This blog first appeared here: https://wildeasters.wordpress.com/2016/11/24/falsely-remembered-beasts/
The Dodo used to walk around,
And take the sun and air.
The sun yet warms his native ground—
The Dodo is not there!
The voice which used to squawk and squeak
Is now forever dumb—
Yet may you see his bones and beak
All in the Mu-se-um.1
– Hilaire Belloc
Extinction began when I was six years old, with Walt Disney’s Fantasia. To the notes of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring I watched the earth emerge from the Milky Way: a violent planet, heaving with the fire of volcanoes. When it calms, the first creatures begin to writhe out of ocean darkness, one wriggling into a fish as it swims across screen, growing larger, brighter, more intricate, until it sprouts legs and crawls onto the land of the dinosaurs. Pterodactyls swoop across lakes catching prehistoric fish, in turn stolen off them by prehistoric crocodiles. Baby Diplodocuses play in shallow water. But the planet is still unpredictable. The dinosaurs’ world soon returns to hostility. Sky turns sickly orange; air is choked with dust. Swamps that had been fought over by the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Stegosaurus now ooze with grey slime. Trees are barren. Hungry and weary, the dinosaurs trudge towards a low, burning sun. Their bodies fall to the ground, one after the other. When the earth’s surface begins to rupture again, the dinosaurs are already bone.
This was my first view of extinction: the event of a distant past, and a different planet. I understood that mass destruction of the dinosaurs was necessary to the creation of the modern world – after all, we could not live side by side. And then, a few years later, I read a very different view of extinction in Hilaire Belloc’s short poem ‘The Dodo’ from The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts. The words seemed to belong to a funny poem, one that had to force the final rhyme of “Mu-se-um”, but the accompanying images suggested a different agenda.
In the first drawing the dodo is “tak[ing] the sun and air” while peacefully watching two eggs, but it in turn is watched by men with weapons. The dodo looks like it could belong in the Jurassic era, but the men are in relatively modern dress. And then the poem exclaims “The Dodo is not there!” and both bird and eggs disappear off the page.
Dodos have become an icon of extinction. The sale of a “95% complete” dodo skeleton – for £280,000, plus auction house fees – has just made national headlines. The birds are captivating for their flightlessness, their comical faces, for the way they appear both mythical and familiar. There are said to be only twelve genuine dodo skeletons in existence, a fact confused by convincing scale models that make them seem more common. At the Horniman Museum in south-east London, visitors are fooled by an early twentieth century dodo, made from plaster and chicken feathers, that sits alongside the museum’s genuine taxidermy. Unlike other extinct animals, the dodo feels like a creature that I’ve always known. Did I first learn of it from Hilaire Belloc, or from the dodo in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? At what point did I know it was real, and that I would never see one alive? The dodo has always been there as the dream of a falsely remembered beast.
Perhaps what is most captivating about the dodo is our culpability in its demise. We can attribute the extinction of the dinosaurs to the climatic and geological changes of – as it seemed to a six-year-old – a capricious planet. The extinction of the dodo is due to humans – those who hunted it, destroyed its Mauritian forest habitat, and introduced animals such as pigs and dogs who ate its eggs. The last sighting of a dodo was in the mid-1600s. These humans are our near relatives.
The dodo is an early example of our direct role in extinction. This is a role that has exacerbated in the last few centuries, and accelerated in recent decades. In the last ten years, animals that have been declared extinct include the Yangtze River dolphin, the Bramble Cay melomys (a small rodent), Ridley’s stick-insect, and the Alaotra grebe. A recent report warns that by 2020 we are likely to have lost 67% of the wild animals that existed in 1970. The main causes for such extinction include destruction of habitat, hunting, and pollution: all down to humans.
Last week, an article in The Guardian asked why we didn’t grieve for extinct species, referring to the lack of rituals available. Our mourning is further complicated by the vast number of deaths that there are to grieve for – an act that has proved similarly difficult when the deceased are humans. On 1st July this year, young men wearing World War I uniforms appeared in public spaces across the UK. They were at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow; at Queen’s University in Belfast; I passed by them in London’s Waterloo station on my way to work. The cards they carried detailed their name, regiment, age, and date and place of death. The last was always the same: 1st July 1916, the Somme.
The men – 1,500 of them in total – were part of a project by the artist Jeremy Deller, who had been asked to commemorate the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when almost 20,000 British men were killed. Deller was clear in his aims: “I quickly realised that what I didn’t want was a static memorial that the public went to to be sad. In the 21st century I felt we had to do something different […] I wanted to take it to the public.”
Photo of ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’ from The Guardian.
The project became a kind of “counter-monument”: a monument that seeks engagement from its audience and negates indifference. Yet responses to Deller’s work are helped by the relative proximity of the First World War, and personal connections (my great-great uncle William Pickard was killed in it). Commemorating the mass death of non-humans is complicated by the prospective mourner’s lack of emotional attachment. A named individual – Martha the last passenger pigeon, Cecil the lion – can help to provoke a stronger response. The imagining of such an individual occurs in David Quammen’s 1996 book The Song of the Dodo, where he depicts the sad demise of the last dodo on earth, “a single survivor, a lonely fugitive at large”, her last egg eaten by a monkey, her mate clubbed to death by a sailor. Ursula K. Heise has noted that it is only through this depiction that Quammen can translate the loss of an entire species into a narrative, and that using a female “allows him to portray her in the well-worn elegiac clichés of the bereaved mother and wife.”2
As with Deller’s feeling that “in the 21st century […] we had to do something different,” recent years have seen the introduction of new ways to mourn for extinct species. In 2011, the first Remembrance Day for Lost Species took place. This day now occurs annually on 30th November. It was devised by members from arts organisations including ONCA, the Dark Mountain Project and Zoomorphic, and artists and writers from across the globe.
The Lost Species Day website maps events that are happening around the world to commemorate this year’s Remembrance Day. In Colorado, a tattoo artist is offering to tattoo participants with a selection of extinct animals, each marked with an hourglass (a similar project in 2009 saw one hundred species “ambassadors” tattooed in Salford). In Brighton on 30th November there will be a parade and an evening of storytelling; at a yoga hall in Montana, a bell will be rung 108 times. The Montana event takes inspiration from Buddhism, while a suggested ‘Extinction Grieving Prayer’ on the Lost Species Day website has been devised by a Christian minister.
As the Lost Species website itself states, “there is no single ‘right’ way to hold an event to mark extinction.” Perhaps one way could simply be to take Belloc’s advice and visit “the Mu-se-um”, to see the bones and beaks of creatures that will never take the sun again.
1. Hilaire Belloc, The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (Dodo Press, 2008).
2. Ursula K. Heise “Lost Dogs, Last Birds and Listed Species: Cultures of Extinction.” Configurations v. 18, no. 1-2, (Winter 2010): 62.