RDLS 2018: invitation to participate

Drawing by Matt Stanfield

Remembrance Day for Lost Species (RDLS), November 30th, is a chance each year to explore the stories of extinct species. These naturally lead to the stories of critically endangered species, ways of life, and ecological communities. Set up in 2011 in response to species extinctions resulting from human activity, RDLS is an opportunity to make or renew commitments to all who remain and to collaborate on creative and practical solutions. The primary intention of the day is to create spaces for grieving and reflection. Previous activities have included art, processions, tree planting, building Life Cairns, bell casting and ringing, Regenerative Memorials and more. Explore this website for examples of past events.

For 2018, RDLS invites events on or around November 30th to mark the extinction and endangerment of marine mammals and/or the ongoing threats to seas. The focal lost species for 2018 is Steller’s sea cow. Alternatively, RDLS participants are welcome to focus on any lost or disappearing species or ecological community. Please see the list of suggested activities below.

Steller’s sea cow

Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) was 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, just a few years after it was first observed and named by Europeans. 2018 marks the 250th anniversary of its extinction. The story of Steller’s sea cow story has much to teach about how species can be extinguished with shocking speed.

Steller’s sea cow was named by Georg Wilhelm Steller, a German naturalist who noticed the creatures whilst shipwrecked on Bering Island during a scientific mapping expedition of the Arctic. Much of what is known about the sea cow comes from Steller’s 1741 observations. Fur hunters, who then set up a trading post on the island, subsisted on sea cows, which were easy to hunt as they were slow moving and rarely submerged. All the sea cows were gone by 1768.

Growing up to nine metres in length and weighing up to ten tonnes, Steller’s sea cows provided refuge for many species, including fish, several species of crustaceans now extinct, and resting birds. They communicated with sighs and snorts, fed mainly on kelp, and were monogamous and sociable. Mothers nursed and raised one baby at a time.

Illustration by by F. John

Suggested RDLS activities:

  • Respond to the story of Steller’s sea cow or focus on the story of another marine species, community or issue you’re passionate about. Other examples include grey whales, orcas, vaquita, eels, krill, otters, salmon and many more.
  • Focus on local stories of extinction or endangerment, and on ways to restore relationships with one or more species of your ecological community.
  • Explore links between human-induced extinctions and other forms of structural violence.
  • On days before or after RDLS, organise or participate in personally and collectively restorative activities (e.g. beach and waterway cleans, tree planting, gardening with pollinators and soil in mind).

How to join RDLS 2018

 

Getting to Know the Last Ground Sloths – by Matt Stanfield

The Americas lost most of their giant beasts when a wave of extinction swept them between the twelfth and the eighth millennia BC. Precisely what caused this cataclysm remains a source of controversy. That said, humans appear to have expanded their range of settlement in the Western Hemisphere around this time, so it is likely we had at least a hand in the matter.

At any rate, amongst the victims of the prehistoric American extinction pulse were the giant ground sloths, a highly successful group once found from Patagonia to the Great Lakes. Yet the ground sloths’ final curtain did not come down in the eighth millennium BC. Colossi such as Megatherium americanum might have vanished, but on a series of refugia, remnants persisted. The last ground sloths still wandered Caribbean forests around the time that Ancient Egypt’s first pyramids were raised. These animals were much smaller than their lost relatives. The biggest, such as Megalocnus rodens of Cuba, were comparable in size to a large sheep.

Detail of a Megatherium americanum skeleton cast, Natural History Museum, London. Image: Matt Stanfield, 2018

The Caribbean islands are thought to have lost at least seven sloth species in the last nine thousand years, with at least one within the last five thousand. It is believed the end of the ground sloths was precipitated by human settlement in the Caribbean, six thousand years or more ago. Certainly, few ground sloth remains have been carbon-dated to times much beyond the earliest evidence of humans on their islands.

The relative proximity of these creatures’ last days to our own time fascinates me. Compared to their continental kin, the Antillean sloths are obscure, with restorations of their life appearance hard to come by. Wanting to develop my understanding of these peculiar leftovers, I decided to try a life reconstruction of one such sloth. I selected Acratocnus ye, whose scientific name translates into English as “yesterday’s powerless sloth”. Taxonomists can be very cruel…

A. ye, though tiny compared to titans like Megatherium, was not as hapless as its name suggests. Standing on its hind legs, the solidly-built sloth reached a respectable metre or so in height. This is far in excess of the roughly guinea pig-sized Hispaniolan hutia, the biggest native mammal species remaining in A. ye’s former range.

The obscurity of Acratocnus ye meant I could only find a few pictures of subfossil bones and a medium-resolution image of a complete skeleton for reference. This limited supply of visual references suited me well. I prefer reconstructing obscure animals because not only does uncertainty give me more room for imagination, but, on a more prosaic note, the fewer total drawings of a species that exist, the fewer better drawings than mine there are likely to be! Below is a sketch of the skeletal photo which I used as the main reference for my piece (I think the original image is copyrighted, hence the reproduction).

Sketch of a reconstructed Acratocnus ye skeleton, Matt Stanfield, 2018

Reconstructions of recently-extinct species are not only a learning experience for me, but an emotive one. Working on these pieces forces close consideration of those anatomical details that define an animal’s appearance. This process, I find, infuses a personal notion of the organism’s essence into my memory. It actually has a vaguely devotional feel to it, since I usually feel more attached, in some way, to creatures which I have drawn, as opposed to those I have not.

In the case of ground sloths, the matter of the animals’ “essence” is a challenging one to address. If you wanted to reconstruct the life appearance of say, a sabre cat or mastodon, there are living creatures which provide a viable reference point. Less so for ground sloths. Contemporary tree sloths are highly adapted to an idiosyncratic lifestyle, meaning that even the smaller ground sloths had a markedly different external appearance to their arboreal relatives. Thus, I aimed to give my Acratocnus a “look” distinct from extant animals.

Acratocnus ye, Matt Stanfield, 2017

Ground sloths being tricky to pin down visually, I found that the Acratocnus ye on my page passed through various “looks”. Initially, the stocky legs and long tail gave the lost mammal taking shape on the page a kangaroo-like aspect. The addition of a barrel-shaped torso conjured up thoughts of a bear standing on its hind legs. When it came time to cap off the Acratocnus, it took some work to stop the head from (unexpectedly) resembling an otter’s.

After dozens of hours, the piece was complete. Sadly, due to the technique which I used, it doesn’t photograph brilliantly. Be assured though that thousands of individually-drawn hairs went into the pelt, not to mention the time taken on claws, eyes, muzzle and ears. Whilst I’m finally satisfied enough with my tribute to A. ye to make it public, there are various snags I was unable to fully rectify. Firstly, the limited reference material caused me some confusion regarding the sloth’s feet (which is why they aren’t shown). Second, not having a scale for the species, for most of the drawing process I envisaged A. ye as about double its actual size. Resultantly, my ground sloth has a bit more heft than it perhaps should. Lastly, I somewhat lazily portrayed Acratocnus ye in a very over-used pose for ground sloths: rearing up and leaning on a tree. There’s no excuse for my repeating of this tired trope. Nevertheless, I hope that you enjoy my visual salute to a virtually unknown animal that vanished on the very cusp of the historical era.

Matt Stanfield

With reference to Cooke, Dávalos, Mychajliw, Turvey & Upham, ‘Anthropogenic Extinction Dominates Holocene Decline of West Indian Mammals’, in Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics. August 23, 2017. 48:301-27. Consulted at https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-ecolsys-110316-022754

With thanks to Mo Hassan of https://www.mocoillustration.com for help with translation of A. ye’s binomial

Lost Species Day 2017 – some events

November 30th 2017 saw a range of participatory events happening across the UK, USA and other parts of the world. Here are the ones we know of:

Pembrokeshire, Wales: Permaculturist Debbie Rees and artist Emily Laurens hosted a pollinator procession through the polytunnels at Blaenffos Permaculture Market Garden.

  

Glasgow, Scotland: Galgael held a sharing circle at the weekly community meal, focusing on the meaning of remembrance for lost species and on the decline of pollinators with poetry, reflections and commitments. Organiser Svenja Meyerricks said, “At the end I chucked my tobacco on the table to publicly announce my intention to quit smoking for good, because of the adverse effects pesticide-heavy monocultures like tobacco crops have on pollinators. Wish me luck!”

Svenja also wrote about the RDLS on the Bella Caledonia blog here, and thanks to her awareness raising, a group of Glasgow school children learned about pollinators and will be planting pollinator friendly seeds in the spring.

Georgia, USA: A small group of homeschoolers focused their attention on RDLS for the whole week. Organiser Kim Cornelia Banton, writer and content manager at Solutions Spotlight explained: “At the start of the week, I introduced the meaning of the day and how different people have participated in the past. Then each day leading up to RDLS, we discussed how different kinds of extinctions are caused by human activity and spent some time each day learning about animals from different places across the globe that have become extinct within the last hundred years. In line with this year’s theme, we also spent some time exploring pollinators. The kids fell in love with the Xerces blue butterfly of the San Francisco peninsula and opted to memorialize this particular species with their art.”

  

 

Oakland, California, USA: Extinction Witness, Pollinator Posse and Giant Puppets Save the World collaborated to host the Lake Merritt Regenerative Memorial and Pollinator Procession. Lucille’s Regenerative Memorials are publicly accessible green spaces ranging from small plots in community gardens to verges, fields and groves in parks or forests. Their intention is to support the human grieving process within the context of life’s complete cycle of birth, decay, death, and birth.

Chicago, USA: Musician Rebecca Jasso and friends held a concert.

Sacramento, CA, USA: Erin Reschke and friends held a riverside ceremony and potluck, wit a talk about the ancient history of the river lands.

 

New York, USA: Ecological artist Jan Harrison created a new series of pastel pieces depicting bats. See the whole collection here.

Los Angeles, USA: Embroidery artist Sherrell Cuneo made this tribute to the Xerces blue butterfly:  

and continued to develop her long-term project, the Mourning Gown:

Melbourne, Australia: Artists Gabbee Stolp and Michelle Stewart ‘s RDLS exhibition To the Future Lost was ‘a space for reflection, a poignant reminder of our human relationship with nature and the destructive impact we humans continue to have on the Earth… a wunderkammer of objects characterising endangered species, as a tribute to Australia’s many critically endangered flora and fauna.’

Brighton, England: ONCA Gallery hosted Extinct Icons & Ritual Burials – an exhibition for RDLS. It featured works by artists Katie Tume, Hannah Battershell, Clare Whistler, Sol Howard, Susan Richardson, Megan Powell and OX Art. (Read an artist profile of Katie Tume by John Platt for RDLS on The Revelator here.)

Off site, ONCA outreach artist Ellie Liddell-Crewe ran projects with teenagers at St John’s SEN College and Brighton & Hove Pupil Referral Unit. After exploring artefacts at The Booth, Brighton’s natural history museum, participants made pollinator-inspired masks and art which formed part of the RDLS exhibition in the gallery.

ONCA also hosted a bat mask making workshop for children (and dogs) …

 

…and a Procession for Pollinators which took 45 participants on a route that ended at local organically-managed green space, The Level. The withy structure, which was burned at the end of the gathering, was made by the Hailsham-based Material Collective.

Finally, ONCA hosted a panel discussion called ‘Daring To Hope’ with three extraordinary artists and campaigners who all explore approaches to art and ways to sustain activism and hope in the Anthropocene: Clare Whistler, artist and co-founder of WATERWEEK, Louise Lily Gibson, creative communication/ BSL specialist and photographic artist, and Josie Cohen, campaigner for Pesticide Action Network – UK.

Brighton, England: Artist Adrian Ventura did a series of daily sketches in the lead-up to November 30. See the full collection here

Brighton, England: Artist Miranda Ellis invited passersby to her studio and offered warming memorial mead, seed bombs containing bee-friendly flowering plants, and an opportunity to learn about bees.

Brighton: University of Sussex researchers  held a symposium, ‘Memory Beyond the Human’ on deep time and extinction alongside artists and researcher RDLS researcher Matt Stanfield.

Brighton: RDLS stickers appeared around the town overnight…

Galway, Republic of Ireland: Transition Tunes Galway hosted a Sing for Our Planet event.

Oxford, England: Helen Jukes wrote a piece for the Dark Mountain blog.

Malvern, Worcestershire: Buddhist temple gathering.

Dublin, Republic of Ireland: Artist and creative entomologist Nessa Darcy held a solo exhibition of works called Bugonia.

Heidelberg, Germany: Council of All Beings. Inspired by Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects.

Madrid, Spain: Bionic Dance Festival‘s lost species- themed dance competition was won by a Brazilian dancer whose piece embodied Amazon deforestation.

Salt Lake City, Utah, USA: The Good Grief Network held a candle-lit vigil in the Salt Lake CIty Peace Garden, with poetry and reflection.

Montreal, Canada: Artist Katrine Claasens collaborated with staff at Redpath Museum to run a workshop with children learning about extinct and endangered species through the museum’s collection. As Katrine explains, “We started out by listening to rainforest sounds and then investigating the history of species lost to human activity. The museum curator gave a tour of the extinct species. We then removed some of the specimens from the museum display, with the children carrying them in a solemn procession through the museum to a room where we painted them. It was a very moving experience.”

  

Dorset, England: Movement artist  Sandra Reeve hosted a vigil and performance.

Frome, Somerset: End of life doula Mike Grenville led a procession up Cley Hill to read Bestiary by Joanna Macy.

Winchester, England: Giraffe Social Enterprise hosted a performance of Andrew Boyd’s ‘Twelve Characters in Search of An Apocalypse’.

Fiji, South Pacific: NatureFiji and Anniemalsartist held a day for the Kulawai bird and invited people locally and around the world to make and wear kulawai masks  in support of the beautiful critically endangered pollinator.

Skagway, Alaska: Artist Kim Burnham made this piece about the monarch butterfly:

London, England: Illustrator Louis T Fowler made a new piece called Return to Splendour.

Telegraph Hill, London: Bridget McKenzie organised a simple action of a winged bench which people could sit on to become an insect and hold a message. Some bees (Emma Garofolo from Mischief Makers, and Stephanie Patient) also came along to amaze and inform. Many conversations and connections were made. Everybody that passed by expressed support, and a wish to green the area and make it pollinator-friendly.

Kings Cross, London: Collaborative storytelling Bee Wreath. Ecological artist Beckie Leach led a workshop to create a giant wreath made of bees. Participants each made a paper bee from paper, wrote a story on it and added it to the wreath.

London: Comic performer Luke Rollason did a special performance of his acclaimed clown show Planet Earth III at Leicester Square Theatre for RDLS. Planet Earth III is a low-budget one-man nature documentary, set in a future where our worst predictions came true – following ecological collapse, thousands of endangered species are extinct, including the BBC. But one plucky intern isn’t giving up…

Planet Earth 3 – Luke Rollason Trailer from Alex Wood on Vimeo.

London: Artist/ activist Liam Geary Baulch made this poster, inspired not only by the  RDLS 2017 pollinator theme but by the speculative storytelling of interspecies feminist academic Donna Haraway and others.

Hastings, England: Artist Daniela Othieno made tiny pollinator memorials.

Hastings: Jilliene Sellner made a sound piece on insect population collapse, inspired by Silent Spring

Online: Hapi & The Lost Species made a track for RDLS.

Extinction Symbol

Lake Merritt Regenerative Memorial & Pollinator Procession

This is a 2.5 minute brief on 2017 Remembrance Day for Lost Species, November 30th events at Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge in Oakland, California.

Thanks to Kristin Tieche and Susan Bradley for recording and finishing this film. As well, to event partners Toni Tone of Giant Puppets Save the World and Tora Rocha of Pollinator Posse, participating artists and musicians, including Cello Joe and Heather Normandale and Biketopia Music Collective, the anonymous event sponsor, and ALL who participated.

Extinction Witness and Giant Puppets Save the World connected at Bioneers in 2016 and again this year. Our gratitude goes to Bioneers for the annual conference and year-round communications, which serve as a hub for inspired networking and creative, healing collaborations.

To learn more about Lucille’s Regenerative Memorials, please read http://www.extinctionwitness.org/memorials and connect via Extinction Witness: https://secure.extinctionwitness.org/connect

Continued financial support for this psychospiritually and ecologically regenerative work is greatly appreciated. https://secure.extinctionwitness.org/in_support . Thank you!

Megan Hollingsworth, writer & creative director, Extinction Witness

A Hope-Infused Anthropocene – by Megan Hollingsworth

If, as the thesaurus suggests, hope is a motion opposite of despair, then today’s hope is grieving.

For when the morning’s news is notice that, from Tasmania to California, kelp forests are being replaced by sea urchin barrens (Alastair Bland via Yale Environment 360, November 20, 2017) due to warming waters, a splitting sadness of this intangible loss that is a dying ocean is invoked. Unexpressed, as in to be unrelieved, this sadness gets added to the collection of grievances in a body’s burden. Grievances that include children mercilessly killed when they run and trees because they cannot.

Unexpressed, this sadness does nothing to stop the grievances from continuing. And this is why I am wary of any other professed hope. Hope, like despair, can become fantastic, all-consuming, unreal. This hope as grieving is an activity that keeps me real. With awareness of children burned alive in boats meant to rescue them from an oil spill, this hope as grieving is what informs my decision to refrain from flying across seas on a whim even when that whim allows the possibility to engage with others in person to address this hope. With awareness of albatross babes who starve on bellies full of plastic, this hope as grieving is what compels me to pick up every tiny piece that I see lying on the ground.

This hope as grieving is why I want to throw all of me into honoring the chronic grief known only to a mother who has carried a child in her womb and lived to bury this child in the ground, the womb of all wombs. And, the power of a mother’s grieving is why I want to infuse this hope into how the Anthropocene is understood and described. Thus, lived.  To encourage a whole and healing perspective on the Anthropocene: “a proposed epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change” (Wikipedia), extensively storied in simple terms as the age humans destroyed themselves and everyone else living – the end.

To encourage this whole perspective, I’ve crafted this description of the Anthropocene as I see the era:

Anthropocene: The age in which human population has grown to the degree that the trauma in denying right relationship between mother and child can no longer be ignored and, so, right relationship is being restored.

Offering description of the Anthropocene in present time within the context of original wounding – severance from the mother – impregnates this moment with every moment’s true potential for healing because the original wound is unavoidable, can be healed, and has traditionally been recognized and resolved. I foremost want to encourage this healing perspective of the Anthropocene because every child is gifted with the capacity to dream themselves and their future into existence. And I can imagine no graver an injustice than to serve a child hopelessness when hope is what brings gestating potential to fruition.

Hope as grieving is the call to action implicit in the Extinction Witness Vow 2 Act and in Lu’s Regenerative Memorials, a cooperative effort of Extinction Witness and Pollinator Posse. Both Vow 2 Act and Regenerative Memorials exist in the face of ongoing grievance, as radical actions designed to end the grievance. Both initiatives invite group practice and celebrate devotion to collective well-being as the age of self-interest ends, through recognizing and healing original severance of mother and child. Both are rooted in the understanding that death is the part of the life cycle that inspires a sorrow equivalent to the joy in the child’s birth. That, inspiring pure sorrow, death reminds pure joy and resolves the action to ensuring that which brings joy, ever fleeting in experience, for all. And that death’s regenerative potential goes unfulfilled when this pure sorrow goes unexpressed.

Hope today, as always, is grieving that which can be lost.

Note: ‘A Hope-Infused Anthropocene’ is part of a call to action included at the close of Megan’s forthcoming poetry collection, anticipated 2018. For more on the Vow 2 Act and Lucillle’s Regenerative Memorials, please visit Extinction Witness.

Photos by Mary Ann Blackwell, courtesy of Extinction Witness

Lament

Two new works especially made for Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2017, in honour of lost and disappearing pollinators.

Xerces blue – Sherrell Cuneo Biggerstaff (Embroidery)

The Xerces blue (Glaucopsyche xerces) is an extinct species of butterfly in the gossamer-winged butterfly family. The species lived in coastal sand dunes of the Sunset District of San Francisco peninsul. The Xerces blue is believed to be the first American butterfly species to become extinct as a result of loss of habitat caused by urban development. The last Xerces blue was seen in 1941 or 1943.

Silent Spring – Jilliene Sellner (Audio)
Silent Spring is the title of Rachel Carson’s book published in 1962 warning of the impending environmental disaster of unbridled industrial pesticide manufacture and use. This sound piece refers both directly and indirectly to Carson, related or inspired work such as Massive Attack’s track Silent Spring, Steven Stucky’s symphonic poem of the same title, as well as crop spraying and extracts from David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Maggie Gee’s The Ice People. The work is a lament and dreaming of reversal knowing what otherwise lies ahead.

Malaise Traps – by Helen Jukes

Type honeybee into Google, and a drop-down menu appears with a list of suggested search terms. I add a ‘c’ and it throws up honeybee collection or collapse; add a ‘d’, and it’s declines or decorations for your home. I work my way through the alphabet; ‘l’ is unequivocal. Honeybee losses 2017, 2016, 20152014.

Some days I can’t tell if honeybees are coming or going. In a sense, they’re everywhere – collecting on our shelves, decorating our homes. In the supermarket this week I passed bee-themed mugs, place mats, bath towels and lunchboxes – not to mention the honey (LOVE bees, the girl at the checkout told me, when I told her I was a beekeeper. She showed me her bee earrings and a bee-shaped pendant. I really love them, she said, tucking the necklace back inside her shirt collar). And yet, elsewhere, out therewhere the real bees live, we’re told there are losses and declines and last month I heard a new word, insectageddon.

That came from an article about a study in Germany, among the first of its kind. Between 1989 and 2016, 1,500 insect samples were collected across 63 sites – a total haul of over 50kg, and several million flying creatures. The results are disturbing: a 76% drop in numbers, over 27 years.

Since the paper was published, more scientists have stepped forward to suggest the findings are likely to reflect a pattern occurring across Europe and beyond.

We’ve heard already about losses to honeybee, butterfly and bumblebee populations; these findings dramatically extend the scale. Around one third of our global food supply is dependent upon honeybees and other pollinating species – if flying insects were to disappear, not only would we lose individual speciesour landscapes, our ecologies, our diets and so even the stuff of our own bodies, would also be radically changed.

It’s one thing to read headlines like these; another to absorb them. The words are big. They’re dramatic, they’re catastrophic. I imagine they’re probably driving the appetite for honeybee mugs and bath towels – loss can make us grabby. Yet when I look out of the window, it is not catastrophe, not ageddon, that I see.

A few years ago, when I was living in Oxford and about to become keeper to a colony of bees, this was something I’d been struggling with. I’d read about honeybee losses in the papers. It sounded bad, but it felt remote; I wondered what would happen if I stepped to one side of the newspaper headlines and got to know a colony firsthand. Would I sense a slippage, a thinning? And would I, in my slim end terrace with a weedy garden out back and a work/life balance tipping dangerously towards collapse, find a way of sustaining the bees in my care – of keeping them?

I bought a suit. I got a colony. was suddenly more involved in another creature than I had been for years. I tended them, fretted over them. I hefted pieces of hive and beekeeping equipment. It was both a love and a labour.

My garden was bordered by a crumbling wall, a hedge and a high fence; standing inside it, I couldn’t see very far at all. I could see the sky. I could see a warehouse roof, our neighbours’ house, the tops of the trees lining the allotments. I could hear the traffic on the road outside, and the man who shouted as he walked. I wasn’t mindful of much of this; I was busy focusing on the hive. I had to become very attentive to what was happening inside it; to watch for slight shifts in the activity of the colony that might signal disease or pests or a drop in available forage. I wanted to get to know their rhythms, understand their processes (these were different, I realised, on different days – a colony is as changeable as the weather).

Up close like this, I learned a little about the landscape. A little about how bees make sense of the world, how they perceive it. And, by watching their journeys, by looking forwhat they were bringing back, I learned something about what they were finding out there, beyond the fence; about what their world was composed of. Honeybees collect pollen for feeding young and nectar for making honey; they temporarily ingest the nectar when they carry it back to the hive, and stick the pollen to their knees. A few months in, a friend showed me how to tell the source of these pollen nubs by their colour, and so make a fairly reasoned guess as to where the bees had flown. Deep yellow might be dogwood; soft green was probably meadowsweet. I felt like a detective, sifting for clues. Except that, for the most part, the clues were in a language I didn’t speak.

A honeybee colony is like nothing else. It froths and boils and quivers and shakes; it murmurs and thrums and whines. Lifting the lid of a hive and taking a look inside can be a disorienting experience – the bees are so foreign, so far from your familiar, they can make you feel completely lost; they can also turn you around, and inside out – they can rearrange how you see. They rearranged and reorientated me.

I’m writing this on a wooden stool, in the window of a small cafe. They have baklava and free wifi. I can look out and see a road and a row of houses; I can look out and see the silvery rim of a stand of beeches, a heap of ivy hanging over a wooden fence, two kids in jeans with mud on their knees kicking a punctured football at a wall. For the last half hour, I haven’t actually looked out of this window at all; I’ve been reading about that German study, the one that prompted calls of an insectageddon.

Today I am interested not so much in the findings, but the method. I have been learning(as the football bounced off the window of a passing car, and the car stopped, and the boys made a run for it,) about malaise traps. A malaise trap is like a tent on stilts, pitched at one end and made of netting. Inside the pitched roof there’s a funnel leading to a collecting cylinder with a quantity of ethanol inside, a killing agent. The other end of the tent is wide open; when insects fly in, they head up through the funnel and get trapped in the collecting cylinder. The basic design was invented in 1934 by René Malaise, hence the name. It was the sole means of sampling in the German study.

Over the past 27 years, between the months of March and October, malaise traps were placed in 63 nature reserves across west Germany. The cylinders were emptied and their contents weighed every few days. The work was done not by scientists but amateur entomologists, who visited and monitored the traps and made detailed recordings of the weather. They had strict instructions. The samples were weighed (with minute accuracy, since the creatures were featherlight); the weights later combined and compared. Leaving a trap open for a prolonged period can be harmful to local insect populations, so those used in the study tended to be moved from one year to the next, and for this reason the pattern that emerges reflects not the individual stories of specific sites, but something more like an accretion; a collecting up and laying out through time of umpteen temporaryand scrupulously recorded views.

I wonder about those amateur entomologists who emptied the collecting cylinders, who tramped down to the tents each week. Did they have a sense, as they tipped the alcohol-soaked specimens onto the weighing scales, of the extent of the pattern unfolding? Did they sense disaster? Or was the change was too small, too slight to notice week-to-week?

Nature reserves exist with the sole purpose of preserving ecosystem functions and biodiversity, so to find such a sharp decline in resident species is alarming. The researchers studied the findings; they factored in changes to land use and the weather. Neither could account for the declines, which occurred throughout the growing season, and irrespective of habitat type. Large scale factors must be involved, they reasoned – but such factors lie beyond the scope of their investigations.

A nature reserve is a protected space but it is also a form of island, and recording only the environmental changes inside the parks will never give a complete picture because islands don’t exist in isolationAlmost every reserve included in the study was surrounded by agricultural land, which over the last half century has undergone a process of rapid intensification. Farmland has very little to offer for any wild creature, Professor Dave Goulson, one of the researchers, is quoted as saying. With the loss of field margins, increased pesticide use and year-round tillage, vast tracts of land [are now] inhospitable to most forms of life. It is possible that insects were flying beyond the perimeter of the reserves to find their foraging and nesting habitats had disappeared; or that chemicals present in the wider landscape were directly harming them.

There is an urgent need to uncover the causes of this decline, the researchers conclude. And so call upon all of us –scientistsamateur entomologists, beekeeperssupermarket cashiers, and people sitting in cafe windows – to join in the work of uncovering. To come close enough to see the detail, to pay attention to small things with the express aim of extending our range of vision, of better reading and making sense of the whole. Such a task will involve getting lost, giving up some of our go-to means of understanding the world, and drawing connections in places we hadn’t before. It will be a love and a labour. And it can start right now.

This essay is reproduced from the Dark Mountain Project blog with the kind permission of the author and the editor.

Decolonizing against extinction part II – by Audra Mitchell

Essay reproduced from https://worldlyir.wordpress.com/ with the permission of the author 

Extinction is not a metaphor – it is literally genocide

Extinction has become an emblem of Western, and white-dominated, fears about ‘the end of the(ir) world’. This scientific term is saturated with emotional potency, stretched and contorted to embody almost any nightmare, from climate change to asteroid strikes. In academic and public contexts alike, it is regularly interchanged with other terms and concepts – for instance, ‘species death’, global warming or ecological collapse. Diffused into sublime scales – mass extinctions measured in millions of (Gregorian calendar) years, a planet totalized by the threat of nuclear destruction – ‘extinction’ has become an empty superlative, one that that gestures to an abstract form of unthinkabilityIt teases Western subjects with images of generalized demise that might, if it gets bad enough, even threaten us, or the figure of ‘humanity’ that we enshrine as a universal. This figure of ‘humanity’, derived from Western European enlightenment ideals, emphasizes individual, autonomous actors who are fully integrated into the global market system; who are responsible citizens of nation-states; who conform to Western ideas of health and well-being; who partake of ‘culture’; who participate in democratic state-based politics; who refrain from physical violence; and who manage their ‘resources’ responsibly (Mitchell 2014).

Oddly, exposure to the fear of extinction contributes to the formation and bolstering of contemporary Western subjects. Contemplating the sublime destruction of ‘humanity’ offers the thrill of abjection: the perverse pleasure derived from exposure to something by which one is revolted. Claire Colebrook detects this thrill-seeking impulse in the profusion of Western blockbuster films and TV shows that imagine and envision the destruction of earth, or at least of ‘humanity’. It also throbs through a flurry of recent best-selling books – both fiction and speculative non-fiction (see Oreskes and Conway 2014; Newitz 2013Weisman 2008). In a forthcoming intervention, Noah Theriault and I (2018) argue that these imaginaries are a form of porn that normalizes the profound violences driving extinction, while cocooning its viewers in the secure space of the voyeur. Certainly, there are many Western scientists, conservationists and policy-makers who are genuinely committed to stopping the extinction of others, perhaps out of fear for their own futures. Yet extinction is not quite real for Western, and especially white, subjects; it is a fantasy of negation that evokes thrill, melancholy, anger and existential purpose. It is a metaphor that expresses the destructive desires of these beings, and the negativity against which we define our subjectivity.

But extinction is not a metaphor: it is a very real expression of violence that systematically destroys particular beings, worlds, life forms and the relations that enable them to flourish. These are real, unique beings, worlds and relations – as well as somebody’s family, Ancestors, siblings, future generations – who are violently destroyed. Extinction can only be used unironically as a metaphor by people who have never been threatened with it, told it is their inevitable fate, or lost their relatives and Ancestors to it – and who assume that they probably never will.

This argument is directly inspired by the call to arms issued in 2012 by Eve Tuck and Wayne K. Yang and more recently by Cutcha Risling-Baldy. The first, seminal piece demonstrates how settler cultures use the violence of metaphorical abstraction to excuse themselves from the real work of decolonization: ensuring that land and power is in Indigenous hands. Risling-Baldy’s brilliant follow-up extends this logic to explain how First People like Coyote have been reduced to metaphors through settler appropriation. In both cases, engagement with Indigenous peoples and their relations masks moves to innocence: acts that make it appear as if settlers are engaging in decolonization, while in fact we are consolidating the power structures that privilege us.

In this series, want to show how Western, and white-dominated, discourses on ‘extinction’ appear to address the systematic destruction of peoples and other beings while enacting moves to innocence that mask their culpability and perpetuate structures of violence. As I argued in Part I of this series, extinction is an expression of colonial violence. As such, it needs to be addressed through direct decolonization, including the dismantling of settler colonial structures of violence, and the resurgence of Indigenous worlds. Following Tuck, Yang and Risling-Baldy’s lead,  I want to show how and why the violences that drive extinction have come to be invisible within mainstream discourses. Salient amongst these is the practice of genocide against Indigenous peoples other than humans.

…it is literally genocide.

What Western science calls ‘extinction’ is not an unfortunate, unintended consequence of desirable ‘human’ activities. It is an embodiment of particular patterns of  structural violence that disproportionately affect specific racialized groups.  In some cases, ‘extinction’ is directly, deliberately and systematically inflicted in order to create space for aggressors, including settler states. For this reason, it has rightly been framed as an aspect or tool of colonial genocides against Indigenous human peoples. Indeed, many theorists have shown that the ‘extirpation’ of life forms (their total removal from a particular place) is an instrument for enacting genocide upon Indigenous humans (see Mazis 2008;Laduke 1999Stannard 1994). Specifically, the removal of key sources of food, clothing and other basic materials makes survival on the land impossible for the people targeted.

Nehiyaw thinker Tasha Hubbard (2014) makes a qualitatively distinct argument. She points out that the Buffalo are First People, the elder brothers of the Nehiyaw people (and other Indigenous nations – see Benton-Banai 2010). Starting in the mid-1800s, the tens of millions of buffalo that ranged across Turtle Island were nearly eliminated through strategic patterns of killing carried out by settler-state-sponsored military and commercial forces. Their killing was linked to governmental imperatives to clear and territorially annex the Great Plains by removing its Indigenous peoples. As Hubbard points out, methods of destroying buffalo herds included large-scale killing, but also the disruption of their social structures, the destruction of the ecosystems on which they rely, and the removal of calves. These acts involve each of the components of the definition of genocide enshrined in the UN Genocide Convention: 

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

From Hubbard’s viewpoint, rooted in Nehiyaw philosophy and ethical-legal principles, the  systematic destruction of the buffalo is not like genocide, nor is it exclusively a tool for carrying out genocide against human peoples. It isgenocide in its own right: an attempt to destroy a particular First People and the possibilities of its continuity. In other words, the deliberate and systematic attempt to eliminate the buffalo, enacted by settler states, simultaneouslyenacted genocide against Indigenous peoples and their nonhuman relatives.

Genocides of Indigenous peoples (human and otherwise) continue apace in contemporary settler states, transformed into multiple manifestations. For instance, they are integral to ‘biosecurity’ strategies designed to police the biological boundaries of these states and their citizens. Laced with racializing and xenophobic rhetoric (Subramaniam 2001), strategies such as culling or planned eradications are intended to remove ‘invasive’ or ‘foreign’ life forms in order to protect ‘Native’ ones. Many of the ‘invasive’ life forms targeted for destruction were transported to unfamiliar lands through colonial patterns of settlement and global trade flows.

However, this logic of elimination (Wolfe 2006) is often perverted, turned against Indigenous* beings whose flourishing impedes the expansion or consolidation of the colonial state. For instance, Deborah Bird Rose (2011 a, 2011 b) shows how this form of violence is continually waged against flying foxes, who are framed by the settler state as “pest[s] whose extinction is [deliberately] sought”. This act of elimination involves explicit genocidal ideation, or the imagination of the destruction of a people. Rose characterizes it as a “matter of imagining a world without [dingoes or flying foxes], then setting out to create it” (Rose 2011a). The Australian settler state has used multiple tactics to induce terror and preclude flourishing amongst flying foxes, from the emission of high-pitched electronic signals to smearing trees with python excrement (Rose 2011b). Indeed, in 2014, I lived near to the roosting site of a group of flying foxes in Turrbal and Jagera Country (suburban Brisbane to settlers). Such nesting places are called ‘colonies’ , reflecting a Western scientific rhetoric that frames Indigenous peoples as ‘invaders’ of the settler state. The trees that housed the nesting site backed onto a municipal facility, whose fence had been covered with barbed wire, in which many of the bats snared their wings and starved to death.  This ‘security’ measure – designed to protect the facilities relied upon by urban settlers from the intrusion of flying foxes – is a powerful weapon for precluding ongoing flourishing of Indigenous other-than-human peoples. I learned from neighbours that this ‘colony’ had previously been ‘moved’ from several other sites around the city, suffering significant declines in population each time. Indeed, despite reported declines of 95% in flying fox communities in Queensland and neighbouring New South Wales, the Queensland settler state legalized the shooting of the bats in 2012 by fruitgrowers.

Of course, in some cases, the elimination of life forms is not as targeted or intentional – it may take the form of land-based extractive violence, the creep of ocean acidification, the decimation of rainforests by climate change. Proponents of a Eurocentric definition of genocide could argue that these events lack intention. Indeed, within international law, intention to commit genocide is a necessary criteria for conviction. However, theorists of critical genocide studies have long argued that this definition is inadequate: it brackets out a great many of the acts, logics and structures that produce the destruction of unique peoples. According to Tony Barta, definitions of genocide that focus on ‘purposeful annihilation’, and in particular on physical killing, have “devalu[ed] all other concepts of less planned destruction, even if the effects are the same” (Barta 2000, 238). For this reason, he shifts the focus from ‘genocidal intention’ to ‘genocidal outcome’ – that is, from the abstract assignation of genocidal agency to the felt and embodied effects of eliminative violence. It is the focus on intent, he contends, that allows white Australians to imagine that their relationship with Aboriginal people is non-genocidal despite overwhelming evidence of systematic and deliberate racialized destruction over several centuries. In contrast, an approach based on ‘genocidal outcomes’ makes it possible to account for complex causality and weak intentionality – that is, for myriad acts mediated by subtle, normalized structures that, together, work to eliminate a people. I want to argue that the same logic applies to nonhuman peoples: the destruction of a life form, its relations with other beings and its possible futures is a genocidal outcome, whether or not intention can be identified.

Similarly, Christopher Powell (2007) argues that, since a ‘genos’ is a

“network of practical social relations, destruction of a genos means the forcible breaking down of those relationships…these effects could be produced without a coherent intent to destroy. They could result from sporadic and uncoordinated actions whose underlying connection is the production of a new society in which there is simply no room for the genos in question to exist. They might even result from well-meaning attempts to do good” (Powell 2007, 538)

As I have argued elsewhere, extinction is defined by the breaking of relations and the systematic destruction of the conditions of plurality that nurture co-flourishing worlds. Whether inflicted out as a deliberate act of extirpation, or as the convergent effect of eliminative logics expressed over centuries and enormous spatial scales, extinction is the destruction of relations and the heterogenous societies they nurture.

Understood in this way, ‘extinction’ is not a metaphor for genocide or other forms of large-scale violence: it is a distinct manifestation of genocide. Masking the genocidal logics that drive extinction involves several moves to innocence (Tuck and Yang 2012). Treating extinction as something short of genocide entrenches Eurocentric understandings of personhood that are limited to homo sapiens, which is itself an act of violence against these peoples. Ironically, the entrenchment of this dichotomy also enables the logic of ‘dehumanization’, in which human communities are likened to reviled nonhumans (for instance, cockroaches) in order to motivate violence against them. As I have argued elsewhere (Mitchell 2014), the logic of generalised ‘dehumanisation’ is uniquely effective in Western frameworks in which the lack of ethical status for beings other than humans removes obstacles to their mass destruction. Within worlds in which human and nonhuman persons are linked through complex systems of law, treaties, protocols and long-standing relations, this claim is illogical. Within Western settler states, however, it functions as a means of justifying ongoing violence against Indigenous peoples and their relations.

In addition, by framing extinction as a problem for a universal figure of ‘humanity’ (more on this to follow…) mainstream discourses of extinction obscure its profound entwinement with race and racializing structures.  These examples make it clear that eliminative violence is targeted on specific groups of people and their other-than-human relations, as defined by the aggressors. Indeed, patterns of genocidal violence extend racializing categories, hierarchies and eliminative impulses to other-than-human peoples. Just as approaching gender violence separately from race effaces their intersection, understanding extinction as distinct from race is deeply misleading. This is not only because racialized people are more likely to suffer from the effects of ‘extinction’ and other forms of environmental racism (which they are). It is also because the eliminative violence that drives extinction extend and enact race beyond the category of homo sapiens by defining particular groups against white settler norms and as threats to the settler society. To approach extinction separately from issues of race is, therefore, to miss one of its most defining features.

Extinction is not a metaphor – in many cases, it is quite literally genocide enacted against Indigenous peoples and their other-than-human relations. To treat it as a metaphor is to obscure and participate in the structures of violence that drive it. From this perspective, in addition to active decolonisation efforts, and the resurgence of Indigenous peoples, addressing extinction also requires attacking the genocidal, racializing,  eliminative logics that are diffused throughout settler (and other) states. It also requires honouring the unique relations, worlds and peoples that are targeted by these discourses and practices.

*In this context (referring to flying foxes and other non-human peoples), I use the term ‘Indigenous’ to refer to the historical inhabitation and co-constitution of a particular place, and enmeshment in meaningful relationships with the other beings that co-constitute that place. Within this perspective, life forms deemed ‘exotic’ or even ‘invasive’ in Western science could potentially become part of that place if accepted by, and in mutually beneficial relations with, existing communities. I use the term in contrast to narratives of ‘native’ or, sometimes ‘Indigenous’ species, which make dichotomous distinctions between those beings deemed to be ‘endogenous’ and ‘exogenous’.

 

Featured image: Buffalo Calf by Mark Spearman licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic.

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