An interview with Ackroyd & Harvey – by Fred Carter

For over 25 years, Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd have worked together to produce innovative environmental art which inhabits a unique juncture between performance art and climate science, organic process and artificial preservation, personal response and public space. Their artistic practice ranges across photography, sculpture, architecture, and installation to tackle a range of issues from global warming and international politics to arboreal ecology and biodiversity loss. Following their high-profile Radical Action Reaction at COP21 last year and this year’s large-scale exhibition and architectural work at the University of Cambridge, Fred Carter caught up with Harvey and Ackroyd at their Surrey studio to discuss what it means to be an artist in the midst of environmental crisis.

FRED: I first came across your work in relation to the Cape Farewell Project way back in the early 2000s, which highlighted the threats to polar ecosystems and Arctic ice. But I think the way we talk about climate change has changed a lot since then. What do you think has changed in our relationship with climate science and the challenges to representation that face environmental art?

HEATHER: Well, what was then called the greenhouse effect just kind of pinned itself into my consciousness in 1988. That was the very first time that James E. Hansen, who at the time was the leading atmospheric scientist working for NASA, popped his head up above the parapet and said that we’ve got a major problem going on here. He said I am 99% sure that it’s because of the fact that humankind is burning so much fossil fuel. So this is always within my consciousness.

I think from a very early point meeting Dan, our work was going on in urban spaces and in found spaces. It could have been a disused domestic property or disused factory spaces and we would bring these dynamic materials into them: water, mud, germination, fire, mould, and sprouting elements. So we’d act upon these architectural carcasses and bring in these disruptive materials that we would then shape and create quite formally and aesthetically to make these pieces.

 Implanted Spirit, 1991

Our work in a way was always addressing this edge, these precipices where the urban stakes claim, takes away, or erases nature. Where it takes away an orchard or takes away a garden or takes away a field or an overgrown parking lot and places in the bricks. But we just felt there was this incredible vulnerability to it. Going to places like Australia and working on the west coast in Perth, where you felt all of this colonisation which seemed very European, you saw all of these houses with their patch of grass and water sprinklers throwing water all over the place… and yet it was on desert.

DAN: It was a thin veneer of civilisation and of Europeanization.

HEATHER: You felt as though if you were a giant you could just take a palette knife and just scrape it all away and just flick it away. It felt just superficial in some way. It was that sense of tenuousness; that humanity holds its place by threads of existence at times.

So I think when we first went up with Cape Farewell to the high Arctic we were kind of enthralled and inspired and found the whole experience very profoundly moving. In a way, out of that experience came this very large piece of work that we just showed at the David Attenborough building called Stranded, where we were working with the carcass of a whale.

Stranded, 2007

DAN: The whale was always one of those iconic creatures, I suppose a bit like the polar bear in some ways, and the idea was to try and get hold of a carcass and to subvert and do this chemical process on it.

But I think what I’ve found interesting since 2003, when I first went up to Svalbard with the Cape Farewell project, was that you got a feeling that actually information was getting out there and people did start to believe the story of climate change. Then suddenly there was this movement back again. Channel Four did a program called The Great Climate Change Swindle and that did so much damage. I think there are still people who believe that. There’s so much denial still going on and yet it’s so stupid because it could be so easy to actually switch now, the technologies are there. Everything is there but we’re still being led by this because the power is still in the hands of the mad men.

HEATHER: I think now what we’ve realised through all our reading and all our interactions is that even though the physics and the science of climate change is actually relatively straightforward, the political and economic machinations are huge. It plays out on so many levels to do with monopolies of power and deliberate attempts to vandalise the science. Absolutely calculated attempts to introduce chaos and confusion into the thinking. And that happened very early on. After James E. Hansen made his statement that generated all manner of revolt from the corporate ranks and from the fossil fuel industry. They sensed danger and they reacted in a very calculated and intellectually corrupt way. And that’s still playing out.

My thinking now is to ask what kind of work do we make that really has resonance and is doing something more than awakening. I think the communications in and around climate change were done very effectively by the cultural sector many years ago. We’re in a different situation now and I have to really work out how to use our artistry, our understanding, and our perception to best effect. And we did a big piece in Paris…

FRED: Yes, I wanted to ask about that as well. There’s a general trend that I can see in your work from those very domestic spaces to begin with – houses, churches, chairs – towards a more political stage. And in fact the piece in Paris at COP21 was a stage in itself. Do you think your work has changed in response to that changing space?

HEATHER: I think Dan and I have always been very adaptive in the way we work and, in a way, the found space gave us an autonomy in a way that the gallery couldn’t. The exterior space, again, gives us access to the accidental audience.

DAN: Yes, you’re not really tied to the elite or to the people who always go to galleries. In a found space people are curious to see it because they’ve walked past it and it’s always been boarded up and in a public space you’re just confronted straight away with it. So immediately you have a much larger audience.

Radical Action Reaction, 2015

FRED: So do you see something like Radical Action Reaction to be a public piece of art in a similar sense to one of the early found spaces?

HEATHER: Yes because if you do something inside, even if the door is open, there’s still that metaphorical threshold. Somebody has to make that decision to go through the doorway. If you do something in a public space like the Botanic Garden [in Cambridge] then you’ve got people running, you’ve got children, and suddenly they’re going “what’s that?”

DAN: So you sort of hook them in. One of the beautiful things about the living medium of grass is that it has a vibrancy and a colour to it that you know instinctively isn’t synthetic and when it’s grown like the curtains we used in Radical Action Reaction it is really quite lush, quite sensual.

HEATHER: We wanted to bring our dark arts. We wanted to bring something tantalisingly sensual and seductive, so beautiful so that people would go “what’s that?” Because they were quietly enthralled with the piece and they were realising that it was living grass, they then stopped and read what was being said. I’ve never seen so many people sit and read. It was just great because what we did was that we caught their attention and their curiosity.

Actually, at that point we were framing the tree within that urban setting and saying that we need to plant our cities, following Joseph Beuys, and that we have to make our cities as green and forest-like as we can on every level.

FRED: It’s interesting that you mention Joseph Beuys. His idea of the gezamkunstwerk sees the artwork as something interactive – a social sculpture – and some of your pieces really necessitate engagement. In Seeing Red… Overdrawn, for example, the act of writing on the artwork is a very powerful thing and a way of engaging with scientific knowledge and Latin names in a way that we don’t normally in museums. Is that something conscious?

DAN: Well over the years we’ve used the IUCN Red List of critically endangered animals quite a lot, but when you look at the list like that on a computer you might only get 20 names or something up on your screen. There were 4,734 when we downloaded it and had it printed. When you actually stand in front of a three metre by seven metre wall with those names on, even if you’ve been standing in front of it for a week, you still see new names coming out. There’s something about the scale of that piece that meant that even though there was a lot of information there, you could sort of access it all at once visually which I think is something that you couldn’t do in a book or on a computer screen. It was like a huge war memorial and yet each name wasn’t a name of a person, it was an entire species. I think when you understand that, it really hits home.

We had very good invigilators with iPads looking up the species and things so that there was also this interaction with the public.

Seeing Red… Overdrawn, 2016

HEATHER: If someone said “what is that? I love the Latin but what is that?” then we could find out for you, so that became quite interactive as well.

DAN: And on the performance side of it too, you had to wear white cotton gloves before you were given the pen so you took it seriously and then maybe you had to climb the ladder to reach one at the top. I think it was a very successful piece in the end.

HEATHER: But it came through quite late. We had a meeting with Tim Cluttenbrock, who works in the zoology department, very early on in our R&D phase and he struck the table and said; “what are you going to do about the fact that it’s five to midnight on the planet?” That just stayed with us and I kept saying to Dan “I just don’t think we’ve got our five-to-midnight piece yet.” Then that piece just kind of punched through.

DAN: It’s certainly a piece we’d like to do again… the list is already much longer.

FRED: Absolutely. Do you feel a “five-minutes-to-midnight” sense of immediacy in your work now that maybe you didn’t before?

HEATHER: Yes… but I think for me a lot of it is just about tempering the anxiety. I think it’s been there for a long, long while and I just think it’s increasing. I just read a George Monbiot article online where he’s saying that unless we just do not draw up to the surface what’s there in reserves, then we’re not going to hold to the Paris Agreement figure of 1.5 degrees. We’ve also got the whole lag in the system still to play out. A lot of people I’ve met say that we passed 1.5 degrees probably about 8 years ago. I can feel the stomach tightening but I don’t wish to get depressed. I’d rather use the anger and the anxiety to creative effect, I’d rather turn it into something visible, visual, and aesthetic. I’d rather channel the emotion into that.

Yet we don’t want to hit people with it. With the Cambridge piece, we were actually working on eight different pieces in tandem. It’s like an orchestration. So you may have one piece that’s slightly more “in-your-face” or “activist” and some other pieces that are really more nuanced, very subtle and, very poetic although they may allude to various crises. The exhibition in the Attenborough building was like that. We had Stranded alongside The Polar Diamond and the IUCN Red List, then the light boxes for the spirits and the trees. So there were many different levels to it and many different emotions. It’s orchestration at times.

Spirit + Conflicted Seeds, 2016

FRED: Something that struck me in your work is that so much of it is to do with preserving, as well as memorialising. The Spirit piece uses this very antiquated way of preserving and a lot of your early work with research into grass is concerned with how to preserve and how to keep things. Is there a sense of not mourning a loss but of trying to retain something?

HEATHER: Actually we’re working at the moment on a project to do with Ash Dieback disease and Ash conservation.

DAN: The brief is to celebrate the Ash but when you go round these forests in Kent where 80 percent of the trees were Ash, out of that 80 percent are dead already and now, once you start to see it you see it everywhere. It’s really shocking. It’s really hard to actually celebrate a tree when you know that you’re losing it all the time.

I think with this work about trying to preserve and conserve, so much of our work has been ephemeral that possibly now in our work with the trees and so on there’s a lot more longevity to them. They’re going to improve with time, provided the trees stay healthy. There are certain trees that actually have the possibility to be immortal, to live forever. It’s only exterior things that will kill them. That, to me, is really intriguing. There’s a lot, too, that we’re still learning about trees and I find that really fascinating. That’s perhaps one of the reasons we’ve started working with trees is that they are going to be around a lot longer than we are, for one thing, whereas a lot of the grass works were impermanent.

The first grass works, the exterior pieces not the photosynthesis works, they very much go through a process of growing, changing, and finally decaying, being stripped back. With the photographic work there has always been that thing with the fleeting image and trying to fix the image, a bit like the early black and white photographers. I think that’s why we really pushed to keep photos for longer and, with the chlorophyll in the grass we use now, we can keep them provided they have a low light level. If you put them in stronger sunlight they would fade within a week or so because it’s a natural pigment, the chlorophyll. We do live in an unstable world.

HEATHER: It is that thing about bringing stability into a situation. I don’t see stability as being somehow boring or status quo. You have to work at stability, in a way. It’s not a given. Going back to how they used to preserve the museum specimens, it’s amazing how you can still see this creature that was killed around 120 years ago. It’s amazing that it’s all still there, it’s all preserved.

FRED: I was really interested in something you’d written in Signs of Life, you said you’d been interested first in the arcane arts and the folklore of grass, before you got into the scientific rigour. I wondered how you saw that develop in your work or what was the tension between these sacral spaces of the church and the more rationalistic, scientific side?

HEATHER: Well that’s the beauty of being an artist and not a scientist, you can get it all in! Actually the other project we’re working on is with an organisation called ArtAkt, it’s being curated by Marina Wallace who is also curating an exhibition that will be at the Ashmolean in Oxford called Spellbound: Magical Thinking Past and Present. We’re working specifically with Sophie Paige, who is a senior historian at University College of London, and her specialist area is medieval cosmology. So we are now steeping ourselves in magic and astrology. I’m reading C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image right now and you know what, it feels so good to be back! It’s back with the names and the people that I was frequenting and falling asleep with when I was in my twenties when I was reading a lot of stuff about alchemy and magic and Karl Jung.

DAN: It’s interesting to really understand what it was like in medieval Britain and the way the mind worked then because it’s very different from the way we see the world now. There have been enormous shifts in perception and yet we still believe in a type of magic. If you ask someone for their wedding ring and say that you can replace it with an exactly identical copy, they’ll want their wedding ring back because they believe it’s imbued with something.

HEATHER: In a way I think we tend to ascribe a certain logic and rationality but actually it’s not working like that. I keep thinking that I’m kidding myself to think that politics is logical and rational. It’s not about that.

At the moment we’ve not quite found the right form for it yet but I’m thinking you almost need something like a post-Dadaist response to what’s happening now. It’s just so absurd. I cannot take Boris Johnson seriously, I cannot take Trump seriously. It’s just absurd. It sickens me.

The Dadaists were brilliant, their response to the atrocities of the First World War was brilliant. They said; “how do we begin to make sense of this, you cannot make sense of it.” I feel a little bit like that at the moment, you know. It’s coming at it from the flank, highly lateral and subversive. I want to dig deep, to disappear and come up; to draw those arcane arts back into it.

7000 Oaks, 2014

FRED: Finally, I hear you’re also about to do a TedX talk together, which is a new kind of format for you. It’s a very short 20 minutes, so if someone could take away one thing what should it be?

HEATHER: I don’t know, I think something we will definitely talk about is how the haem molecule, in the blood, and the structure of the chlorophyll molecule are incredibly similar. It’s old knowledge for us on some levels but I think we need to understand we are of nature. We’re not superior, we’re not an advanced life form; we are of nature. And we need to find within us the guardianship and the custodianship that comes with it.

But we’ve got to pick it right, because anyone can just say, “that’s bloody worthy innit!”

DAN: I think the thing is, though, that everything is interconnected and we are part of everything. We can all make a difference. It’s not being worthy, really, it’s just being aware.

HEATHER: Yet still, in a way, that rhetoric is easy. You can use words to get everyone going “yes, yes, yes!” But I don’t think I’m going to go for a single point or a single message, I’m going to go for a chain because that’s how my brain works anyway. I think for me it’s slightly more elusive and I think I probably work more through an agency of charm and incantation… and whatever we put in their drinks!

Fred: I’m looking forward to it! Thank you for your time guys.

Music for Elephants: A Eulogy for the Future – by Jenny Kendler

With her new work, Music for Elephants, interdisciplinary artist Jenny Kendler algorithmically translates data predicting future poaching of African elephants into a score for a vintage ivory-keyed player piano. Each note played on a restored player piano from 1921 represents the number of elephants who may die in the future from ivory poaching in a single month. Much as an elephant would caress the tusks of a loved one who has died, a ghostly absence seems to play these notes. As was common before the 1970s, the keys of this beautiful, antique instrument were crafted from ivory, the very material that drives people to kill elephants for their tusks. Though pianos are no longer made with ivory, this piece serves as a haunting reminder of how our unchecked or ill-informed desires can have devastating impacts our ecosystem and other beings.

The score, both eerie and meditative, counts down month by month, from a population of around 400,000 African elephants remaining today, predicting how many elephants may die in each month that the world does nothing to stop ivory poaching and illegal trade. Lower, longer notes represent greater numbers killed for their ivory. During the 10 minute piece, poaching increases at rate of only 1.5% annually—but after only 300 months (25 years), the count of living elephants falls to zero, the piano’s ivory keys fall silent…and elephants are extinct. Sadly, scientists warn us that extinction could happen even sooner, if rates of poaching and regional instability increase even further.

To create this work, artist Kendler partnered with wildlife specialists at environmental non-profit NRDC. The data they gained access to shows unequivocally that African elephant populations have been declining precipitously in past decades. Extrapolating from data she gathered on elephants’s natural births, deaths and rates of illegal poaching, Kendler’s algorithm shows a dark future of what could be—if we are unwilling as a species to undertake meaningful action to protect these magnificent beings with whom we share the Earth.



A Brief History of Elephants and the Ivory Trade

The African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) is a species known to us all, and beloved by many. Deeply social, long lived and with a famously long memory, elephants are much like us. Like us, they are highly communicative in ways we are only just beginning to understand. Like us, they change their environment, keeping savannas open and grassy—something that may have allowed for our own evolution. Like us, they care for their families. Elephants are known to mourn their dead, habitually revisiting the sites where loved ones have died to caress their bones, and pass ivory tusks between family members. We can only imagine that like us, they know love and loss. And like us, their only real threat are humans.

We don’t know how many elephants there were before humans began carving up their land, capturing them for work or warfare and killing them for meat and ivory. We do know that from several million at the beginning of the 20th century, their population is now around 400,000—for perspective on the increasing direness of the situation, over 100,000 African elephants were massacred between 2010–12 alone. By far the largest cause of these deaths is the illegal poaching of elephants for their ivory tusks.


In the 19th century, King Leopold of Belgium’s desire for access to this “white gold” led to a devastating colonial occupation of Congo, a country now in free fall, which continues to be a major source of poached ivory. In the 1970s, before international trade was banned, ivory was used mainly for carvings and piano key tops, with about 40% of ivory going to Japan, 40% to Europe and N. America, and the rest staying in Africa. Today, illegal ivory often funds murderous regional militias like Sudan’s Janjaweed and Joseph Kony’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, and is traded through international criminal networks. Most of this ends up in Asia, where an economically booming China consumes over 70%. The murdered elephants’s tusks are carved up and sold for upwards of a thousand dollars a pound, to be made into chopsticks, rings and other wealth-demonstrating consumer trinkets.

Notes from the 6th Extinction: A Time of Choosing

Since ivory first became associated with power and wealth and traded as part of global capitalism, the hunger for ivory—and the associated devastating consequences—have only grown.

It is now up to us as a species to decide what matters. The way human beings feel about a species is now one of the main factors in its survival—so our empathy, or lack thereof, has become an ecological force.

If we give in to our desire for more, we may lose the chance to ever understand the minds of these remarkable others, so much like our own. There are those who long to make contact with alien minds from other distant stars—but we have them here, on our planet, if we can only put aside our greed and sense of ‘human exceptionalism’ and recognize our kin.

If you’d like to help, Save the Elephants is doing excellent work on the ground in Africa to monitor populations, support anti-poaching efforts, and build paths to human/elephant co-existence.

Special thanks to the artist’s husband Brian Kirkbride for invaluable assistance in writing the software to generate the score. Thanks also to environmental non-profit NRDC, where Jenny Kendler is Artist-in-Residence, to NRDC’s Elly Pepper for her assistance in gaining access to and interpreting poaching data, to Artprize curatorial fellow Alison Erazmus and to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Coordinator of Public Programs and Interpretive Practices, Ann Meisinger.

Find out more about Jenny Kendler’s work here.

Some remembrances from November 30th, 2016

The following events are some of those that took place in honour of extinct and endangered species on and around Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2016. This is not an exhaustive list, and is still emerging. The events, which happened in many countries ranging from France to Tasmania, are documented in no particular order.

Sheffield saw a Wake for Lost Species with Abi Nielsen,  folk singer Nancy Kerr, storyteller Tim Ralphs and musician Sarah Smout.

Deptford, London: Three Sheets to the Sea. Taking the theme of islands and seas, artists Liam Geary Baulch and Jules Varndoe took participants on a multi-sensory journey from the early evolutionary life of sea organisms, to our present condition, and onwards to a future of robotic sea dwellers. This was followed by a participatory workshop/ wake with shared food. Read more and see photos of the event here.

Crystal Palace Dinosaur Park, London: Artists Daniela Othieno and Allie K Stewart held a remembrance event amongst the dinosaurs. Read about it here.
Primrose Hill, London: For Lost Species processed through the bitter cold carrying silhouettes of iconic lost species.
15288427_1879850715567857_8033146110220423297_o
New Cross, London: Illustrator Gabi Gershuny and colleagues launched the new Anthropo.cine cinema night in New Cross night to coincide with Remembrance Day for Lost Species.
Gabi also created a new body of work featuring chimerical beasts and the extinction symbol  – see more here.
screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-20-02-38
Holkham, Norfolk: Artist and historian Camilla Schofield focused on a local extinction in the North Sea. The angel shark likes to hide at the bottom of the sea bed. The life of the angel shark in the North Sea is now gone due to trawl fishing. They were caught in trawls and thrown away, uneaten, to extinction. Camilla went to the angel sharks’ old home to remember and make promises to them.
15392976_10157836554415402_6146715828843581189_o
Doncaster: In honour of Remembrance for Lost Species, Doncaster Museum held a competition to find a name for their quagga foal. In the end, she was named Charlotte.
New York: Vigil for violence awareness. Bibi Calderaro and colleagues held a four hour session on violence awareness in Union Square subway station. It was a mix between a vigil for lost species and raising awareness about violence against women and girls around the world – taking both as instances of violence and its extended ripple effects inside and outside (skins, borders, classes, categories, habitats…).
15325242_10211488765194457_7014284226474741939_o
Berlin: Night of the Extinct Animals. Illustrator Jennie Ottilie Keppler and poet Mikael Vogel hosted a night of Remembrance poetry and art. Read the story and see more photos here.
15194497_10157830207480611_8392498007129634636_o
Gent, Belgium: Artist Rachel Porter led a group of pre-school children in an afternoon’s reflection and simple ritual in remembrance of the thylacine.
Madagascar: Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership marked the day with this beautiful poster:
Skagway, Alaska: Kim Burnham made and released an extinction raft on December 5th.  “A few gulls and a lone seal were in attendance as high tide matched the setting sun. The official day of remembrance was on Nov 30th, but the south wind was not so cooperative that day, so we just read a eulogy, threw some dried flowers to the sea and decided to wait a few days for the north wind to arrive to help give our raft a push down the canal. It meant a lot to us to be able to share in this moment of collective grief. The hardest part was deciding which species’ names to include as representatives for the rest (scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, as we head into the 6th mass extinction).” See more photos here.
15356513_10208094436423543_7681880072188988345_n
Wirrawilla, Australia: Memorials for the Future Lost. Australian artists Gabrielle Stolp and Michelle Steward carried out an extended project highlighting the assault on old-growth highland rainforest in Victoria. It ended with a ceremony with the names of lost species read aloud, and poetry from John Kinsella.
 
Sankt Olof, Sweden: artists held a ceremony at Collective Joy Studios.
New South Wales, Australia: Byron Smith held a church service of Remembrance for Lost Species in Sydney.
Queensland, Australia:  Community artist Julia Peddie held a memorial to the thylacine and the many extinct Australian species in Maleny.
Bozeman, Montana, USA:  Megan Hollingsworth held a ceremony 108 Bell Rings – Joy Giving with Lost Species. Her poem Toughie, made into a short film featuring Sherrell Biggerstaff Cuneo’s Extinction Mourning Gown came from the day.

Dartmoor, Devon: A silent vigil by candlelight for Remembrance Day for Lost Species on 30 Nov with River Dart Wild Church. Participants brought and created poems, prayers, pictures and tokens to remember lost and endangered creatures. Donations were given to Devon Wildlife Trust’s ‘Homes For Bats’ Appeal.
Milton Keynes: Festive Road carnival puppetry and processional artists held a Parade of Animals featuring Harminder the giant elephant.
Oxford: Lantern-making, soup, fire, poems and ceremony at the Barracks Lane Community Garden.
UNFIX Festival, Glasgow: The Great Auk Collective made a live art performance creating the extinction symbol to the sound of lost birds.
Centre for Human Ecology, Glasgow:  In an intimate sharing (or ceilidh in the traditional sense of the word)  participants  “shared poetry, readings, facts about extinct species and stories about wild animals who lived alongside us in our childhood memories but whose absence or rare sightings are notable in our adulthood. We spoke about encounters between humans and otherspecies, and the possibilities and limitations around becoming acquainted with different kinds of consciousness. We also discussed the possibility of erecting a Life Cairn in Glasgow in the run-up to Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2017. Watch this space!”
Maxwell Park, Glasgow: Spirits of the Dead: the disappearing lemurs of Madagascar. Artist Becky Anson organised a family-friendly tree climb for lost lemurs.
Shields Community Garden, Glasgow: Artist Roisin Lyle-Collins ran a workshop with young people during which they decorated a tree in Remembrance for Lost Species. “Together we time travelled, exploring truths of extinction in the Anthropocene, finishing by tying the tree with rags with the names and dates of 15 diverse extinct species from all over the world.” Roisin is in the process of creating an educational resource to be shared in 2017.
Dublin: Clarion Call for Climate aka film maker and composer Sinead Finegan made this film:

Maroroisia, Fiji: Artist Tessa Miller organised Remembrance Day student visits to Sigatoka sand dunes. Participants wrote affirmations on cloth turtle shells, pledging to cherish and protect this beautiful area, and all of the diverse creatures on land and sea and river that make it so special.

15325148_910391605727199_7634688160035242360_o  15288474_910390719060621_5224315077966630070_o
Suva, Fiji: Artist Anne O’Brien marked Remembrance Day in the market in Suva by sharing the story of the extinct lapitiguana with passersby and raising awareness of the threats to iguanas.
 15110907_901169299982763_8319553340188339746_o
14976346_887532268013133_2661891385456893373_o
Brighton: ONCA Gallery hosted a remembrance procession for the thylacine.

Remembrance Day for Lost Species – ONCA @LostSpeciesDay from hyperoculus on Vimeo.

Brighton: Irish musician Cathy Davey and other artists paid tribute to the thylacine at ONCA in a night dedicated to its memory.
screen-shot-2016-12-17-at-21-46-27
Hobart, Tasmania: Vigil at Beaumaris Zoo. At the site of the last thylacine’s death, participants held a meditation and made a small shrine of offerings from thylacine home ground, the Southwest Wilderness. Rocks, gum leaves, flowering tea-tree, button-grass, yabby claw, deciduous beech, banksia, and water from the ‘extinct’ Lake Pedder.
15232294_10154615578816598_1175232096978231774_n
15202670_10154615578661598_2657129622526468550_n
River Taff, Wales: The River Taff in South Wales has seen species lost and some re-gained. It has carried effluents of iron and steel works, power stations, coke ovens, sewers. Now it once again holds sea trout, salmon, otters and eels. It is a river mending. Artist Kate Knowles went for a gratitude swim on Remembrance Day for Lost Species. 
 15241381_10154389329809678_2899584235903864640_n
Warwick: Warwick University GLOBUS students held a day of learning, reflection and talks with music and affirmations.
Finland: Musician Christine Cooper organised a collaborative, interactive performance-ritual to remember and mourn lost species, and to take stock of the changes our world is going through.
Merritt Island, Florida: In honour of Remembrance Day for Lost Species, Nancy Mitchell visited Merritt Island, where the now-extinct dusky seaside sparrow lived, and took this photo of a mounted specimen of one in the Visitor Information Center at the Refuge.
15384378_1363121820387020_5134663140678130248_o
 Wood Green, London: Year 7 students at Woodside High School made shadow puppets with artist Ellie Liddell Crewe from ONCA.
woodside-boy-with-dodo
woodside-girl-with-lion
 
Kington, Hereford: Nigel and Tamara Rayment created Bean & Gone Beastro, a pop-up restaurant for Remembrance Day. Unfortunately, none of the menu items were available.

  15203333_1878858642333731_96895909147491457_n
Penzance, Cornwall: Artist Tim Ridley and friends drew and discussed lost species.
screen-shot-2016-12-17-at-21-20-36
 
Some writings published on or in response to the day:

Broken open – by Persephone Pearl

Broken open

wrung out

limp

eyes tiny swollen things

limbs heavy and immobile

yet I want to stay like this

to lie by the embers while the cold wind whips me

press my face against stones while my tears roll through the gaps between them

shout into blackness and feel the wind push my cries back into my throat

fall down and pummel the ground

my heart so full that it has cracked wide open like a burnt rock from the heart of the pyre

 


Last night in Brighton we held a funeral for the thylacine, extinct since 1936. The meeting point was at ONCA, where we gave people whiskers and Lost Species Day stickers when they arrived. Glitter, fur, black garb, leopard print, tails, ears: the gallery was full of people curious, open, ready for this, tangibly in need of this kind of space.

I preface the procession with a disclaimer/ celebration:

This is an experiment, there are no rules, we are inventing it all together because we need to – 

Then we press pieces of paper with the names of lost species into their hands and pockets, and off we all go, carrying an effigy of Benjamin, the last thylacine. We only made a head and a tail, and they are connected by a great length of white sheet that many people hold and drape over their shoulders. We’re a motley crew: Ellie at the front in her thylacine mask made from an old teddy bear, tolling the Bell for Lost Species as she goes; Gary with his dark glasses and his tambourine like a Krishna devotee; Alex the bewhiskered numb-fingered ukulele player; people with masks with lanterns; my son Felix running around like a paparazzo with a borrowed GoPro. People smile as we pass by, or shake their heads and mutter “bloody humans” when they hear that it’s Remembrance Day for Lost Species.

Wake up, shouts Andreas as the bell tolls. It’s time to wake up!

Is this alright, I am thinking. Is this enough? I want this to be enough. I need it to be enough for the people who have come. Yet what could ever be enough?

Through the Pavilion Gardens – for a moment we nearly end up on the temporary ice rink – then down onto the ink dark beach, crunching over pebbles all the way to the foreshore with this strange snaking hodgepodge creation. It stinks of fish down here but instinctively I want that – to perceive, viscerally, the processes of life and death.

The thylacine-snake is laid out in a circle with head and tail meeting in the middle – a great wonky ouroboros – and we gather shufflingly around it. Matt steps into the centre and tells the story of the thylacine – its uniqueness, its niche, its scapegoating, persecution and extermination.

Then, people speak from the edges of the circle of the things they wish to remember tonight:

I want to remember the wolves and bears of this land shot to extinction

I want to remember the boreal forests of Canada given way to tar sands

I want to remember the great forests of Germany now all but gone

I want to remember the red gazelle, though I never knew of its existence till now

I want to remember Toughie and the lost amphibians

Down, I am sinking down, dropping so far, held by the voice of the sea and this fragile circle of vulnerability

I want to remember the lost forest people of Brazil and Panama

I want to remember Berta Caceres the murdered Honduran indigenous environmental activist

I want to remember the unborn Native American children poisoned by the persistent organic pollutants in the Great Lakes

I want to remember the murdered Thai environmental protector who inspired so many people

Further, let me drop further down –  I am ready for the abyss, I feel the sides rushing past me as I fly – but are others frightened? Is this too much? How much can we bear to look at? 

I hold in my thoughts the protectors at Standing Rock

I hold in my thoughts the bees and the pollinators

I hold in my thoughts the protesters defending the woods of Leith Hill from oil exploration

I hold in my thoughts the web of life that is sustained by the soil and I commit to restoring the soil

I give thanks for the worms

I give thanks for the return of the beavers

I give thanks for the wasps and their great work

I give thanks to all the people who give their lives in service to the earth that they love

I could stay here forever.

And then Ellie is saying, Come on then, let’s burn it, and I am wondering, Is it too much, are people too cold, is it too difficult? And we are stumbling about, placing offerings into the mouth of the thylacine, while Andreas plays Amazing Grace on his flute. Lu-Lu in the lemur hat is lighting the paper and up goes Benjamin, a sudden exquisite blast of brilliance in the dark. Just like that.

I sit by the fire, almost touching it; my friend Flor and I tend the flames and I watch every moment. I must stay until the very end, just as I had to at my mother’s funeral when the gravediggers came with their little digger and pushed the heavy clay over her coffin. The tears come now. All I can do is cry, and hold onto strangers.

My comrade Andreas takes one of my tears and puts it into the fire. He says the earth’s song is out of tune and the tree of life is withered. We need to howl and weep, for how else can we water the withered tree or bring music back into the voice of the earth? He recites a poem by Antonio Machado, taught to us by our friend the brilliant Martin Shaw:

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odour of jasmine.

‘In return for the odour of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odour of your roses.’

‘I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.’

‘Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.’

the wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:
‘What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?’

Remembrance Day for Lost Species – ONCA @LostSpeciesDay from hyperoculus on Vimeo.

 

Lost Species Day Joy Giving – by Megan Hollingsworth

ex·tinc·tion wit·ness is one in a growing coalition of artists, educators, museum curators, scientists and writers forwarding International Remembrance Day for Lost Species (Lost Species Day).

This year, ex·tinc·tion wit·ness joins Your Yoga in Bozeman, Montana for Joy Giving. Lost Species Day Joy Giving practice is focused on grieving discovery and the total cost of a doctrine that has long made legitimate by law the exploitation, removal, and murder of men, women, and children, all non-human organisms, and whole communities.

Please read ‘Grieving Discovery‘, written Armistice Day 9.11.2016, which tells the story of my wedding ‘Discovery Tree’, pictured above, and how fully embodied grief keeps the peace.

Lost Species Day offerings have been highlighted throughout November at the Lost Species Day blog. Jeremy Hance wove a lovely chorus of Lost Species Day voices in “Why don’t we greive lost species?” (The Guardian, 11.19.2016.) Gatherings have begun. November 27th, folks wearing stripes climbed trees in urban Glasgow to honor disappearing lemurs. Others, not necessarily wearing stripes, joined parade for lost and nearly lost species in Milton Keynes, United Kingdom. For Joy Giving details, visit the  REMEMBRANCE page and be sure to explore the breadth of Lost Species Day offerings.

Standing Rock may be the global epicenter where mass battle or mass peace will be decided. It feels important to note that the violence inflicted on human beings who stand to protect Missouri river water is not surprising given how this continent came to be occupied by white-skinned folk, who arrived running from and with our own long-inherited trauma. And how murder is a standard practice for securing prospects in today’s global market.

Much of today’s overwhelming grief is anticipatory. There is fear that what has been established in protective laws and protected areas will be lost to the final breath of a dying era that’s damaged everyone and cost so many.

Among decisions that will determine the health of water and, thus, whole communities is Scotland’s call, anticipated 2017, on whether or not to allow dangerous hydraulic fracturing – ‘the forcing open of fissures in subterranean rocks by introducing liquid at high pressure, especially to extract oil or gas’.

Then there’s “Canada’s Standing Rock” – the B.C. tarsands pipeline conflict. Hydraulic fracturing, gold and uranium mining that threaten U.S. national forests and parks. 3,700 dams proposed globally while the recommendation from scientists and economists is dam removal. And more…

If the desire is a present and future free of fear-invoking violence, we must stop fearing the present and future. The collective consciousness must be cleared of anticipatory grief. And this is done by clearing individuals of anticipatory grief.

I invite you to let your imagination go to a world without flowers. Without the child’s laughter. Go all the way there and sit awhile. Grieve that darkness, which exists today for some members of Earth’s global community. Then, be present where you are. Then, see the flower and hear the child laugh as if for the first time. Be so grateful for their existence that you fall to the ground asking only what you may do to help someone other than yourself.

The Lost Species Day Joy Giving practice is designed to move practitioners through 108 feelings associated with experience, resolving the person to joy for the very prospect of being alive and a generally peaceful mind. Many – more or less structured – practices, including breathwork, chanting, and dance, have been designed to accomplish emotional purification.

This is old information. Yet, human awareness of mass species extinction is quite fresh. And, so, the effort of Lost Species Day to create and establish rituals fitting for this fresh consciousness.

In addition to visiting the REMEMBRANCE page for more information, please see the list of those supporting grief ritual along with readings on grief linked at bottom of the ex·tinc·tion wit·ness Sanctify page. Please also stay tuned for notice of Grief & Creativity Forum at Depth Psychology Alliance, resuming Winter 2016/2017.

Most warn that livings will become more challenging before improvement, so please be gentle with yourself and others. Just as I complete the final edit on this post, I’m reading a tweet from Bill McKibben“This is a graph of total global sea ice. The red line is this year. Something is very very wrong.” 

Truth is, it’s morbid out there. My most recent poem Y?, is written in response to 250 puffins washed dead upon Saint Paul Island during what’s been an unseasonably warm autumn from Montana North to the Bering Sea. And dire drought yields wildfires and unbearable air consuming Southeast communities. My arms reach out for everyone.

As the mother of a six, nearly seven, year old boy, my heart would like to sink in the uncertainty. I’m clueless to the looming challenges. Then I remember the wonder and creative genius of biomimicry’s sweet blossom – natural wisdom that wants to break through each and every person just as chemically-laced water at high pressure will split rock. Just as the election has split losers, now fighting one another, in the Dream that eventually nobody wins given the associated nightmare is reality for most.

I want my son to shine in a culture that serves biomimicry to pre-schoolers. That’s 100% possible if mineral extraction stops, large dams get removed, people and lots of perennials thrive. The beauty is that all this,already begun, is catalyzed by the split in this union that’s forced the light of human kindness, understanding, and reverence through the cracks.

Autumn is an ideal season for grieving and within the overarching Season, there’s an alchemical masterpiece brewing. What falls does rise. To know sorrow is to know joy and to experience the fullness of life. Please unite with others, near and far, in this fullness November 30th.

Lost Species Day ritual need not be elaborate. Sincere, if brief, words of gratitude form the most potent prayer. And, as is noted in Jeremy Hance’s post in The Guardian, grief has many faces, humor and gratitude among them.

Thank you,

Megan

Liturgy of Loss – by Nick Hunt

What words can do justice to the disorientating, vertiginous experience of loss that accompanies an awareness of the unfolding of the sixth mass extinction? These words by Nick Hunt were used at a DIY ritual event held at the Dark Mountain Uncivilisation festival in 2013. Juxtaposing humour and the mundane with the epic and unknowable, they are offered here by Nick as inspiration for Lost Species events this year. Please write your own extinction liturgies and eulogies, and share them here too. 

Ladies and gentlemen, men and women, friends, humans, homo sapiens, homo heidelbergensis, neanderthalensis, finders, losers, St. Lucy giant rice rats, loves, lost loves, dears, Schomburgk’s deers, darlings, Darling Downs hopping mice, American lions, Tasmanian tigers, Bermuda night herons, Bermuda triangles, objects, possessions, lost keys, Geeze, Nagumi, Etruscan, Eyak, Basque-Icelandic pigdin, passenger pigeons, words, languages, memories, laughter, laughing owls, Ilin Island cloudrunners, short-faced bears, sharp-snouted dayfrogs, welcome to the Liturgy of Loss.

We ask you now to throw our loved ones’ ashes in the Ganges, to wrap their bodies in flags and drop them in the sea, to stand around the cold church hall eating canapes, to slam our whisky glasses down on the coffin, and finally recline on the topmost tower and let the vultures carry our bones away.

And let us also check five times in the same pocket for your missing mobile phone, and the train ticket that has joined the odd socks in the cupboard under the stairwell of the night

And let us also search in vain for the word for the memory conjured by the particular smell of our mother leaving the house in a rainstorm while potato cakes almost burn in the oven while the cat sicks up the pine needles of last year’s Christmas tree.

And let us also remember our never-to-be-realised childhood dreams of employment as bears, robots, kings of volcanoes, revolutionaries, outlaws and millionaires.

And let us also remember all that we’ve lost without knowing: the sound of the wings of the passenger pigeons that no longer darken the sky whistling over the empty grassland where there is no grass any more and soon there will be no land. The phantom limbs of our orchards, hayricks and other bucolic appendages. The rusted bicycle frame with no gears, no wheels, no brakes, no bicycle, locked outside a boarded-up shop on a street you no longer walk down.

We ask you all to sing of the sadness of things you love and let them go, to laugh at longing, to celebrate the seasonal and circadian rhythms of loss and return.

Ladies and gentlemen, nonhumans, broad-faced potoroos, root-spine palms, dinogorgons, Karankawas, golems, bigfoots, pravoslaverias, you are in the Liturgy of Loss…

We will now forge a Liturgy of farewell for vanishing things. These three certified ritualologists will lead you outside to speak of the things that you love and the things that you’ve lost. We ask you to make a simple offering, a sketch or a few words to represent a personal absence for the forthcoming Immolation of the Darlings, the culmination of our ceremony.You will bring your songs and offerings back here, and the Liturgy will begin.

Ladies and gentlemen! Tarpans! Great auks! Aurochs! Lacunae! Misplaced ephemera! Pieces of the world! Fragments! Missing jigsaw puzzle pieces! Extinct hominids and the extant cousins of extinct hominids! Come! Gather! Make haste! Scurry! Eroded statues! Runes that can’t be read! Please proceed back inside, please proceed back inside, for the Liturgy of Loss is about to begin, the Liturgy is about to commence! Loss! Loss! Loss! Loss! People! Ex-people! Missing persons of the future! Small but essential lost pre-fabricated garden furniture fittings! Soviet notions of a utopian future! The Liturgy is about to begin!

After words, after songs, come only flames and silence. We ask you now to proceed to the Fire of Forgetting for the Immolation of the Darlings, to finally lose the things you’ve lost, and then to go your way in peace and lose yourselves in the world.

 

Image: mandala from Feral Theatre’s Remembering the Javan Tiger. Photograph by Abi Horn

 

Ritual Burials – by Katie Tume/ Mother Eagle

For the past year I have been working on a series of pieces based on the ritual burials of animals.

This series explores the way we as humans share an ancient history of ritually honouring animals in life and death, and invites the viewer to consider how the sacred place those animals once held has now changed. In the transient nature of life and death, there are clues all around us of the importance and significance certain animals have – in the names of plants, in the folklore and mythology of global cultures.

Inspired by ancient Celtic burial rites, the composition of each piece suggests a burial ground where the spirit of each animal is ritually honoured with sacred plants, symbols and runes.

Our ancient ancestors believed in reincarnation. Although specific funeral rites varied throughout Europe and indeed the globe, one common thread is that the human remains were being prepared for another world, where they would be infused with spirit and live again. Early on in this project I visited the British Museum and saw examples of ‘grave goods’ – objects of personal and spiritual significance placed in the grave or burned, believed to travel with the soul to the next life.

Many tribes or clans were believed to be descended from animals. We know of ‘Cat People’ in Scotland, and ‘Wolf Tribes’ in Ireland. Some families were even said to have descended from animals; at least six families in Scotland and Ireland were thought to share ancestry with the seal. In our early tribal culture, most had their animal totems – Sheep and Raven people in Sutherland, Horse people of Kintyre. In Switzerland they have discovered altars to the Bear more than 70,000 years old. Ceremonial headdresses made of antlers over 10,000 years old were found in Yorkshire.

Our ancestors chose to be buried with their animals, as guides or companions. Although hunting was commonplace, every part of the animal was used – even its excretions for healing rituals. The hunt itself was considered sacred, and the Goddess was asked for permission before daring to take the life of any creature. Animals held a role in our ancestors’ society far beyond anything we recognise now.

This series specifically looks at ten animals, all native to the British Isles at some point and all with special cultural or religious significance to pagan communities. Despite the sometimes literally God-like status some of these animals once held, many are now either endangered or lost entirely from the UK. In fact, of these 10, only 2 have populations defined as ‘stable’. Certainly it is true that every single one of these creatures faces persecution in some way.

The Arctic Hare was the original Hare of Britain, later replaced by the Brown Hare, probably brought by the Romans from central Europe. The Brown Hare is the only game species without a closed season when hunting is prohibited. Numbers have declined more than 80% in the last 100 years, a trend that continues.

There are 18 species of bats in Britain, all endangered and protected by law, and at least 12 species worldwide are now extinct.

Although frogs are numerous, their numbers have declined by in the UK by 75% in the last century due to habitat change and destruction. There are only 2 species of toad left in Britain, the Natterjack Toad is one of the top ten most threatened species of the UK.

Wolves were hunted out of existence in Britain in the18th century, the last one thought to have been killed in Scotland in 1743.

The Bear cult is one of the most ancient on Earth. It lived in Scotland until the 11th Century.

Otters are a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan although it is the only species of this series whose numbers are confirmed to be on the incline in England.

Deer are not threatened in the UK, although this is undoubtedly due to huge numbers being owned and managed as a game species, on private estates and country parks, rather than being a ‘wild’ animal.

The Wildcat is critically endangered. In Britain since the Iron Age, and still existing in Scotland, its numbers could be as few as 400.

The Fox is the only species in this series both truly wild, and with a population considered stable, despite still being hunted and considered vermin throughout the world.

Finally the Barn Owl’s numbers have declined severely in the last few decades, with as few as 4000 breeding pairs remaining in the UK. They have coexisted with man since prehistoric times but a loss of habitat and change in traditional farming practices has put them on the critical list.

When I began this project, it came from my lifelong love for folklore and ancient mythology and a desire to explore this. However, researching each of these animal’s stories, learning of their magic, their power, and in many cases of their centuries of persecution borne out of human fear, I discovered I was personally marking each animal, ritualising my grief too. Even the process of embroidery can often be a meditative one. The in and out of the thread, the inhale and exhale. As I come to the project’s completion I feel both a sense of catharsis, and a strong desire to continue sharing the stories of species we have lost, species we are losing.

Who was it who first decided to name the harebell? What were the circumstances? Were they enjoying the golden late spring, watching the wild Hares boxing and dubbed the first flower they saw? Has a harebell ever been placed on a Hare’s grave? Has a great Bear’s body ever worn a crown of oak leaves?

Do we know when it was, or who our ancestors were when they first became aware of species disappearing? Or the moment when they – when we – first decided to stop ritually marking the death of animals?

 

Katie Tume is an embroidery artist from Brighton, East Sussex. Born in 1980, she is a fifth-generation needleworker who first learned her craft at her mother’s knee. She attended the Surrey Institute of Art and Design as a Fashion and Illustration student, but is largely self-taught in hand embroidery techniques. She completed her first formal training in 2015 at The Royal School of Needlework in Coloured Metal Threadwork. You can read about her fictional muse Mother Eagle here, in a short story she wrote about her. Katie’s work is influenced by folklore, mythology, pagan societies and the old Gods.

Find Katie on Instagram: @mother_eagle_embroidery_art

 

 

Recording and sharing your Remembrance events

The online map of events for Remembrance Day for Lost Species is bursting with activities and commitments – diverse, experimental, private, public – it’s fantastic and so very exciting to imagine all of this shared consciousness swelling over the coming days. Thank you!

Please consider documenting the events that you organise or attend. Good images, video, audio or write-ups are an invaluable resource for growing this initiative.  With respect to audio documentation, we are considering pitching to ResonanceFM to their Clear Spot to do a radio show in coming months, reflecting on all the many wonderful ways that lost species are mourned. Being an online radio show, the programmes are then available for sharing. So, if this interests you, please gather whatever you can for that!

Social media storm: Your clips, texts and photos can be shared on Facebook, and on our Twitter feed @lostspeciesday, and then for wider spreading on social media.

Press: We can also encourage journalists to write articles that use these assets. (Please let us know if you have contacts or ideas!)

Blogposts: You are welcome to write blogposts about your events or projects for this Lost Species Day website. Having some documents will really help with this.

Of course, if you share your documents, please make clear how you like them to be attributed and shared. (Creative Commons terms are very helpful.)

Let’s raise awareness together, and speak for those who cannot.

Listen to some lovely audio footage from Megan Hollingsworth of ex.tinc.tion wit.ness speaking on Evolution Radio about Lost Species Day.

Spirit Boats – by Alexi Francis

At home I am making an origami boat out of paper. It is covered in scrim, dried teabag papers and used coffee filter papers and adorned with natural materials – moss, lichen, bark, sheep’s wool. It ‘s to be a “spirit boat” for a ritual to mourn the many species which have been lost or are at risk of going extinct.

making-spirit-boats800

In the shamanistic tradition of Arctic Europe, spirit boats were made to journey to other realms of reality or to carry the souls of the departed on to the next world. I am making several spirit boats each with a different theme. I have sewn the found bones of a rabbit on to the sides of one boat and used a rabbit skull as a figurehead. This boat is to commemorate extinct mammals and will carry the names of those that have recently disappeared – the Javan Tiger, the Quagga, the Pyrenean Ibex…

mammal-boat800

On another boat I’ve attached feathers, twigs and eggshells; this one is for the extinct birds and it too carries names of recently extinct species – the Passenger Pigeon, the Great Auk, the Kangaroo Island Emu, the Laughing Owl, the Crested Shelduck, Mariana Mallard…

bird-boat800

A third boat carries the names of recently extinct insects and other invertebrates – the Levuana Moth, the Cascade Funnel-Web Spider, the Polynesian Tree Snail, the Pearly Mussel. It shall have paper wings.

words-boat800

Yet another will be for plants and forests.

forest-boat800

As habitat destruction continues with climate change, urbanisation, changes in agricultural practice and other wanton human practices, habitats and species of all kinds around the world are dwindling and disappearing faster than ever.

On 30th November, Remembrance Day for Lost Species, I shall take my spirit boats to a favourite stretch of the River Adur in Sussex where lines of pollarded willows stand on the dishevelled floodplain. There the water is still like glass, rippled only by passing swans. A dead tree stands sentry-like, its contorted limbs reflected in the mirror waters below. As the sun sets I shall lower my boats into the water, each lit up by a tea light and as dusk settles they shall drift off with the gentle current as a last farewell.

Alexi Francis is an illustrator living in Brighton, England.

Why don’t we grieve for extinct species? – by Jeremy Hance

Photo of  the Brighton funeral for the Great Auk 

 

This article on Remembrance Day for Lost Species is reproduced from the Guardian with the permission of the author Jeremy Hance.

In early 2010, artist, activist and mother, Persephone Pearl, headed to the Bristol Museum. Like many concerned about the fate of the planet, she was in despair over the failed climate talks in Copenhagen that winter. She sat on a bench and looked at a stuffed animal behind glass: a thylacine. Before then, she’d never heard of the marsupial carnivore that went extinct in 1936.

“Here was this beautiful mysterious lost creature locked in a glass case,” she said. “It struck me suddenly as unbearably undignified. And I had this sudden vision of smashing the glass, lifting the body out, carrying the thylacine out into the fields, stroking its body, speaking to it, washing it with my tears, and burying it by a river so that it could return to the earth.”

Pearl felt grief, deep grief, over the loss of a creature she’d never once seen in life, a species that had been shot to extinction because European settlers had deemed it vermin. Yet, how do we grieve for extinct species when there are no set rituals, no extinction funerals, no catharsis for the pain caused by a loss that in many ways is simply beyond human comprehension? We have been obliterating species for over ten thousand years – beginning with the megafauna of the Pleistocene like woolly rhinos, short-faced bears and giant sloths – yet we have no way of mourning them.

Still, Pearl didn’t push the grief under or ignore it. Instead, she sought to share it. In 2011 Pearl, who is the co-director of the arts group, ONCA, and the theatre group Feral in Brighton, helped organise the first ever Remembrance Day for Lost Species. Held every November 30th, it’s since become a day for activists, artists and mourners to find creative ways to share their grief for extinct species – and reinvigorate their love for the natural world.

“We hope the Remembrance events will function as funerals for humans do,” Rachel Porter, a co-founder of Remembrance Day for Lost Species and a movement therapist, said. “Such rituals are ancient, embedded within us. We are just placing this common ritual into an unfamiliar context.”

Most of these events are not large – they are not thousands of people marching on government buildings – but more like the number of people who would attend a funeral for a loved one. They are communal and largely intimate events, full of things you might expect and others you might not: such as burning pyres, chanting, poetry reading, bell tolling and processionals.

But there are no rules to the Remembrance Day for Lost Species and anyone can start a public event or hold a private ceremony. This year, they are going on all over the world, including a dinner for the dodo in London, a poetry reading in Berlin, and a remembrance ritual for the thylacine outside of Brisbane, Australia.

Graphic designer and art therapist Julia Peddie, who is hosting the thylacine ritual in Australia this year, said she remembers as a child first learning about how humans wiped out the dodo – and how the knowledge crushed her.

“I can only imagine how children feel now, witnessing such enormous losses, and wonder if they are desensitising in order to cope,” she said. “Remembrance Day for Lost Species provides an opportunity for children and adults to connect with their grief, and in doing so, reclaim a part of themselves.”

photo of Bex Anson’s shrine to the Caribbean Monk Seal taken by Abi Horn

The vitality of grief

But let’s be honest, many of us probably find the idea of attending a funeral or walking in a processional for a vanished species a little foolish. It may even make us feel something more profound: vulnerable. But Pearl said this is only to be expected.

“If grieving for a lost person is difficult, grieving for ecosystems and species is entirely novel and challenging.”

She said that as a global society we have lost the knowledge of how to grieve even for our closest loved ones, quoting teacher and author Stephen Jenkinson who writes that our society is “death phobic and grief illiterate.”

“We struggle to talk about death and dying,” Pearl said. “It is seen as a terrible thing, to be avoided at all costs. We are afraid of upsetting people, and of awkward conversations.”

But at what cost? According to Porter, our inability to show grief – or even allow ourselves to feel it – may lead to mental illness.

“The grief might become misplaced if it’s not recognised and misguided grief could be destructive, it could manifest as depression or anxiety.”

In contrast, displaying grief can result in catharsis. In an emotional process first described by Aristotle over 2,000 years ago, pent up, intense feelings are allowed safe release through ritual. Afterwards, mourners are able to move forward, maybe even with more wisdom than before.

“Actual grief is hardly practiced today,” Megan Hollingsworth, a poet and founder of the collaborative art project ex·tinc·tion wit·ness, said. “If it were, children would neither be murdered in war nor would they go hungry and homeless in the streets of the world’s ‘wealthiest’ nations. Water would be protected. The desires of ‘grown’ men and women would not ever trump the needs of any single child, let alone whole communities.”

Hollingsworth, also one of the founders of the Remembrance Day for Lost Species, will be holding a bell tolling ceremony in Montana on the 30th.

Tear your hair for the extinct

But grief doesn’t occur only when we lose loved ones. Ask anyone who has seen a local forest they once played in as a child demolished for another cookie-cutter development or has watched as fewer bees and butterflies show up in their garden each summer. Or ask any conservationist who has to witness year-after-year as the species they work with slowly vanish, ask any marine biologist about coral reefs or any Arctic biologist about sea ice. Grief can extend far beyond our human parochialism.

“We realised that there was a hunger for a way of grieving ecological loss through ritual,” said Porter who in 2011 directed a Funeral for Lost Species through her group, Feral Theatre. This was an outdoor theatrical performance in a churchyard that included various traditional forms of mourning and tilted between somber and whimsical.

Porter believes many people are simply “stuck in a kind of denial” when it comes to extinction, biodiversity loss and environmental crises.

“If we face it honestly and fully we have to face our own collective shadow, our out-of-control destructive urges and acts. These are terrible, terrifying things to face alone,” she said.

Part of this denial is also due to our growing disconnect from nature.

“Many humans now solely interact with domesticated animals and plants. Some have no experience whatsoever of intact forest, field, and aquatic community. The total loss of other community members, their families, and life affirming ways then is an utterly distant abstraction,” Hollingsworth said. “Yet in grief, as in love, humans are wired for intimacy. “

According to the founders of the Remembrance Day for Lost Species, grieving in a ritualised ceremony removes our isolation from other mourners – we are after all grieving communally – and cuts through the denial.

“For those in denial bearing witness to acts of remembrance and honouring reminds them non-aggressively of something that they are pushing away. That is why making these rituals public is so very important,” Porter said.

In the end such rituals may help people transform their perfectly understandable anger – which is “connected to the disregard and destruction of the natural world,” according to Porter – into something ultimately productive.

Providing a real outlet for grief could help people finally take action and change the world for the better.

“Potentially, in our sadness, we can vow not to continue to let it happen, and acknowledge the role we humans are playing in causing the extinctions,” Peddie said. “Grief can provide a pathway for taking responsibility, and making a commitment to take action.”

Such rituals also allow us to view extinction in a novel way. So much of the information we receive about extinctions and biodiversity decline today comes from science, not from personal experience in the wild. And while science is necessary, it is often represented in wonky papers or press release that are bloodless, cold, even inhuman – a recitation of facts rather than a proper elegy for the lost.

“Telling the stories of recently extinct species is a way of capturing people’s imaginations to this end,” said Pearl. “It’s not science or statistics, it’s history, it’s real life – and in an age of cultural amnesia, storytelling inspired by historical events is a way to learn lessons from the past.”

But many probably fear that allowing themselves to feel the grief – really feel it – will result in a personal collapse. Hollingsworth said that an environmental studies professor once told her: “‘I can’t think of this as grief. That would be endless.’”

But this is “where the misconception lies,” according to Hollingsworth. Grieving doesn’t bring endless suffering, but healing and health.

“What happens when I don’t grieve someone’s death? What does it mean not to feel or express sorrow when someone passes unnecessarily due to my negligence? Just the thought of this is chilling to me as the sociopath is brought to mind,” she said.

Grief can be funny too

This doesn’t mean such events have to be sombre and drowned in tears. No emotion is wrong, according to the founders of the Remembrance Day for Lost Species. They are not afraid to throw humour and whimsy into their rituals.

“Often at human funerals people share funny stories about the dead person and it gives a relief, a release from weight of loss, and it can bring a celebratory feel,” said Porter.

Laughter can be incredibly powerful, even during a ritual mourning.

“Humour allows us to softly break through denial and isolation, to damp down the tempers fire, to create space in between the agony, the fear, the chaos,” said Porter.

Recently, Pearl attended the Stories of the Anthropocene Festival in Stockholm where she held a remembrance ceremony for the thylacine. Attendees were asked to share their stories about extinction – but first they had to step through a glitter curtain.

“If you can make people laugh, you are halfway to love. You can take people to deep places. You can encourage them to take risks,” she said.

But sombreness is okay, too, the founders insist. It all depends on what you are hoping to create within the context of the ritual.

Grieving in the Anthropocene

Legend says the world’s last thylacine died cold and alone. The story is that it was mistakenly locked out of its nighttime quarters at the zoo in Hobart, Tasmania during an unusually cold night in 1936. The animal, which was never even identified as a male or female, perished from exposure. That was 80 years ago this year.

While the last thylacine may not have actually died from the cold, it certainly died in a kind of loneliness that is almost impossible for humans – seven billion and rising – to comprehend. It was, after all, an endling. The last of its kind.

And yet do we barely remember it, let alone weep for it.

Julia Peddie said the 80th Anniversary of the extinction of the thylacine “went fairly unnoticed in the mainstream media” even in its native Australia.

Despite little media around the anniversary, Australia still has a lot of “nostalgia” for the thylacine, said Peddie, to the extent that some people believe it still inhabits the wild lands of Tasmania.

Perhaps, this is a kind of denial in action, an inability to accept the extinction of what once was; a denial that may continue to allow Australians – and people around the world – to ignore the losses going on right in front of them.

Australia is an epicentre of extinction. It has the highest mammal loss of any country on Earth. Since European arrival, the country has lost at least 30 species of mammal. And another was lost just this year: the Bramble Cay melomys, the world’s first mammal known to have gone extinct due to climate change.

“The stories of lost species remind us that things do end, they do die, that we are causing irrevocable and deeply distressing changes – but that the ending’s not yet written for the stories of rhinoceros, of hedgehogs, of phytoplankton,” said Pearl.

So, really, why don’t we grieve for the passenger pigeon, the golden toad, or the Yangtze River dolphin? Or how about Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog which just vanished from the Earth in September? Why don’t we rend our garments for the woolly mammoth, or tear our hair for the dodo or smear our windows with ash for the great moas that once roamed New Zealand? It can’t hurt. It could only heal.

“We need to imagine and invent new rituals for the Anthropocene,” said Pearl. “What would a memorial for the Caspian tiger or the elephant bird look like? A memorial for the Great Barrier Reef? For 350 parts per million of atmospheric CO2?”

The age of the Anthropocene is an age of grief, put simply. Not showing, sharing or indeed feeling that grief will make it all the more unbearable. But a collective keening may be key to moving forward and creating a new society that fully respects and cherishes the millions of life forms that call this planet home.

War memorial to the passenger pigeon by Camilla Schofield