The Work That Reconnects

On Saturday I went down to Rhode Island to participate in a 4-hour workshop on “The Work that Reconnects,” inspired by the work of Joanna Macy. It was described as “a perspective-changing, life-affirming workshop designed to help us face and feel our deepest, most healing responses to the world’s crises within a supportive group context.” Ultimately, the goal was to help us take part in what Joanna Macy  calls, The Great Turning – away from an industrial growth society into a life-affirming society. The workshop was led by Karina Lutz and Jim Tull, and was attended by about one hundred participants, which shows how hungry people are for this kind of work.

In a series of meditations and activities, we explored the spiral of the work: gratitude, honoring our pain, seeing with new eyes and going forth, described in the book, “Coming Back to Life,” by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown. The work begins with gratitude to calm us and stimulate our empathy; we all have much to be thankful for and sharing that helps us connect to one another. In honoring our pain, we explore our own compassion for ourselves and others as we acknowledge feelings that accumulate with the drumbeat of bad environmental news; here we begin to see the immensity of our hearts and minds. Seeing with new eyes stems from understanding our relationship to the past and future and helps us shift our perspective from individual events and actions to understanding how systems work – we taste our power to change and to effect change. Finally, we go forth with passion, clarity and compassion, and the spiral begins again.

It’s hard to convey the power of the workshop and I just have a brief summary of a few of the activities that resonated with me.

One of the first meditations was simply to breathe deeply, something that I’ve been practicing to ground myself in the past two months or so. But here, we were reminded that the air we breathe is the same air that the trees breathe and all living things near and far breathe. Of course we’re aware of that in theory, but in practice, honestly, I think of the air I breathe as very much right in front of my nose, so this was a useful reminder!

One exercise that was useful for such a large group followed soon after and that was to mill about the room first of all, as if in a hurry, caught up in our own self-importance, and then to slow down and become aware of others around us. Even in that shift, you could feel the mood in the room immediately warm up. People smiled and acknowledged one another. Then, upon signals for a sequence of encounters, we were to stop and find a partner, take their hand, and recognize the many things they could have done that day but chose instead to be there. In another encounter, we were to recognize what the other person knew about what was happening in the world, and yet they kept their eyes open to it. In other encounters, we were to recognize the chance that the other person might die from toxins in the environment or the important role they might play in bringing about a life-sustaining civilization.

One of the most powerful encounters was when we closed our eyes and explored our partner’s hand as if we were an alien. Such an interesting evolutionary product is a hand! And capable of so much: gathering and preparing food, playing with a ball, comforting and giving pleasure to another person. Here was an intimate way to connect with a stranger.

The whole activity had lots of hand-holding and staring into strangers’ eyes, which pushed me out of my comfort zone, but when I thought about how to recognize them, the strangeness evaporated and they became familiar. We would then chat about what brought us there or simply smile at one another in gratitude.

One of the last exercises was to share in a small group a time when we made a difference. One person in my group related how he gave a poor acquaintance a guitar, and then watched him flourish as a musician. I shared my reasons for writing my book about extinct animals and that many people thanked me for the book. We were then asked to share the qualities that we had heard in the stories. Suddenly, the room was full of “love,” “excitement,” “generosity,” “tenderness,” “selflessness,” “courage,” “independence of thought,” “honesty,” “openness,” “humor,” and much more. So the power within us is what resonated as we made pledges to one another, wrapped up and made to go forth.

Though there are none listed at the moment, I hope there will be more such events in New England soon.

Links: The Work That Reconnects, Work That Reconnects Greater Boston

Coming Soon: Little Books and Solos

I found a terrific little template that allows a short story to be printed onto a single page and then folded up into an eight-page book. The first prototypes look great! Soon I’ll be taking orders so that you can have your own pocket book for whenever you want a quick story fix.

I also have several published longer-form essays that will be also be available as solos so stay tuned for those.

Lost Species Day Nature Walk and Reading

Here’s the notice from Anne-Marie Lambert, who leads poetry-themed nature walks in Belmont, MA

She writes:

I invite you to join me for a guided walk through Rock Meadow in Belmont on Saturday November 30, 2019, 10:00-noon, with special guest  Daniel Hudon, who will read stories from his book of stories,  Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader.  It’s a great way to give thanks over the holiday weekend for the birds and animals and habitat who visit or reside in the beautiful habitat at Rock Meadow.

This Saturday’s walk is a special event for “Remembrance Day for Lost Species,” an annual day (November 30) started a few years ago by artists in London “to explore the stories of extinct and critically endangered species, cultures, lifeways and ecological communities.” This year’s theme is “Original Names”. Participants are invited to share thoughts, poems and stories of local indigenous peoples and of non-humans past or present.

So, come reconnect with the land and water in our town as creatures who are still with us scurry or migrate to prepare for colder weather. Hear lyrical stories about species who used to live in or migrate through New England, including the Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, Heath Hen and Urania Sloanus, as well as the Eskimow Curlew and Labrador Duck.

This walk is sponsored by the Belmont Citizens Forum, whose mission includes promoting interest in the preservation and protection of environmental resources and educating the public and community leaders about the environmental importance of open space.

Lost Species Nature Walk at Rock Meadow

What: Learn about Rock Meadow and pay tribute to Lost Species as we visit Beaver Brook and stop along a one-mile nature trail.

When: 10:00-12:00 Saturday November 30, 2019

Where: Meet at the small Rock Meadow parking lot on Mill Street. Bike racks are available. Address: Rock Meadow Conservation Area, Belmont, MA

Parking: There is a second parking lot across the street at Lone Tree Hill conservation area. Please carpool if you can.

Who: Anne-Marie Lambert has been leading local nature walks and writing Newsletter articles about Belmont history and stormwater for the Belmont Citizens Forum.  

Originally from Canada, Daniel Hudon is a Boston resident and part-time lecturer in astronomy, math and physics. He writes prose and poetry about science, travel and nature and his recent book about the extinction crisis, “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader” was named a Must Read in this year’s Mass Book Awards.

Bring/Wear: closed shoes, weather-appropriate clothing, and, optionally, a walking stick for uneven terrain.

Rain: Only thunderstorms will cancel.

Trail Map: Rock Meadow Map (park by the Mill Street Information Kiosk)

RSVP:  an email reply if you are likely to come would be appreciated but is not required

More information:

Lost Species Day: https://www.lostspeciesday.org/

Daniel Hudon: danielhudon.com.

Rock Meadow:

– Rock Meadow Conservation Master Plan, including steps to encourage inviting habitat for certain types of birds.

– Developing a Conservation Master Plan for Rock Meadow by Jeffrey North (Sept/Oct 2018)

– Rock Meadow: Past and Future  by Margaret Velie (May/June 2001)

– Belmont Highlights Natural, Historic Treasures by Mary Bradley (Sep/Oct 2019), including Anne-Marie’s October 2019 walk at Rock Meadow

– Belmont Journal video interview about the master plan: bit.ly/BJour-RockMeadow

Belmont Citizens Forum: www.belmontcitizensforum.org

The Mass Book Awards

Some recent good news is that my book, “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader” was named as a “Must Read” in this year’s Mass Book Awards (pub date 2017). A nice celebration was held in mid-September for all the honored books, with short readings and speeches about the long history of literacy and the literary craft in Massachusetts. It was great to be a part of it and you can see the full list at the Mass Book Awards site: https://www.massbook.org/mass-book-awards

The Pianist Plays for the Melting Glacier

I loved the video that Greenpeace produced a couple of years ago to bring attention to climate change in the arctic. Pianist Ludovico Einaudi plays his own composition, Elegy for the Arctic, on a barge while around him the glacier ice melts. I wrote a poem about the video and published it in the Amsterdam Quarterly. Now, with the permission of Greenpeace, I have put the poem together with the video and some minor video editing — you can see the result here.

Climbing Brandon

Have you been on any good hikes lately? Last year, I stumbled on Mount Brandon, on Ireland’s Dingle peninsula, an area rich with Celtic and early Christian ruins. The Smart Set just published an essay I wrote about my experiences:

It begins:

I wound up hiking Mt. Brandon by accident. But it is an accident in the same way a traveler stumbles on ruins he didn’t know he was looking for. On Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula, they say you don’t get lost, you discover. And wherever you go, someone has been there before, walking.

So it was with me. While meandering along Slea Head Drive, stopping to take in the coastal views and ruins, I passed the sign for Mt. Brandon. It was late afternoon, still lots of daylight left. No need to return to Dingle just yet. So I turned around and followed the sign to the foot of the mountain.

All day I saw it looming over the peninsula, snow on its flanks, peak in the clouds, a presence. At the trailhead, the gentle slope looked enticing. I could start walking up the trail right now, I thought, the way people have done for hundreds of years.

I came to Dingle because of a book I read many years ago. Honey from Stone: A Naturalist’s Search for God, by Chet Raymo. In eight essays, named for the canonical hours, the author tries to reconcile the many evidences of historical faith on the peninsula with the findings of modern science. He looks deep into geological time on the Dingle coastline, ponders early Christian and pre-Christian ruins, tells the tales of the land, and goes stargazing. Through it all, he walks and walks, and these meditative hikes stayed with me.

I knew about Raymo’s writing from his previous book, The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage, a heady mix of creation myths, poetry, and cosmology. I discovered it during my undergraduate studies in physics and astronomy, and it provided a lyrical antidote to my equation-filled courses. It was here I first learned that I wanted to read more from Rilke and Roethke, here that comets, star clusters, and quasars came alive among the constellations, and here that I got a taste of the big questions in cosmology: How did the universe begin? What is it made of? How will it end? The book was a quest for our place in the universe, and my young mind took to it like a sponge.

Read the rest at The Smart Set

An Extinction Cabaret

What good is sitting alone in your room?
Come hear the music play
Life is a cabaret, old chum
Come to the cabaret

So sings Liza Manelli’s character in the film version of the 1966 Broadway hit, Cabaret, an homage to Weimar Berlin where the artform flourished before being shut down by the Nazis in the early 1930’s. From its origins at Le Chat Noir in Paris in 1881, the cabaret was entertaining musical theater, with singing and dancing as regular fare, together with an intellectual punch provided by social and political satire. Given its varied nature, the cabaret is the perfect artform for taking on challenging topics like the biodiversity crisis.

On a recent Friday I had a chance to see, Mirabilis: Stories of Wonder and Loss – An Extinction Cabaret, a new theater piece co-directed by Kyna Hamill and Wanda Strukus of Two Roads  based on my book, Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader. Though described as a work in progress, the segments that were performed were highly polished and engaging.

The Two Roads Ensemble for the Mirabilis Cabaret
The Two Roads Ensemble, from Left to Right: Robert Kilburn, Wanda Strukus, Melissa Bergstrom, Nicole Howard, and Kyna Hamill, and me on the far right

My motivations for writing the book were to restore some of these lost animals to our cultural memory. Animals are among our first memories, not just for our stuffed toys, but for our own culture. Our ancestors didn’t paint mountains and trees in the caves of Europe, they painted animals. Both wild and tame, they are our companions here on Earth.

To our folly, we’ve not recognized animals as companions and we’ve lost so many species: through carelessness (the introduction of invasive species), through shortsightedness (habitat loss) and through ignorance (over-exploitation – “Surely, this can’t be the last of them?”). But the animals had a right to their place on the tree of life just like we do.

Mirabilis takes on all of this and is jammed full of highlights – the stories of the lost animals sing out. I was struck by the innocence of the Falklands Islands wolf. Two Roads depicts it as exuberant and playful – and rather adorable – and yet it wound up being hunted to extinction for its pelt. The plight of the Mascarene tortoises hits home too when we see them as voyagers who cast themselves into the sea not knowing where they would wind up. Able to live for more than two hundred years, they are described as the “wise old masters of the Earth.” Incredibly, when they gathered on Mauritius, they were in herds that numbered in the thousands. In another piece, the actors read out individual characteristics of a handful of lost species so that we glimpse them all too briefly before they are gone.

Like any good cabaret, Mirabilis has strong satirical elements and we humans get knocked for our obsession with selfies (in this case, the actors jostle over who can get their selfie taken with the last living bee) and one of the most upbeat songs, called We Ate Them All, is a gleeful lampooning of humans for eating the dodo, passenger pigeon, Labrador Duck and Steller’s Sea Cow to extinction. Other pieces rightfully poke fun at us for being too scared to take action and for getting used to bad environmental news, as if it’s all going to get better on its own.

There are many ways to grieve. When we lose a loved family member or friend, we gather and celebrate them, we wonder at their lives and how they’ve touched us. The segments of wonder in Mirabilis each stand out. In one piece, two actresses are speaking to different parts of the audience and for the one facing me, she was talking about being on the beach in California and wondering if someone was in Japan, also with her feet in the ocean, wondering about connecting with someone an ocean away.

Another piece, called “The Whales,” sees the entire troupe floating about on the stage, coming up occasionally for air, as a recording of the song of the humpback whales plays in the background. It’s a quiet piece, with slow, meditative movements made all the more powerful by the whalesong in the background. In fact, the recording is from the original 1970’s record that was included in a special issue of National Geographic, with narration by Dr. Roger Payne. It was Dr. Payne’s work on whalesong that helped bring about the “Save the Whales” movement that is one of the 20th century’s great environmental success stories. As Dr. Payne reminds us on the recording, whalesong is featured on the Voyager spacecraft’s Golden Record, now jetting its way out of the solar system, bringing their wondrous sounds to the rest of the galaxy. To me, the songs and the movement were a reminder that something very special is happening here on Earth. I wanted to linger in that feeling.

To wonder at nature and at the world is to love it. Mirabilis is a cabaret of wonders and I look forward to the next iteration of this entertaining and provocative work in progress.

A Visit to the Great Auk

What do extinct species have to tell us?

A short hike along the coast out of Joe Batt’s Arm on Fogo Island, Newfoundland, stands a five-foot tall bronze sculpture of the Great Auk. The sculpture was created by artist Todd McGrain for his Lost Bird Project in which larger-than-life sculptures for extinct North American birds were placed where they last thrived. On my visit to Fogo Island this past August, I knew I had to visit the sculpture.

The story of the demise of the Great Auk is among the more tragic of the recent animal extinctions. They were flightless birds but strong swimmers that occupied rocky, isolated islands in the North Atlantic for thousands of years for mating and breeding. The largest colony was at Funk Island, about 50 kilometers northeast of Fogo Island. When European fishing vessels came to Newfoundland for the abundant cod stocks in the early 16th century, they seized on the Great Auk as a source for fresh meat as well as oil for lamps. Their feathers were used for pillows and mattresses and their eggs were collected for food.  Eyewitnesses reported seeing the tame, penguin-like birds being guided up gangplanks onto boats. Evidently, it was a wholesale slaughter. As their numbers plummeted through the 1700’s, extinction warnings went unheeded. And when auks replaced eider as the down of choice, their fate was sealed. The last pair of great auks was strangled off Iceland in 1844 while incubating an egg.

At the head of the path out of Joe Batt’s Arm, a handmade sign showed the way for the Great Auk sculpture. It was only an hour’s walk along a grassy trail with a view of the once-molten coastal rocks, the harbor, and the ritzy Shorefast Inn across the small bay.

I was with a friend and soon we climbed a large granite outcropping and made our way to the sculpture.

Waves lapped at the rocks below and a steady but mild breeze blew. A few terns cried as they swooped over the waves. The sculpture stood about five feet tall and faced the direction of another Great Auk sculpture in Iceland. With its smooth lines and elegant curves, I couldn’t help but run my hand over it.

Todd McGrain's Great Auk sculpture
The Great Auk, by Todd McGrain

It was well placed, so solitary among the elements. Perhaps it was too solitary. They were social birds and their colonies like Funk Island must have been incredible gatherings, full of squawking mates protecting their eggs, taking turns splashing and into and out of the water to fish. It would have been great for the sculpture to have companions. I wished I could populate the site with a group of Great Auks, like Errol Fuller’s painting. And I thought about how different the hike would have been completely different if Great Auks were still wandering and swimming about. (See Brandon Ballangee’s “Framework of Absence.”)

Errol Fuller's "A Last Stand"
Errol Fuller’s “A Last Stand”

We took photos then sheltered in the crevice of some boulders and sat with the sculpture for awhile. It felt special to be alone with it, while thinking about why the sculpture was there in the first place.

When we continued the hike further down the coastal trail and stopped to have our sandwiches, a strange feeling gnawed at me. Something was missing from my visit with the Great Auk. I felt like I needed something to signify our visit, some sort of ritual. I said to my friend that I wanted to stop again at the Great Auk on the way back and we set off again to the sculpture.

I remembered the scene in the documentary film, The Lost Bird Project, when after the sculpture is installed, McGrain anoints it with water. Back at the sculpture, I poured some water from my water bottle into my cupped hand and let it drip onto its head. In that moment, the ritual caught me and suddenly felt significant. It was a moment of honoring the memory of the Great Auk and grieving its loss. Thinking about it afterwards, perhaps it wasn’t me blessing the sculpture, but it was the Great Auk blessing me?

As we learn the stories of recently extinct animals, I wonder what they will teach us. It was strange for me to form a sort of bond with a bird that has been extinct for a century and a half. Every animal has its own tale, and as Todd McGrain told me when I interviewed him, it’s up to us to pay attention.

Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2017

The reasons we need Remembrance Day for Lost Species are the same reasons I wrote my book, “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader.” The introduction to the book follows below. (You can also find audio and video versions.)

~~~~~

“Forgetting is another kind of extinction,” artist Todd McGrain said to me when I interviewed him in 2012. For ten years he had been creating larger-than-life sculptures of birds formerly common in North America, such as the passenger pigeon, to memorialize them. “These birds are not commonly known,” he has written elsewhere, “and they ought to be… It’s such a thorough erasing.”

Since the year 1500, nine hundred species have become extinct, yet their stories are not being told. This loss is a crisis in human values, as our relatives on the tree of life are disappearing under our watch and because of our actions. Aside from a few high profile extinctions, like the passenger pigeon and the dodo, most lost species are unknown to the general public, and the danger of forgetting part of our biological heritage is great. There are no historical parallels here. Aldo Leopold said, “For one species to mourn another is a new thing under the sun.”

brief eulogies, lost animalsThe recent animal extinctions include twenty-eight reptiles, thirty-four amphibians, sixty-three fish, sixty-three insects, ninety-two mammals, one hundred and sixty-six birds and more than three hundred mollusks. Who are these animals? Where did they live? What do we know of their biology and natural history? Each animal had its own evolutionary history, ecological niche and characteristics that made it a unique form of life. But they have disappeared from the Earth due to our actions and without proper recognizance. The beginning of wisdom, the Chinese say, is to call things by their rightful names. In many cases, the names are known by scientists and what little is known of the animal’s habits is hidden away in scientific papers. These details need to be brought to light to make the species come alive, at least in our imagination, to help bring the enormity of what has and is happening within our grasp.

Evidence abounds that the present species extinction rate is more than one thousand times the historical rate measured in the fossil record — an indication that we are in a mass extinction. Life on Earth has seen five mass extinctions, the most recent being sixty-five million years ago when the dinosaurs were wiped out. This sixth extinction is human-caused with habitat alteration, over-exploitation, introduction of invasive species and pollution the major factors.

Naturalist William Beebe wrote in 1906 that, “when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.” Our heaven exists now and by memorializing and celebrating what is now gone, we can perhaps keep what we still have.

 

Three short films about extinct animals

Urania Sloanus
Urania Sloanus — described as the most beautiful moth in the world

How to raise awareness about recently extinct animals? We need to know and see what we’ve lost, both to remember and celebrate them even as we mourn them.

There’s something about an image – a photograph or even a film clip – something that recreates the likeness, that helps to bring the subject alive.

Here are three short films from my book, “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader” (available at the Pen and Anvil website).

  1. The Song of the O’o. The Kauai O’o was known as one of the finest singers in all of the Hawaiian Islands.
  2. The Laysan Rail. This rail, from the island of Laysan, in the NW Hawaiian Islands, is one of the few extinct birds for which film footage exists.
  3. Urania Sloanus at Sunrise. Urania Sloanus lived in Jamaica and was often described as the most beautiful moth in the world. This film, based on eyewitness reports, hints at why.

More about my book can be found here.

More films to come soon!

Reviews of “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals”

Two reviews have been published of my book, “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader,” with more to come.

Over at Neon Books, writer and publisher Krishan Coupland lauds the “sheer poetry” of the writing and “the power of these vignettes… to render these animals real.”

Read the whole review at neonbooks.org.uk, and while you’re there, check out the other cool things that Krishan is up to at Neon Books.

A second review was written by biologist and writer, Mike Shanahan, who asks, “Can eulogies for lost species help prevent future extinctions?” Read Shanahan’s thoughtful response at his e-home Under the Banyan.

Other reviews are forthcoming. Get in touch if you would also like to review my book.

Now Available: Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals

Announcing my new book: BRIEF EULOGIES for LOST ANIMALS: An Extinction Reader.

Since the year 1500, nine hundred species have become extinct, yet their stories are not being told. This loss is a crisis in human values as our relatives on the tree of life are disappearing under our watch and because of our actions.

There are no historical parallels here. Aldo Leopold said, “For one species to mourn another is a new thing under the sun.”

BRIEF EULOGIES for LOST ANIMALS: An Extinction Reader fills an important niche by remembering these animals in lyrical but factual stories that allow us to celebrate, grieve, and memorialize what is now gone.

In terse yet evocative writing, one hundred extinct animals from around the world are brought to life, from the freshwater mussels of Appalachia to the shrub frogs of Sri Lanka, and from the honeycreepers of Hawaii to the hopping mice of Australia, bringing the enormity of the present biodiversity crisis within our grasp.

BRIEF EULOGIES for LOST ANIMALS: An Extinction Reader is available from the publisher’s website: penandanvil.com/brief-eulogies, where you can also find excerpts of the book.

“Forgetting is another kind of extinction,” artist Todd McGrain has said about his Lost Bird Project. These animals deserve to be remembered, and with this book we can not only remember and mourn them, but honor them as well.

Order BRIEF EULOGIES for LOST ANIMALS: An Extinction Reader today from penandanvil.com/brief-eulogies or Amazon.

The Tree on My Block — Films

I didn’t notice the tree right away. I’d lived on the block for several years and it took me awhile to tune into it. But once I did it became my favorite tree. It took its time with its autumnal leaf changing, a month or even six weeks. In 2015, I was able to record the transition, though my photos were haphazard. I vowed the next year to be more consistent, get the photos from the same location, the same time of day and so on. But I never got a chance. The tree died in September 2016, when it dropped its leaves suddenly several weeks before it usually did. I didn’t know it was dead until I saw that it didn’t bud again in the spring. It stood dormant on my block for another year and was removed in April 2017.

I wrote several short prose pieces between the time the tree last dropped its leaves and when it was removed and have now made films out of them. They’re collected in the album on my Vimeo page, a memorial to a great tree. Still some tweaks to do here or there, but let me know in the comments what you think, which one is your favorite and so on. Thanks for watching.

The Tree on My Block — A Cycle

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Responding to Loss in Nature

How do we as citizens and writers respond to loss in the natural world? Since I began to write my book, Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals (now available), several years ago, loss in nature has been frequently on my mind. I gave my first-ever poetry workshop on this theme at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival last weekend, and judging by how early the session filled up (soon after the schedule was announced, back in April), people are hungry to engage the topic.

IMG_1047
Responding to Loss in the Natural World: An Ecopoetry Workshop at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, May 2017

What have we lost? I asked the participants at the beginning of the session.

They answered:

  • fireflies
  • honeybees
  • the flight of the monarch
  • coral reefs
  • clean water
  • the night sky
  • the sounds of nature

and more.

A formidable list, which I supplemented with elephants, tigers, rhinos, pangolins, sharks, orangutans, bluefin tuna, songbirds, amphibians, mangroves, wetlands, neighborhood trees, sea grass beds, glaciers, mountain tops, and diversity in nature (see the work of Bernard Krause).

Our task as writers is to engage challenging issues and I would love to see poets take on loss in nature more frequently. Whether to grieve and lament, honor and eulogize, forewarn and remind (not to mention rant and rave!), our responses in poetry can help others process their own feelings regarding environmental change. Look at Mary Oliver’s poem, Lead . After the two inciting incidents (the loons dying over the winter and the friend’s description of one in its death throes) she folds in all the things she loves about loons – the things we all love, including its wild and uncanny call. Her response is our inspiration, a heartbreak that reminds us not to withdraw but to engage.  “Here is a story/ to break your heart”  she begins. And she ends the poem with:

I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

Without this frame, the poem would be incomplete.

Historically, loons nested in Massachusetts but were extirpated in the late 19th century. In 1975, a pair of loons was discovered nesting at Quabbin Reservoir. Today, there are approximately 32 nesting pairs of loons on 14 different lakes, ponds and reservoirs in the Commonwealth. Loons are listed on the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act list as a Species of Special Concern. In general they require 1000 acres of water per nesting pair, islands for nesting and limited human disturbance, which makes the Quabbin Reservoir ideal.

However, loons are being poisoned by ingesting lead fishing gear – hence the title of Mary Oliver’s poem – this is the leading cause of mortality of loons in New England. They do this either by eating the minnows used as bait, then swallowing the hook, line, and sinker or by scooping lead sinkers off the bottom when they ingest small pebbles. Lead sinkers and lead weights less than one ounce are now banned in all inland lakes in Massachusetts in an attempt to curb the problem.

We had a lively discussion about the poem and it seems I could have based my entire session on it. But we also looked at a handful of other poems, chosen from Earth Shattering , a terrific anthology of ecopoems edited by Neil Astley, The Dire Elegies: 59 Poets on Endangered Species of North America, the Amsterdam Quarterly, The Lost Species Day website and Canary: A Literary Journal of the Environmental Crisis.

While journalists and scientists have to tell stories and present evidence when they write about loss in nature, poets have an advantage in being able to draw from seemingly unrelated events – or from their own experience — in order to evoke particular feelings.

One of the shortest poems we looked at was Condor from The Dire Elegies, by Massachusetts poet Susan Edwards Richmond:

When there is no sky left
big enough
to hold that bird,
let it die.

Then dig my grave close by. 

 

So terse, and yet so evocative at the same time. I love the prophetic voice she adopts in the first section of the poem. My hunch is that she took a simple detail like the ability of condors to soar, a detail that she loved, and turned it inside out to make it sound fresh and authoritative. Her real response follows in the last line  Then dig my grave close by. As one of the workshop participants said, the success of the condor is our success, and its failure, should that occur, will be our failure too.

In a writing exercise, we tried to get at the prophetic voice she uses in the first section, but we didn’t have time to share responses. Still, I feel we accomplished a lot in that one hour frame. My blurb on the festival website promised, “By challenging ourselves to engage important environmental problems, you’ll come away both with new material and with renewed connection to the natural world.” Ambitious, to be sure. But if only it were that easy to connect with nature!

Nevertheless, given the engagement and energy of the participants and the response to the theme, I’m looking forward to doing more such workshops soon.

The Maple Tree on My Block

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The maple tree in the fall of 2014.

Every autumn, the maple tree on my block put on a terrific show of color. These displays lasted for several weeks. It was a beautiful tree and through the summer, I would look forward to the brilliance coming in the fall. But at the end of the summer of 2015, my anticipation turned to sadness when the tree’s leaves suddenly turned yellow and dropped. I waited anxiously all winter to see if it would bud again in the spring, but it did not.

It has been standing barren since then and today I made a short video about the tree that I loved so much. This week it is being taken down.

https://youtu.be/g6wZk7yRSM0

It’s not everyday that one loses a favorite tree so I’ve written a fair bit about it. These writings will be published soon and with accompanying photos and video.

Artists and Extinction V: Brandon Ballengee

How can artists convey the idea of disappearance and extinction of species?

This has long been a question for Brandon Ballengee, a visual artist, biologist and environmental educator based in Louisiana, whose many art installations have been inspired by his ecological field and laboratory work.

Initially, Ballengee wanted to use silhouettes to show something as there but disappearing. But while experimenting with blacking out extinct animals in old nature magazines, he recalled that Robert Rauschenberg once created a work that was an erased de Kooning drawing. So, rather than erase extinct animals from books, he began to cut them out with an Exacto knife (as long as there were multiple copies of the book).

This led to the creation of his installation, “Framework of Absence.” Ballengee created the works from real historic artifacts that were around while the animal was fading into extinction. After the animal was excised from its source, the depiction was burned and the ashes were placed into black glass funerary urns etched with the names of the lost species.

At installations, viewers were asked to scatter the ashes, an act that Ballengee hoped would connect participants to the lost species and help prevent further extinctions.

A few examples show the power of the exhibit. Here is the Great Auk, missing from the North Atlantic:

2008Ð9. Extinct by the late 19th Century. Artist-cut print from the Bowen Editions Royal Octavo Birds (1840Ð71). Eighth edition printed and hand-colored in 1871 (just prior to plates being burned in warehouse fire). 6 3/4 x 10 3/8 inches. Photography by David W. Coulter.
2008Ð9.
Extinct by the late 19th Century.
Artist-cut print from the Bowen Editions Royal Octavo Birds (1840Ð71).
Eighth edition printed and hand-colored in 1871 (just prior to plates being burned in warehouse fire).
6 3/4 x 10 3/8 inches.
Photography by David W. Coulter.

Here is the Spectacled Cormorant, missing from the Kamchatka Peninsula:

1869/2014. Artist cut and burnt hand-colored stone lithograph, etched glass urn, and ashes. 30 5/8 x 74 5/8 inches. Species last observed 1850s. Photo by Casey Dorobek.
1869/2014. Artist cut and burnt hand-colored stone lithograph, etched glass urn, and ashes. 30 5/8 x 74 5/8 inches. Species last observed 1850s.
Photo by Casey Dorobek.

Here is the Guadalupe Caracara, missing from Guadalupe Island:

1860/2014. Artist cut and burnt wood engraving, etched glass urn, and ashes. 9 1/8 x 11 1/8 inches. Species last observed 1860s. Photo by Casey Dorobek.
1860/2014. Artist cut and burnt wood engraving, etched glass urn, and ashes. 9 1/8 x 11 1/8 inches. Species last observed 1860s.
Photo by Casey Dorobek.

And here is the Sea Mink, missing from the rocky coasts of New England and Atlantic Canada.

1849/2014. Artist cut and burnt print hand-colored stone lithograph, etched glass urn, and ashes. 13 5/8 x 16 inches. Species last observed 1870s. Photo by Casey Dorobek.
1849/2014. Artist cut and burnt print hand-colored stone lithograph, etched glass urn, and ashes. 13 5/8 x 16 inches. Species last observed 1870s.
Photo by Casey Dorobek.

More of Brandon Bellengee’s work can be found at his website.

Previous entries for my series on artists and extinction can be found starting here.

Remembrance Day for Lost Species

 

Heath Hen sculpture
Todd McGrain’s Heath Hen memorial on Martha’s Vineyard, MA

“Forgetting is another kind of extinction,” artist Todd McGrain said to me when I interviewed him for my blog, Eco-Now, in 2012. For ten years he had been creating larger-than-life sculptures of birds formerly common in North America, such as the passenger pigeon, to memorialize them. “These birds are not commonly known,” he has written elsewhere, “and they ought to be… It’s such a thorough erasing.”

Since the year 1500, nine hundred species have become extinct, yet their stories are not being told. This loss is a crisis in human values, as our relatives on the tree of life are disappearing under our watch and because of our actions. Aside from a few high profile extinctions, like the passenger pigeon and the dodo, most lost species are unknown to the general public, and the danger of forgetting part of our biological heritage is great. There are no historical parallels here. Aldo Leopold said, “For one species to mourn another is a new thing under the sun.”

The recent animal extinctions include twenty-eight reptiles, thirty-four amphibians, sixty-three fish, sixty-three insects, ninety-two mammals, one hundred and sixty-six birds and more than three hundred mollusks. Who are these animals? Where did they live? What do we know of their biology and natural history? Each animal had its own evolutionary history, ecological niche and characteristics that made it a unique form of life. In the long history of life, they were survivors, winners. But they have disappeared from the Earth due to our actions and without proper recognizance.

A marsupial is over-hunted in Australia. A tree frog disappears in Panama. An ibex vanishes from the Pyrenees, a river dolphin from the Yangtze, a pigeon from the skies of North America. The wildness of the Earth, its beauty and bounty, is diminishing. Because our present attitude is still to dominate nature and extract its resources for our personal welfare — we tend to ignore what we’re losing in favor of jobs and economic gain — these lost species become sacrifices for so-called progress. Seeing ourselves as apart from nature, rather than a part of nature, leaves us ill-equipped to see an extinction as an impoverishment of our world, a lost opportunity for us to wonder at something unique and beautiful.

This makes November 30: Remembrance Day for Lost Species all the more important. In her essay, “Working Through Environmental Despair,” Joanna Macy argues for the importance of expressing grief in the face of environmental degradation and loss. Because the changes we observe are subtle and we don’t see how they are related, we may deny their importance and live as if nothing has changed. This denial is a strategy that we employ to allay our various fears, such as fear of pain, fear of appearing morbid (we don’t want to be seen as doom and gloom), fear of appearing stupid (we want to express concerns but don’t have an immediate solution), fear of guilt (can we say anything about it without being implicated), fear of causing distress (we don’t want to be a killjoy), fear of appearing unpatriotic (aren’t our concerns contrary to our country’s dominant paradigm), fear of appearing too emotional (rationality is favored over display of feelings), and fear of feeling powerless (we shrink our sphere of attention to areas where we can be in charge). The result of all this is to narrow our awareness and consequently dull our response to the world.

Until we acknowledge the environmental loss and the pain we feel for the world through grief, Macy contends, our creative response will be crippled. Experiencing the pain is a measure of our care for the world, and expressing and sharing it opens the way to knowing our belonging and to our power.

Grief is one of our most private actions. And one of our most vital. Though I’ve been thinking about recently extinct species for several years now, I don’t yet have a ritual for their remembrance. Perhaps I will listen to a recording of the song of the o’o, or search the Internet for other recordings of endlings, like Toughie, or Benjamin, or peruse the incredible archive of sounds collected by Bernie Krause. Maybe I’ll try my hand at sketching once again, and sketch a few extinct animals. And perhaps I’ll listen to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, written as a memorial for a friend. I want to hear the bells at the Great Gate of Kiev ring loud, loud.

(Parts of this were adapted from an unpublished essay and the introduction to my book, Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals, published in 2017 by Pen and Anvil.)

 

The Future is Now: Donald Trump and Climate Change

“Maybe it won’t be so bad?”

I caught myself saying this yesterday and today, regarding the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, over the much more qualified Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Apart from my objections to the extreme and divisive statements Mr. Trump made in his campaign, I’m particularly concerned about his policies on climate change and the environment.

Really, the question is “How could we let this happen?” We actually let three debates pass by without a single question on climate change, the biggest issue of our time. We on the coasts need to  be concerned about climate change for the inevitable sea level rise. Both on the coasts and inland we need to be concerned about drought conditions (see the latest map here that shows parts of California, the Northeast and the Southeast suffering from severe drought), which, if prolonged, will start affecting food supplies. Internationally, we need to be concerned because, in the case of Syria, the droughts caused by climate change had a direct role in fomenting the conflict that created a humanitarian crisis with the exodus of more refugees than neighboring and Western countries wanted to take in. Have a look at how Bangladesh is faring in our warmed world, or the island nation of Kiribati and one can only conclude that the era of the “climate change refugee” has already begun.  In fact, the USA already has its own climate refugees.

Yet despite describing climate change as “A hoax perpetrated by the Chinese,” Mr. Trump was still able to get himself elected.

I took some solace in finding out that there are provisions in last year’s Paris Climate Treaty, which prevent easy withdrawal. (It takes three years, and there’s still a twelve-month waiting period after that.) But it would be easy for Mr. Trump to undo President Obama’s modest gains on reigning in emissions and investment in renewables and thus for the US to fall short of the Paris targets. (See the big piece in today’s New York Times.)

So, I no longer think, “Maybe it won’t be so bad.”

I just read through a lengthy discussion about Mr. Trump’s environmental plans on Reddit, kicked off by an informative summary by u/arksien (a long-time Redditor). The thread has more than 3500 comments both by Americans and from people around the world. Together with the piece in the Times mentioned above, it’s truly a cold slap in the face about what awaits us under President Trump.

The US refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol because China and India didn’t have to commit to any emission reductions. In the Paris Treaty, China and India are now both onboard so the US has no excuse for inaction. The USA also has no excuse for inaction because the rest of the world depends on us here to lead by example.

people_climate_march
The People’s Climate March for action against climate change

The USA has always been a country of leaders.

And now is the time for the USA to lead us out of climate danger. If we let Mr. Trump and his cohort make good on his promises to expand fossil fuel usage, we’re dooming ourselves and our children to increased climate misery and uncertainty. The last five years have been the hottest ever.  Given Mr. Trump’s character, it is going to be incredibly difficult to convert him to a climate hero — therein lies the challenge. Now is not the time for complacency. We all must engage the crisis. If the leaders won’t lead on this most fundamental of issues, we must lead ourselves.

Now, when’s the next 350.org meeting and where do I send my dues? Hope to see you there.

 

The planet is permanently changed

Rabb's Fringe-Limbed Tree Frog

On Dec. 15th, 2015, Toughie, the last Rabb’s Fringe-Limbed Tree Frog sang out from his home in the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. After several years in captivity, he was advertising his presence to a mate who wasn’t there. The call, of course, went unanswered.

A captive breeding program a few years ago had failed and when another male died at the Atlanta Zoo, the species line of Rabb’s Fringe-Limbed Tree Frogs, one of almost 7600 amphibian species that have been diversifying over the last 300 million years, came down to just Toughie.

Toughie passed away a month ago, on September 26.

Toughie was an endling, the last survivor of his species. Extinction is usually so silent and remote that it’s always a surprise, if not a pleasant one, to encounter an endling. He joins Martha, the last passenger pigeon, Incas, the last Carolina parakeet, Booming Ben, the last heath hen, and Benjamin, the last thylacine as the handful of endlings who became famous. Toughie has his own Wikipedia page. He was featured in the film Racing Extinction. His image was projected onto St. Peter’s Basilica during the Paris climate talks.

The story of another endling haunted me into writing a book about recently extinct species, to be launched this fall . The golden toad was a spectacular amphibian from Costa Rica’s cloud forest in Monteverde. Against the luscious greens and dull browns of the cloud forest floor, its coat was a brilliant orange, as if dipped in enamel paint. Only discovered in the 1960’s, the golden toad was rarely seen, except in the spring when they would gather and mate in the temporary pools. In the 1980’s the population crashed and year by year fewer were seen until just one was recorded in 1989. None have been seen since.

By the time I visited Monteverde in 2001, the golden toad was long gone. But that’s where I first heard its story and it has stayed with me. While the biological diversity of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is something to behold, from epiphytes and orchids to exotic birds, including the resplendent quetzal, I kept thinking about that last toad who was never to find a mate.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Joseph Mendelson, a leader of the team that discovered Toughie’s species and the director of Zoo Atlanta wrote: “The planet is permanently changed. This frog’s ecological role among the animals and plants with which it evolved has been lost, along with whatever other secrets it carried.”

Toughie was one of many frogs collected from Panama in 2005 as the lethal chytrid fungus was sweeping through. Scientists likened the effort to rescuing belongings from a burning house. The species was unusual because of their large webbed hands that helped them glide safely from the trees to the ground, and for the male’s habit of letting tadpoles feed off the skin on its back.

In a 2015 paper in PNAS, Australian biologist John Alroy estimates that extinction rates are four orders of magnitude higher than normal and warns of the “runaway train of extinction” that will ultimately produce a global mass extinction not just on human times scales but on geological time scales. Humans are now the driving force in environmental change. Most species extinctions in the past few centuries have been due to habitat loss and modification, or to the introduction of invasive species. For frogs, humans have acted as agents to help move the chytrid fungus to places where it previously didn’t exist through the global trade of amphibians for food, for use as laboratory animals or for use as pets or display animals.

Whenever I visit a national park or some kind of nature reserve, I admire the foresight of previous generations who decided to set aside the land for enjoyment by all. What a legacy! I hope our legacy will be something so worthy. It would be grand if our legacy is that we did whatever we could to stop the extinction crisis from worsening.

Naturalist William Beebe wrote in 1906 that, “when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.”  Our heaven is now and it is passing through our fingers. With Toughie’s passing, the planet is indeed permanently changed. There is still much worth saving, but we must engage the problems first. Time is short.

In forty, eighty and one hundred years, I hope we can leave future generations more than just images and recordings of the wild.