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!

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.

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 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.

 

Some Biodiversity Infographics

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.
  • biodiversity-infographic9-philippine-hornbills
  • If you know of some cool biodiversity infographics, please share in the comments below.