by Sherry Marr
My great granddaughter put a wisp of blue
in my palm. She asked What is this?
She wouldn’t tell me where she found it.
It took me a while to remember
the word. Feather.
Once, I told her, when I was
a little girl, birds flew through the air
and built nests in trees. Each had its own
tune and plumage. Some were green,
some blue, some scarlet and others
were brindled, grey and brown.
Their colours were made of feathers.
What happened to the birds? she asked.
One day, all over the world, the birds
stopped singing. They began to fade.
You could see through their bodies.
Then they were shadows. Then, gone.
Next we felt a lightness come,
a hollow form inside our bodies.
~ Susan Alexander, from Refugium: Poems for the Pacific
This is a vision of the future that I hope never comes true. But that is up to us. In the sixth mass extinction, we are losing species faster than we can record the losses. And what of those already lost, already fading into distant memory? Who will remember them?
“In 1996,” writes Robert D. Newman, “scientists coined the word ‘endlings’ to describe the last surviving member of a species…In a place with only one wolf, scientists are apt to classify the species as ‘functionally extinct’, which means no longer influencing its ecosystem. Enough extinctions, and you reach our present day, what biologist E.O.Wilson calls ‘Eremocine: The Age of Loneliness – the loneliness of the rapid decline of biodiversity on the planet.’ Newman is the President and Director of the National Humanities Centre.
With so many of us influencing our ecosystem, so voraciously, we are observing with grief the trickle-down effect on other species.
I am feeling that loneliness; many of us are, as we watch the accelerating pace of the climate crisis, and how many human and non-human beings are being killed and displaced across the globe. I imagine the silent suffering of starving creatures, whose habitats have been encroached upon; the terror of the wild ones during the increasing wildfires, floods and famines spreading across the globe while nothing changes, nothing changes, nothing changes. With the climate crisis now on the evening news, finally officially acknowledged, leaders, at least in North America, seem to be only paying lip service to lowering emissions – at some future date.
I feel the ache, driving along my village streets, where this year the trees are coming down in a frenzy of cutting. Developers seem to be trying to out-pace the villagers’ efforts – after years of trying – to convince District Council we need a tree protection bylaw while there are still some trees to save. (Where will this spring’s birds build their nests? we wonder. Will they be competing for tree branches the way our hourly wage earners are struggling to find housing in our tourist destination town, where every spare room becomes a b and b?)
Newman knows ecological and social justice are inextricably linked. He says we are long overdue in switching from individualism to a holistic paradigm. (That’s for sure.) He says the climate crisis is a symptom of much greater social and philosophical collapse. (And, it seems to me, a moral collapse as well.) He calls us a singularly self-absorbed species, racing toward being alone.
Great minds have been telling us this for a long time.
“If we assume that the public good is inextricably linked to a healthy and sustainable environment, the devastating intrusions on that good by fossil fuel and other corporate interests, and by an executive branch that is in lockstep with them, seem a clear violation of the constitutional principles on which our country was formed,” continues Newman. Yet governments continue to defer to corporate greed, afraid to tackle the cash cow that fossil fuels have been. Elected (their campaigns subsidized by oil interests) to serve the common good, it feels like the opposite is true. Money Rules, the fat cats say. But The Spirit Liberates, my heart protests. Surely, in the end, that will be true?
My friend, Jeane Manning, who has devoted her life to the clean energy movement, who has shared my (now wavering) belief that a transformation of consciousness will occur on the planet, believes it may only happen in response to severe events. We humans learn slowly, and the hard way, if we learn at all.
“Earth is losing its memory,” writes paleoclimatologist Summer Praetorious in the Nautilus magazine (nautil.us/thegreatforgetting). She continues,
My work revolves around the tenet that the past provides context and constraints for better understanding the future. Knowing how much the planet warmed when atmospheric carbon dioxide was as high or higher than it is today provides insight into the possible future trajectories of climate under rising greenhouse gases.
Paleoclimate archives show us how the real world breaks. How resilience folds into catastrophic failure. They show us the edges and asymmetries of the climate system: the thresholds of tolerance in ecological networks; the slow steady slog of diversification and the quick ax of extinction; the long timescales it takes for ice sheets to grow—accumulating million-year memories—and how fast they can melt, puddling history into storm surges that erode the banks of our futures.
As I watch the unfolding of extreme events across our planet, I [feel] the sense of fracturing that ripples from a single shock event, even if the full extent of damage is yet to reveal itself.
The damage is real: not just what happens to the land itself during extreme climate events; not just the displaced and suffering people. In every disaster, every war, every wildfire and flood, the animals suffer, too. Abandoned, injured, terrified, starving, wild and domestic creatures live their harsh dying alone and uncomforted. A voiceless suffering we turn away from, because it breaks our hearts. We hardly dare to comprehend the fact that whole species – sentient beings with eyes and hearts and emotions, who love life as much as we do – are disappearing on our watch.
Loneliness: the awareness of creatures we don’t even know dying on the ocean floor; the dead sea lion who washed up on the beach along the Wild Pacific Trail I walked last week; the Great Forgetting of species lost we never got to meet, and the ones we are losing, and will lose. We adapt to these completely abnormal changes, which become normalized by being our new reality. This gives us a false sense of security.
I don’t want to contemplate a world without elephants, lions, giraffes and tigers; a world without bears and wolves and whales, fading into the past, so our great-grandchildren may never know them.
Who will save them? Who will save us, from this warming world?
For your challenge: Write about this loneliness, about endlings, about the solastalgia we experience from the impact of environmental change, as we ponder the species who are vanishing from our world at an astonishing rate, almost as fast as the glaciers are melting.
WHAT WE HEARD ABOUT THE SEA
Once we belonged. We belonged for wet
millenniums, then we exiled ourselves
gill by gill, fin by fin. The sea sang us forth,
first birth, first Eden,
our blood tide brackish. The Fall
was a struggle to shore, sip of sharp air.
We can’t even name how we long to go home,
but still that desire
Swims in us. We return to visit
with buoyancy compensators, masks
and tanks of air, we sink
and look and remember
how it felt to live here,
but we are tourists now. Cold gold
light in water, we touch the brittle fingers
of black coral, feathered tongues of barnacles,
even the great wings of manta rays
that swoop over us
and we suck hungrily
on our mouthpieces
swallowing back our salt, yearning
for the time we lived here
when we could fly.
~Rachel Rose, from Refugium, Poems for the Pacific
WHAT THE SEA PERHAPS HEARD
Killer whales hunt a blue whale calf
and eat his tongue. As he bleeds to death
Blood seeps without a sound into my body.
The gulls come, screaming their belly-greed,
the small fish come with their needle teeth.
The mother blue has more grief
in her massive body
than anything else I have held.
No one has seen what I see: how the great white sharks
copulate, fitting together in secret method.
And when the octopus siphons me inside her,
and I unfurl her delicate legs with warm currents
she blushes for me alone. I hold the tight curl
of the seahorse’s tail as he pivots,
protecting his basketful of life.
Observe the spaghettini arms of starfish
reaching for drifting food. Hear their little song:
the stomach! The stomach! Dear urchins, sweet limpets.
All feast in me. In the heat of my armpit
waves curl their black seaweed, stones groan
as they are ground to sand. I rock them.
In my cold brain, I am rational,
I do not weep to feel the polar bears
scrape my frozen cheeks.
I do not weep when the belugas
sing or narwhals leap like unicorns
and when icebergs collapse I am
scraping dead skin from my forehead
so I can think better, that thunderous, cleansing
crash. Sometimes I catch your broken boats
and your broken bodies, your diamond necklaces,
your New World apple trees, I accept everything,
I turn no one away. That’s me gripping your line, your net,
your boots in invitation, dragging your thighs as you run.
At dawn the grey whale fills his baleen
with a noise like water falling through feathers
And at dusk you sail your boats
across my belly, dragging your hands
as you stare into the wet green silk, like a child looks
under his mother’s dress
thinking she won’t notice, to see
where he came from.
~ Rachel Rose, from Refugium: Poems for the Pacific