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.
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:
Here is the Spectacled Cormorant, missing from the Kamchatka Peninsula:
Here is the Guadalupe Caracara, missing from Guadalupe Island:
And here is the Sea Mink, missing from the rocky coasts of New England and Atlantic Canada.
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.
“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.)
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.
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.
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.
The fourth and last US election debate has come and gone with scarcely any attention paid to important issues like biodiversity loss and climate change. They only become issues if we make them so. While most of us appreciate the effects of climate change, the threats to biodiversity and why it should be preserved are still not considered headline news.
Here are some useful infographics to help raise awareness of the problem of biodiversity loss:
Here’s a nice collection of infographics by Matthew Taylor at Boise State on how we can protect biodiversity — great for classroom use;
Norway’s GRID-Arendal Center, which is collaborating with the UNEP, has a great series of infographics about some specific biodiversity threats around the world;
BlueStem Communications has a large-scale infographic on visualizing biodiversity loss;
And here’s a top ten list of biodiversity infographics put out by the good people of Saving Species. I’ve only been reading about the magnificent but troubled Phillippine hornbills recently.
If you know of some cool biodiversity infographics, please share in the comments below.
Todd McGrain, a sculptor who created five larger-than-life bronze sculptures of recently extinct birds and installed them at places where the birds once thrived. Check out his film, The Lost Bird Project;
Xavier Cortada, a Miami-based artist who created eco-art installations at both the North and South Poles. His website is cortada.com;
Andreas Kornevall, a storyteller, writer and rewilder who was one of the founders of the Life Cairn movement, which seeks to memorialize recently extinct species. Andreas has a Tumblr page;
The good people over at Grok’s Science Radio Show interviewed me when my book, The Bluffer’s Guide to the Cosmos came out and the fun and wonder in the book both come across in the interview (advance to 7:09).