’t love them enough” (Roger Druitt). To love insects requires understanding who they are and what they need.

Nessa’s work draws people in to familiarise themselves intimately with insects. For more information on Nessa’s work, visit her website. 

Rougette – by Matt Stanfield

Featured image: taxidermic rougette, with faint reddish-orange “collar” still visible despite fading. Image: Wikimedia CC, citron

A triple thread of discrimination, exploitation and subjugation runs through many historical extinctions. These injustices have long constrained the agency of entire strata of human societies. Above the disadvantaged many, a revolving cast of small elites have sat and called the shots. How many wage-slaves in the so-called rich world possess one iota of the power of the super-rich? And what of the agency of those trapped in the sweatshops and subsistence farms of the world?

Of course, injustice is not just an economic issue. Racism, misogyny, religiously-inspired bigotry and much more besides all fuel the malign inequities of the modern age. Moreover, cruelty and callousness amongst humans has a long, sad history of bleeding far beyond the boundaries of our own species.

This is one such tale. It is a story of slavery, in this case carried out for the benefit of French and British plantation owners, at the expense of the life and liberty of many living around the Indian Ocean. This tale of despoliation on Mauritius and Réunion also accounts for the extinction of a small and singular bat species: the rougette.

 The Dutch abandoned Mauritius in 1710 and five years later France laid claim to it. French settlers had already established themselves on nearby Île Bourbon (later Réunion) decades prior. One hundred-and-twelve years of Dutch activity on Mauritius had profoundly harmed its ecosystem. Six bird species and one lizard are thought to have vanished, with likely much more besides. Yet Mauritius retained a great many wondrous species.

Amongst these was the small Mauritian flying fox (Pteropus subniger), also found on Réunion. Alluding to the band of reddish fur around their necks, the French often called them rougettes. The Pteropus genus contains some of Earth’s largest bats, such as Pteropus vampyrus, whose wings might span five feet. As suggested by their English common name, rougettes were far smaller, about two feet from wingtip to wingtip. When the French began settling Mauritius in earnest during the 1720s, the creatures were common.

This would not last. Mauritius’ new masters had a plan for it. Thousands of enslaved African, Malagasy and Asian people were shipped there to work in the lucrative sugar industry. For over a century Île de France, as the island was renamed, would be a brutal slave colony. Though the percentage of Île de France covered in sugar plantations grew quite slowly, about one-sixth of the already disturbed forests were felled under French rule. The enslaved were tasked with carrying out the backbreaking clearances.

Rougettes were especially vulnerable to deforestation due to their unusual roosting habits. Early observers wrote that up to four hundred might roost inside a single old hollow tree. Most of the rougette’s congeners roost on tree branches, not crammed together in crevices. As old-growth forest was destroyed, suitable roosts for this bat grew scarcer. P. subniger suffered a further consequence of human cruelty: enslaved people were fed appallingly, with those working the sugar fields given far fewer calories than required, and negligible quantities of protein. Survival depended on supplementing what were basically starvation rations.

Eating the native fauna was the best hope for long-term survival available to enslaved people on Île de France and Île Bourbon alike. The eighteenth-century French observer De la Nux claimed rougette hunting on Île Bourbon originated with enslaved Madagascans, though this is unverifiable. Anyhow, by the eighteenth century rougettes were, in De la Nux’s unsympathetic opinion, part of the diets of ‘numerous poorly off and unfastidious people’. P. subniger were fatty creatures, an adaptation to the cooler temperatures of their favoured high-altitude forests. This made them an invaluable source of calories for many denizens of the French Mascarenes.

Eighteenth-century engraving of enslaved people on cleared land near Port Louis, in north-western Mauritius. Image public domain.

In 1815, after the French Revolution broke the power of the Bourbon kings and Napoleon lost his wars, Britain became the colonial master of Île de France, restoring the name of Mauritius to the island. Île Bourbon stayed under French rule.

Deforestation cost Mauritius around a quarter of its remaining virgin forest over just twenty years of British rule. Simultaneously sugar cane cultivation expanded vastly, though cane fields did not replace much of the forest. Instead the felled wood fuelled the sugar-mills. Despite all this, at least one record suggests Mauritian rougettes may have remained reasonably common into the early 1830s.

Everything changed for Mauritius on 1 April 1835, with the formal abolition of slavery. Three in every four of Mauritius’ inhabitants were told that they were now free. Tragically “emancipation” was a poisoned chalice. Whilst Britain’s government compensated former slave owners for their “inconvenience”, nearly eighty thousand former slaves on Mauritius faced two unpromising options. Either they could serve an “apprenticeship” to their former masters, or try to eke out a life away from the settled parts of the island. Unsurprisingly the majority chose to abandon the savagery of the plantations, heading for isolated parts of the island to practice slash-and-burn peasant agriculture. Though this internal diaspora of the desperate likely harmed rougette populations, especially in those parts of the highlands which were settled, none of those involved had chosen to be on the island in the first place.

Much the greater act of ecological harm in the wake of 1835 was the work of the “plantocracy”. It proved profitable for plantation owners to import indentured Indian labourers to replace their slaves. The sugar industry boomed. The cost was the suffering of tens of thousands of Indians and the halving of Mauritius’ forested area in just a decade.

On Île Bourbon things were no better. Slavery remained legal there until 1848, when political upheaval in France led to formal abolition and a new name for the island: Réunion. In an inversion of the situation on Mauritius, it was impoverished white settlers who occupied the highlands of Réunion which harboured the island’s remaining rougettes.

The rougette as it once was. Hand-coloured French engraving from the late nineteenth-century. Image public domain.

In the end, nearly two centuries of plantation agriculture-driven hunting and habitat destruction would drive P. subniger extinct. The final record on Réunion came in 1862, with the animal last reported on Mauritius two years later. Live rougettes were not heard of again.

The sting in the tail of the bats’ demise is that, being primarily nectarivorous, plants which they pollinated might have passed into oblivion with them. We’ll never know.

 

Bibliography
Cheke, Anthony & Hume, Julian P., Lost Land of the Dodo (London, 2009)

Flannery, Tim & Schouten, Peter, A Gap in Nature (London, 2001)

Macmillan, Allister, Mauritius Illustrated (London, 1914)

Various authors, IUCN Red List, online (2017)

Various authors, Volume 1: Truth and Reconciliation Committee Report (Mauritius, 2012)

 

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – by Megan Hollingsworth

The last of the mighty big and free were prisoners guarded with guns,

the named among popular relics saved for trophies

like swaths of impressive land and sea

or captive specimens locked in laboratory cages

within rooms without windows.

 

And they were all whats

And they were all its

Some to be tagged, released, and watched

 

Why? Because the body’s pleasure had been denied

Sanctity? Because, after being treated as an object

forgetting all souls housed,

someone claimed the body an object

nothing more than material to be used, maybe,

and more, a curiosity to be observed

in a photograph pinned to the wall

now pornographed on screen

 

Child sex trophies along with wives

for the successful

not so different at root

than skulls placed in plastic bags

on shelves

labels noting where they were found,

an estimate of when they were killed

 

All too common to count,

the fortunately unfortunate heartsease got away

 

 

Author’s Note: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a 2017 revision of a poem written in 2014 during a month’s witness with rhinoceros and thoughts on the militarization of species conservation. As well, why some humans protect who they do. And they were ‘whats’ is in reference to Maya Lin’s last memorial, What Is Missing? And they were ‘its’ is in reference to the description of Ilin Bushy-tailed Cloud Rat at IUCN Red List. Heartsease, Viola tricolor, also known as Johnny Jump up heart’s ease, heart’s delight, tickle-my-fancy, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, come-and-cuddle-me, three faces in a hood, and love-in-idleness, is a common European wildflower, growing as an annual or short-lived perennial introduced to and spread in North America.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is offered for Indigenous People’s Day as the ‘why and how’ of who gets protected and what communities ‘reserved’ is fresh in my mind following a visit to Yellowstone National Park with my son September 30th, 2017 – National Public Lands day and one of the annual free-entrance days for National Parks. With intent to show my son the Lower Falls and perhaps share the experience I had seeing the view for the first time in 1994, the day visit was bittersweet.

When I first visited Yellowstone with my mother while on summer vacation from college, I was uninformed of how U.S. National Parks, spurred by the cutting of giant sequoia during the California Gold Rush, came into existence through continued forced removal of native peoples. I had also not yet experienced living in forest homestead or extended periods wandering Wilderness. The time in the Park on September 30th was very much what visiting the Park has felt like since being informed of genocide and these personal experiences of immersion in community. To me, the Park feels like a zoo or museum with charismatic community members like relics on display. Captives, like famous actors and musicians, mobbed when they appear.

Along with the urgent need for preservation of all remaining intact ecological communities, the ‘us and them’ practice of species conservation and community preservation needs to end. And the ‘half-Earth’ meme clearly emphasise the reintegration of human lifeways to established reserves where peoples have been removed in the course of establishment. Just as the whole of ecological community needs to be integrated in urban centers in the vein of ‘win-win ecology’.

I imagine the time when all humans again experience themselves indigenous – as participants in biologically diverse community rather than as guests and observers of ‘wildlife’ and ‘nature’. Because we humans are participants in biologically diverse community. Biodiversity is social diversity. And there is no escaping that reality. This is painfully obvious as everyone suffers and whole communities fail when humans neglect responsibility to care for those vulnerable in our midst.

On our way into the Park, my son and I happened to stop for a lunch break along Gardiner River just before bighorn sheep arrived for a drink and the crowd arrived to photograph them. As we were headed home, we chanced to see two black at separate points, though near one another, both surrounded and traffic stalled. I did not stop and did my best to explain why to my son, who is seven years old.

Looking out into the canyon from Lower Falls, Yellowstone National Park

Lower Falls, Yellowstone National Park

My son was less impressed by the grandness of the Lower Falls than with the spaces he could fit inside, and tiny rocks and sticks and clay he found on trail.

Franklin’s Bumblebee: Already Too Late? – by Matt Stanfield

Humans are inquisitive and acquisitive, predisposed to hanker after novelty. Throughout history, the rare and obscure have enticed us. Those insect species associated with multitudinous swarms struggle to appeal to this psychological trait of ours. If they do get our attention, it is generally for other reasons.

Bees, for instance, have recently been making news for their precipitous declines. The anxious coverage of this phenomenon is very much linked to immediate human concerns. It is estimated that one-third of our kind’s food is pollination-dependent. Thus the conservation of bees is widely seen as of direct interest to our own species, in a way that the conservation of many other organisms is not. Even if the motive is a self-interested one, humans would do well to work on arresting and reversing bee declines, given we are far from the only species in need of their continued presence on the planet.

Though bees are often considered only en masse, as a homogenous force, this piece will look at just one bee species: Franklin’s bumblebee (Bombus franklini). This insect has not been seen alive since 2006 and may already be extinct. Absent any further confirmed sightings, it will likely be some time before Franklin’s bumblebee is declared gone forever. This is quite standard, as far larger and more conspicuous species have occasionally been known to vanish from record for decades or more. Still, for this small creature the signs are not promising.

B. franklini has had a highly restricted range ever since it was first described in 1922, possibly the smallest of any bumblebee on Earth. So far as we know, they only ever lived within a limited tract from southern Oregon to northern California. Specifically, these bees were found in the Klamath Mountains, an extremely picturesque area incorporating a substantial amount of officially protected land.

Example of potential B. franklini habitat. Siskiyou Wilderness near Preston Peak, California. Image public domain

Between 1998 and 2006, the bees’ home range was examined thoroughly by Dr Robbin W. Thorp. Thorp’s initial findings showed that Franklin’s bumblebee was slightly more widespread than previously assumed. Each year, his surveys included at least five potential new sites where the bees might exist. Up to the year 2000, Franklin’s bumblebee was indeed found at seven of these new sites.

From 2001 onwards, no new locations yielded any B. franklini sightings. Worse, the insects started disappearing from areas which they had previously occupied. The 2004 and 2005 surveys failed to turn up a single Franklin’s bumblebee anywhere within their known range. In 2006, the situation differed, inasmuch as precisely one member of the species was seen during an entire year’s searching. Without Dr Thorp’s work, the fading of this insect might never have been noticed at all.

It is fitting that B. franklini vanished before our eyes so near the western edge of North America, where the ever-shifting frontier of colonial mythology finally came up against the Pacific and an insurmountable obstacle to further expansion. In the end, nothing is inexhaustible, whether it be the “Wild West” or the Earth’s legions of invertebrates.

A female Franklin’s bumblebee. Image public domain

So, whatever happened to Franklin’s bumblebee over the first few years of the new millennium?

The IUCN identifies two main agents of the species’ possible demise. First, it notes that our species’ commercial interest in bumblebees may imperil them. Commercial usage of bumblebee colonies to pollinate crops both indoors and out has brought wild populations into contact with new pathogens. In recent decades, bumblebees have become commercialised, with colonies transported across nations. Tracheal mites, intestinal protozoa and others have travelled far and wide with these bees.

Even where pathogens do not kill bumblebees directly, the sophisticated nature of bee behaviour renders it easily disrupted. The capacity of bumblebees to learn to handle or feed on newly-encountered flower types may be reduced by infection. In turn, this shrinks the amount of food which forager bees bring into the colony, diminishing its size and ability to produce offspring. Thus, the colony may collapse entirely.

The second culprit which the IUCN puts forward in the case of the vanished B. franklini is agricultural intensification, most importantly regarding pesticide usage. Pesticides can prove immediately deadly to bumblebees, or eat away at the health of their colonies as foragers unwittingly bring poisonous chemicals into their homes.

Recently, a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids has been identified as especially dangerous to bees, a discovery picked up on by some sections of the media. Whether such attention might dissuade humanity from gambling with the future of a crucial pollinator genus is yet to be seen.

 

Bestiary – by Joanna Macy

Bronx Zoo, Alexis Rockman, 2012-13

Short-tailed albatross

Whooping crane

Gray wolf

Woodland caribou

Hawksbill sea turtle

Rhinoceros

 

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

 

Reed warbler

Swallowtail butterfly

Bighorn sheep

Indian python

Howler monkey

Sperm whale

Blue whale

 

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

 

Giant sable antelope

Wyoming toad

Grizzly bear

Brown bear

Bactrian camel

Nile crocodile

Chinese alligator

 

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

 

Gray bat

Ocelot

Pocket mouse

Sockeye salmon

Tasmanian kangaroo

Hawaiian goose

Audouin’s seagull

 

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

 

Golden parakeet

West African ostrich

Florida panther

Galapagos penguin

Imperial pheasant

Snow leopard

Mexican prairie dog

 

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

 

Thick-billed parrot

San Francisco garter snake

Desert bandicoot

Molokai thrush

California condor

Lotus blue butterfly

 

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

 

Atlantic ridley turtle

Coho salmon

Helmeted hornbill

Marine otter

Humpback whale

Steller sea-lion

Monk seal

 

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

 

Gibbon

Sand gazelle

Swamp deer

Musk deer

Cheetah

Chinchilla

Asian elephant

African elephant

 

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

 

Desert tortoise

Crested ibis

Hook-billed kite

Mountain zebra

Mexican bobcat

Andrew’s frigatebird

 

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

 

Ivory-billed woodpecker

Indus river dolphin

West Indian manatee

Wood stork

 

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

 

Ferret

Gorilla

Jaguar

Wolf

 

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

Hawaii’s emptying skies – by Matt Stanfield

Paintings of Oahu akialoa (top) & Lanai akialoa (bottom). Images public domain

Not long ago, the Hawaiian archipelago supported a plethora of pollinating birds. Today, many are extinct, with others feared lost or experiencing worrisome declines. Since the early nineteenth-century, twelve of Hawaii’s specialist avian nectar-eaters have become extinct, leaving at most eight known species behind. Seeing images of all twelve of these birds gathered together in one place is an effective and affecting way of getting a true sense of Hawaii’s losses.

The Hawaiian Islands are thought to have first been settled fewer than eight hundred years ago, at the tail end of Polynesian expansion across the Pacific. The arrival of humans in these isolated ecosystems bought with it our species’ calling card: an extinction pulse. The Polynesians, along with the pigs, dogs, chickens and rats who accompanied them, are thought to have been responsible for the loss of many lifeforms.

European arrival from the late eighteenth-century onwards contributed its own wave of death and destruction. Smallpox and other diseases killed many native Hawaiians, and the fauna of the islands experienced further depletion.

Hawaiian nectarivorous birds are divided into two groups: honeycreepers and honeyeaters (though the latter are no relation of the other bird species which are referred to as honeyeaters) Akialoa were honeycreepers, in a genus containing four living members when Europeans arrived in Hawaii. Today all are gone.

The Lanai akialoa disappeared first. Its decline seems to have predated European arrival, as fossils suggest it once inhabited other islands besides Lanai. Habitat loss and the ongoing damage wrought on Hawaii’s ecosystem by the Polynesians’ pigs likely doomed it.

Oahu’s akialoa fared a little better, with the last report dating from 1940. Forest clearance for American sugarcane ventures deeply damaged these birds. They also suffered a more sinister scourge: avian influenza. Spread by mosquitoes, who may have arrived in the bilge water of whaling ships, this disease continues to ravage Hawaiian avifauna to this day.

Paintings of Hawaii mamo (top) & black mamo (bottom). Images public domain

The Big Island’s Hawaii mamo was imperilled before James Cook’s 1778 landfall on the archipelago. The birds’ six to eight yellow feathers were used to manufacture garments for Hawaiian nobles and royalty. One particular cloak may have cost an obscene sixty thousand mamo their lives. Still, the Hawaii mamo might yet live today without the bitter blows dealt by European-led deforestation for cattle ranching, and avian flu.

Often seen with a pollen-dusted forehead after feeding on lobelia flowers, the black mamo, whose range had already been reduced by the Polynesians, was scientifically described in 1893. The last recorded bird was shot fourteen years later. The introduction of cattle, deer and mongooses is blamed for the loss of this species.

Taxidermic greater amakihi. Image public domain

Eating both nectar and insects, the greater amakihi does not appear to have been known to the natives of Hawaii’s Big Island. Western collectors discovered this bird perhaps only a decade before Western investors destroyed it. Scientifically described in 1892, the species was last recorded in 1901, just before its tiny home range was cleared to make way for a sugarcane plantation.

Painting of female (left) & male (right) Laysan honeycreepers. Image public domain

The Laysan honeycreeper, which favoured the nectar of its island’s native flowers, was last recorded in 1923. Europeans, not Polynesians, seem to have been the first people to settle Laysan. Just one of them served to seal the birds’ fate: Max Schlemmer, who released rabbits there in the 1890s, hoping to use them for meat. The rabbits bred explosively, eradicating most of the vegetation on which the Laysan honeycreepers fed.

Taxidermic lesser akialoa (top) & Kauai akialoa (bottom). Images public domain

So far as can be gleaned, none of the akialoa species were common by the time Europeans reached the Hawaiian Islands. Both of these pollinators were ultimately undone by the sugarcane industry’s ruination of forests working in tandem with the invisible spread of mosquito-borne avian diseases. The lesser akialoa has not been reported since 1940. In 1969, when the ultimate agent of its demise first walked on the moon, the Kauai akialoa was last reported. With its passing, the entire akialoa genus ended.

Taxidermic kioea. Image public domain

Whilst gravely damaged by human activity, several nectarivorous Hawaiian honeycreepers yet persist. The Hawaiian honeyeater family (Mohoidae) was less fortunate. They are generally thought to be the only avian family extinct in modern times. Even within an order as large as that of the perching birds, losing a whole family is significant. For instance chameleons, in all their distinctiveness, represent a single family amongst Earth’s snakes and reptiles. The kioea, last recorded in 1859, is thought to have been a victim of logging, introduced species and hunting.

Paintings of Oahu Oo (top) & Hawaii Oo (bottom). Images public domain

Black, yellow and beautiful, these two species have been extinct for some time. The Oahu Oo vanished nearly two hundred years ago, last being recorded in 1837. Hunting by native Hawaiians for its yellow feathers may have contributed, though the prime causes of extinction are thought to have been introduced disease and habitat destruction in the wake of European contact. The Hawaii Oo was last recorded in 1934, suffering a similar fate to its relative on Oahu.

Taxidermic Kauai Oo (top) & Bishop’s Oo (bottom). Images public domain

Bishop’s Oo was last definitively recorded in 1904, although reports persisted for decades afterwards on its former island home of Molokai. As with other species in this piece, fossil remains indicate it may have been more widespread before the arrival of Polynesian settlers. In recent times, the range of these birds was much more restricted. The most recent notable sighting was in 1981. Given this species has not been unequivocally seen alive in over a century, it is surely lost now. Cattle ranching and pineapple cultivation have much altered Molokai, and introduced avian diseases are as problematic there as elsewhere.

Kauai’s Oo was the last survivor of the Mohoidae. Once common, it entered a steep decline during the early twentieth century. Again, habitat destruction and disease-bearing mosquitoes were the key culprits. In 1987, the mating song of a male Kauai Oo was recorded. Over untold millennia, his species had evolved a delicate call-and-response duet. But for Earth’s last Kauai Oo, there would be no answer. He died later that year.

 

 

 

She Will Bury Them – by Megan Hollingsworth

she will bury them from Extinction Witness on Vimeo.

 

She counts

about 50,000 dead

 

That is,

about 300 colonies

 

And she will bury them

 

Numbers she counts

so many

 

That is,

more than enough

 

And she will bury them all

 

In numbers

many hands gather

 

so she can bury them

 

Begging,

 

Who will love the flowers?

 

Author’s note: The poem voiced in SHE WILL BURY THEM counts the cost in one spraying of neonicotinoids, a class of neuro-active insecticides that killed about 50,000 bees in Wilsonville, Oregon summer 2013. The poem closes with an honest question asked by someone uncertain of who she is becoming.

On Thylacine Day 2017 – by Matt Stanfield

The last captive thylacine died on September 7th, 1936

There’s nothing else like the thylacine. Nearly twenty years on, the memory of first discovering these bewitching animals remains vivid. As a child, my mum gave me her old collection of nature magazines from the mid-seventies. One particular article stood out.

‘Is the Thylacine Really Gone?’ the title asked. The piece was about five pages long, lavishly illustrated with grisly images of grim-faced men in Victorian agricultural dress posing with the corpses of one of the most captivating animals I had ever seen. Arguably the thylacine is a strange species for me to be so drawn to. Due to some negative experiences in the past, I’m not especially keen on dogs, to which thylacines are often likened. To my mind though, they’re at most akin to a highly experimental take on the dog.

Besides the tale of these animals’ persecution at the hands of a miserably myopic sheep lobby, the article also focused heavily on continued reports of sightings from Tasmania. Even for a piece written forty years ago, the notion of surviving thylacines was extremely optimistic. Whilst I am fairly certain that “Benjamin” was not truly the last thylacine, the notion of the species holding out until even the late nineteen-fifties seems highly improbable. Like most people with an interest in the thylacine, I would dearly love for a miraculous rediscovery to occur, but the odds on that are so tiny as to be insignificant.

However, believing that the thylacine is forever lost to the world does little to diminish what has proven an enduring obsession. Reading the story of these scandalously vilified marsupials not only awoke an interest which occasionally induces an adrenaline rush on glimpsing a mangy urban fox in southern England, but was the beginning of a sense of profound anger at human stupidity and greed.

This anger, aimed at the craven irresponsibility of so many in positions of influence, who play to the basest of human emotions and are so quick to find a convenient scapegoat to let themselves off the hook, drives my involvement in environmental concerns. This frustration at the deep and malignant injustices which are perpetrated every day, to the detriment of life itself, began with the thylacine’s tale.

After reading that first article, I started seeking out anything and everything thylacine-related. Books, TV shows, newspaper articles, I devoured them all. Sometimes I would draw thylacines, which is an excellent way to get a sense of how singular these animals truly were. The highlight was always natural history museums. No longer was it just about the dinosaurs – the unfashionable corners of the mammal exhibits held a new allure. Perhaps I hadn’t fully grasped the concept of taxidermy, or maybe I was caught up in the magical thinking of childhood, but on staring at the faded skins I half-felt if I wished hard enough, the scraps of creature behind the glass might reanimate.

A little later, I pinned my hopes on cloning. Sadly, even the wonders of genetic science are not yet equal to the task of returning this iconic ghost to the mortal realm. They may well never be: thylacines were behaviourally complex enough that even if one were to shamble stiffly out of a laboratory, it would not and could not know how to actually be what it supposedly was. The thylacine’s closest living relative is the numbat, an insectivore whose adult size is barely bigger than that of a thylacine joey.

Adult male thylacine skull. Skulls are the most common relics, perhaps owing to the Tasmanian government’s extermination bounty being paid per head.

Thylacines today might be no more than memories and relics, but I believe that these matter immensely, and not only for their scientific value. The importance of seeing extinct animals’ remains first-hand was never clearer to me than at the French national museum of natural history. Within a darkened hall dedicated to extinct and threatened species, skin and bone testify to human vandalism.

Each skeleton, skin and pickled corpse of a species lost because of us is a vital reminder of our place as increasingly unchecked global superpredators. If extinction is a spectrum, the terminal phase may be for an organism to be altogether forgotten. As long as pictures, photographs, footage and the physical remains of our victims endure, it is that much harder to downplay the cost of humanity’s ways. Seeing so many vanished creatures in a single room in central Paris sparked a sense of coming reckoning for all that we have done, and do.

Possibly the only photograph of a live thylacine in the wild. Image public domain.

The above photograph, though grainy, small, and of uncertain origin, is thought to show a sight which no-one will ever see again. Thylacines walk Tasmania’s woodland no more, for the small and stupid reason of panic over the safety of sheep. By the time the slaughter of these animals was recognised for the abomination it was, the hour was too late.

There are other “thylacines” though. They are those similarly unique species who are approaching extinction right now. Lots can be found at http://www.edgeofexistence.org/

Should the thylacine’s demise move you, spare a thought for the elusive saola, the mighty Philippine eagle, or the gorgeous Malagasy rainbow frog. Without effective action, all these and innumerable others could be following the thylacine into oblivion soon enough.