Animals on the Eve of Extinction

We are delighted to announce the publication of our seventeenth book, available now from our online shop. This latest issue is an earthbound, layered collection, rooted in the theme of restoration. Over the next few weeks we'll be sharing a selection of pieces from its pages. Today, we bring you a non-fiction litany and praise song by Jennifer Case,  with artwork by Meridel Rubenstein.
is the author of Sawbill: A Search for Place (University of New Mexico Press, 2018). Her essays have appeared in journals such as Orion, Michigan Quarterly Review, the Rumpus, and Fourth River. She teaches at the University of Central Arkansas and serves as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org.
Once upon a time, I read my daughter a bedtime story in which dinosaurs and humans coexisted, living together sustainably in cities as well as on farms. They grew crops together, raised young together, and made decisions together. They ate only what they needed and carried no weapons. When they greeted each other and said their goodbyes, they used the phrase, ‘Breathe deep, seek peace.’

For a month each evening, following our reading, my daughter nestled into her pillow, along with 16 plastic dinosaurs and one plush brachiosaurus, and asked if what happened to the dinosaurs would happen to us. ‘Will we go extinct?’

For a month each evening, I paused and said, ‘Maybe. Eventually. But you don’t need to worry about that.’ I kissed her forehead and told her goodnight, but when I left the room I was still thinking about dinosaurs. I was a mother grazing with my children in a wide, open pasture, and when I suddenly looked up, I saw the meteors fall.

EMPEROR PENGUIN · RINGED SEAL · ARCTIC FOX · BELUGA WHALE ·ORANGE CLOWNFISH · KOALA BEAR · LEATHERBACK TURTLE ·FLAMINGO · WOLVERINE · MUSK OX · POLAR BEAR · HAWAIIAN HONEYCREEPER · BAIRD’S SANDPIPER · IVORY GULL · WESTERN GLACIER STONEFLY · TUFTED PUFFIN

In my mid-20s, I began to desire a child. And so I had a child. She was born in a hospital in the middle of December, and she is beautiful, and every day, even when her burgeoning stubbornness forces me to count to ten in my head, her beauty astonishes me. The sharp cut of her jaw. The spark in her eyes. The moles, appearing in greater and greater quantities on her body. She has a zoo of imaginary pets, and she is starting to ask questions about death, and she tells me before bed that she thinks we should all – my husband, me, her and her baby brother – die together, at the same time, so that we won’t be alone. In those moments, when her face opens, asking for something I cannot give, a fear the size of her pupils sears into my chest: that the pain she will experience in her future will not be the pain of a life – of a first love, of love lost, of grief for dying relatives – but a grief so much larger. Lost worlds. Lost lands. Lost species. Lost nations. As the Earth destabilises, as the climate destabilises, what will her culture become? What will life become? When we are focused so much on adapting, on reacting to the next thing, on wars over resources, what room will there be for joy?

SINAI BATON BLUE · PLICATE ROCKSNAIL · MEKONG GIANTCAT FISH · PHILIPPINE CROCODILE · RESPLENDENT SHRUBFROG · JAVAN RHINOCEROS · PYGMY HOG · VARIEGATED SPIDER MONKEY · HAINAN GIBBON · OSGOOD’S ETHIOPIAN TOAD · TOYAMA’S GROUND GECKO · MARBLED GECKO

These of course are anxious thoughts. They are the thoughts of someone occasionally on the brink of despair. The thoughts of a mother, a parent, late at night. Someone trying to wrest control over an uncontrollable future. And surely, I think, my fears are no different than anyone’s when the world tips toward instability. During the Vietnam War, didn’t parents fear for their sons? In Europe and Asia, on the eve of World War II, didn’t families fear for their children? In Sudan and El Salvador, now, doesn’t the bringing of life into the world carry with it a risk that surpasses the risks of childbirth itself? Only in this case, the threat isn’t nations, or even continents. It covers the planet.

 MAGDALENA RIVER TURTLE · TITICACA WATER FROG · BANAT GRASSHOPPER · PLOUGHSHARE TORTOISE · MONGOOSE LEMUR · GOLDEN BAMBOO LEMUR · ADRIATIC STURGEON · RICORD’S ROCK IGUANA · GREAT PALAU TREE SNAIL · BLACK-BREASTED PUFFLEG · GLAUCOUS MACAW · GASTLETON’S FLIGHTLESS KATYDID · PARNASSOS GREEK BUSH-CRICKET · NORTHERN MOSS FROG

Sometimes, out of necessity, I want to turn it all off. I want to wake up, bring my children to their respective daycares, teach my students how to write, pick up my children, boil water for pasta and toss a green salad. Eat at the table. Play evening games and then go on a walk. Tuck them in with a bedtime story and a sippy cup of water. I want those small routines, the comfort of them, to be everything. I want to not have to think about anything else. Not: what will this world look like in 30, 40, 50 years. Not to know that, by then, 50% of the species on the Earth right now will be lost.

WHITE-HEADED VULTURE · HOODED VULTURE · SLENDER-BILLED CURLEW · CALIFORNIA CONDOR · RAPA FRUIT-DOVE · SOCIABLE LAPWING · BLUE-EYED GROUND-DOVE · LESSER ANTILLEAN IGUANA · OKINAWA WOODPECKER · TAPANULI ORANGUTAN ·EASTERN GORILLA · HIMALAYAN QUAIL

In my son’s first year, the US government tried to repeal the Endangered Species Act. The Clean Air Act. The Clean Water Act. The White House reduced Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent. They changed the image on the Bureau of Labor Resources’ website from a family hiking to a wall of coal. They filled the cabinet with corporations. They slashed the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency.

On the day of the election, when I was nine months pregnant with my son, I drove to work in Arkansas. The Lawn of Peace Lutheran Church, next to a designated polling place, was slathered with Trump signs.

TRANSYLVANIAN PLUMP GRASSHOPPER · CANTERBURY KNOBBLED WEEVIL · THREE FORKS SPRINGSNAIL · BAMBOO LEMUR · BLACK-AND-WHITE RUFFED LEMUR · LIVINGSTON’S FLYING FOX · CORAL PINK SAND DUNES TIGER BEETLE · MCCORD’S BOX TURTLE · PAINTED TERRAPIN · HOODED GREBE

 In downtown Little Rock, my daughter runs across the benches of the Central Arkansas Nature Center, her fingers tracing the long line of aquariums. ‘Look, that one has teeth!’ she says of the albino gar, and her joy is great.

Watching her watch the fish, I can’t help but imagine the roles reversed. Some alien creature is watching us, a teeming, frothing force of humans, specimens in a vast glass world, and we are coupling. Reproducing. Eating. Desecrating. Taking from the soil. Taking over resources. Like termites, only worse. Or maybe just like termites, only with more tools. Some of us have a god and believe we will be saved. Some of us do not. And it doesn’t really matter, but I am just one of them. One specimen, who birthed two more specimens, and from above I move through the routines in my life, and the aliens know what is coming, know the brink my species is bringing itself to, will watch the impending environmental apocalypse, which will not be the end of all life – the Earth will remain – but will certainly be the end of a great deal of life, and perhaps even the end of our own.

IBERIAN GREY BUSH-CRICKET · HAWAIIAN CROW · LONG-BILLED FOREST-WARBLER · RED-FRONTED MACAW · NEW CALEDONIAN LORIKEET · YELLOW-BREASTED BUNTING · ORANGE-BELLIED PARROT · CELEBES CRESTED MACAQUE · BLEEDING TOAD · LA GOMERA GIANT LIZARD · CUBAN CROCODILE

Yesterday, it stormed. The sirens went off at 1pm. I was at work. My children both at school. I imagined my son’s daycare teacher rolling all their small cribs against the safest wall in the infant room. I imagined my daughter’s preschool, the teachers guiding the students to all make ‘tents’ with their hands beneath the tables. The rain poured down, horizontal. The sky turned green and black. I ached for my children.

That evening, after safely picking my children up, my daughter insisted on a rain walk. She put on her red rain boots and pulled out her children’s umbrella. She hopped from foot to foot while I zipped my sweatshirt. Once outside, I lifted my face to the hazy, grey sky, and the wind puffed us with its humid breath, and my daughter sloshed through the gutters, the curbs, kicking and skipping through puddles, pointing with delight whenever she saw an even bigger puddle ahead. The neighbours smiled at her and waved – her pleasure in puddles a simple delight for us all – and we slowly made our way halfway around the block. But then the wind picked up, and the sky began to spritz a colder, stinging rain. My daughter’s eyes widened. When a gust caught her umbrella, it pulled her 40-pound body backwards. ‘Let’s go back inside. Quick. The wind will take us away,’ she said. Nothing I could say would ensure her she was safe.

IBERIAN GREY BUSH-CRICKET · HAWAIIAN CROW · LONG-BILLED FOREST-WARBLER · RED-FRONTED MACAW · NEW CALEDONIAN LORIKEET · YELLOW-BREASTED BUNTING · ORANGE-BELLIED PARROT · CELEBES CRESTED MACAQUE · BLEEDING TOAD · LA GOMERA GIANT LIZARD · CUBAN CROCODILE

I come from a culture that has shortened the Mississippi River by 150 miles, and birth and labour to 24 hours. A culture that in its quest for wealth and convenience has mined the mountains and eradicated the prairie and plundered the topsoil until conventional farmers can no longer grow crops without dousing the ground with fertiliser made from oil. A culture that has spewed CO2 into the atmosphere at a rate faster than during previous great extinctions and then hid the facts to protect corporate wealth.

RED-THROATED LORIKEET · KAKAPO · BORNEAN ORANGUTAN · GIANT IBIS · SIBERIAN CRANE · JEYPORE GROUND GECKO ·INDOCHINESE BOX TURTLE · BUTTERFLY SPLITFIN · YELLOW-SPOTTED TREE FROG · TENERIFE SPECKLED LIZARD · RED-BELLY TOAD · VANCOUVER ISLAND MARMOT · NASSAU GROUPER

I begin to plant a native prairie in our backyard. I bring my children to a native plant nursery, where we pick out tickseed, switchgrass and big bluestem. I sign us up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and brainstorm ways to minimise our use of cars. On weekends, we go to local parks where my daughter gazes at tadpoles and my son digs his hands in the sand.

What will life become? When we are focused so much on adapting, on reacting to the next thing, on wars over resources, what room will there be for joy?

All the while, I’m aware that parents have a psychological need to believe they can keep their children safe, and that climate change threatens that illusion.

I’m aware that the greatest reduction to a family’s carbon footprint is to have fewer children.

I’m aware that I decided to have one child, but unintentionally had a second.

I’m aware that there are no guarantees for my children.

PHILIPPINE EAGLE · NEW CALEDONIAN OWLET-NIGHTJAR ·GALAPAGOS PETREL · TRUE WEEVIL · GREAT INDIAN BUSTARD · YELLOW GOLDFLAKE · PEACOCK TARANTULA · DEVIL’S HOLE PUPFISH · MYANMAR SNUB-NOSED MONKEY · BLACK CRESTED GIBBON · POLYNESIAN TREE SNAIL · STELLATE STURGEON

In the late days of my pregnancy and the early days of my son’s life, I sometimes could not watch the news. I couldn’t bear to see what was happening. Or rather, what was happening had the power to make me lose hope. To stare at his small body – his belly button still weeping because the bit of tissue from the umbilical cord had not fully died – and feel so fully that our country was headed in the wrong direction. What was I to do? I nursed my infant. I ate bowls full of fruit. I took baths in herbs. I let my body heal. I lay down in the afternoon when others were around to watch my son. I went on walks outside. I carried him to the porch. I watched him squint in the sun. I opened the shades of our home. I snapped the edges of his cloth diapers. I pressed my forehead against the cool window of the door at night, when we were both awake, in need of something to drink.

SPENGLER’S FRESHWATER MUSSEL · WHITE-TIPPED GRASSHOPPER · SOUTHERN EVEN-FINGERED GECKO · ROSE’S MOUNTAIN TOADLET · RED-CRESTED TREE RAT · RIVERINE RABBIT · SIBILLINI MOUNTAIN GRASSHOPPER · LITTLE GLAND FROG · WHITE-TIPPED GRASSHOPPER · GREEN SAWFISH · RED WOLF

It is despair. It is hope. It is a long O. An om. A prayer. A praising. Sometimes a pleading. Sometimes nothing at all but my steps moving forward. One day at a time. One waking at a time. One night at a time. Life, right now, with small children, when climate change looms large, and our country is not doing enough about it, is my hands open, asking. My hands on tree trunks. On babies’ bodies. On grass. On laundry. On the washcloth as I wash bottles and the valves of my breast pump. On student papers. On this keyboard, now. My hands, reaching out, saying sorry, and please, saying can’t we be tender? Compassionate? Can’t we break through something with our elbows? Can’t we heave our bodies against what is stopping us from changing our mindsets, our ideologies? Can’t we get past these simple comforts? Can’t we give up something so that they, in the future, will have something too? I know what fear is, and I know how hard it is to think about changing our lives, and I know we all feel small sometimes, and inconsequential, and maybe we are, but we are here. We are bodies on this Earth.

NORTHERN HAIRY-NOSED WOMBAT · STRIPED GEKKO · EUROPEAN EEL · ORNATE GROUND SNAKE · GREEK RED DAMSEL · SPRING PYGMY SUNFISH · SOUTHERN BLUEFIN TUNA · GIANT CARP ·PERUVIAN YELLOW-TAILED WOOLLY MONKEY · BACTRIAN CAMEL · SAPPHIRE-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRD · ADDAX

On a vast plain near the end of the Cretaceous period, a mother ceratopsian grazes with her child, lowering her frilled and horned head to the ferns and the cycads. The volcanoes have already been rumpling, spewing CO2 into the air. The wind makes the grasses thrum and whistles through her spines. She tenses, alert, plucking thin leaves with her beak. What is it she’s thinking? When she suddenly looks up and sees the meteors fall?

I lean my head against her flank and feel kinship.

BLONDE CAPUCHIN · CAVE GROUND-BEETLE · VIETNAMESE POND TURTLE · ESPAÑOLA GIANT TORTOISE · GIANT MOUNTAIN LOBELIA · SIERRA NEVADA BLUE · GREATER VIRGIN ISLANDS SKINK · WHITE LEMUROID RINGTAIL POSSUM · STAGHORN CORAL · SHENANDOAH SALAMANDER · WHOOPING CRANE · BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS · BICKNELL’S THRUSH · AMERICAN PIKA · HAWKSBILL SEA TURTLE · RUSTY PATCHED BUMBLE BEE · MONARCH BUTTERFLY · SOCKEYE SALMON · RED-CROWNED ROOFED TURTLE

A species goes extinct. A civilisation ends. Both are the uncomfortable if constant nature of life. And although I know I need to accept this – that everything dies, and humankind will eventually, too – the part of me that holds my children still needs to carve hope in the future. Hope in sacredness and responsibility and ecological kinship. Hope in bodies and community and connectedness and land.

BRAZILIAN MERGANSER · SUN STRIPE SHRIMP · CADDO CHIMNEY GRAYFISH · APPALACHIAN ELKTOE · ADELIE PENGUIN · CORPULENT HORNSNAIL · ATLANTIC RUBBER FROG · BLACK SOFTSHELL TURTLE · HOODED VULTURE · SLENDER-BILLED CURLEW · COMMON SKATE · SCIMITAR-HORNED ORYX · AFRICAN WILD ASS · SAHARA  KILLIFISH · ATLANTIC HUMPBACK DOLPHIN · DAMA GAZELLE

In the backyard, cantaloupe sprout from our compost and I let them sprawl across the lawn. I breathe in air made of atoms that have circulated for aeons, atoms also inhaled by crustaceans and brachiopods. I lower my head to the sweaty scalps of my children. Each of us animals on the eve of an extinction. Each of us alive to what we are becoming.

 

IMAGE:

Meridel Rubenstain
Adam and Eve in the Southern Iraq Marshes  Near the possible historic site of the Garden of Eden  
UV-cured acrylic ink on linen 

This photograph is from Eden in Iraq, a water remediation wastewater garden project and photoworks that explore environmental devastation and renewal in the Mesopotamian Marshes of Southern Iraq.

US artist Meridel Rubenstein began her professional career in the early 1970s, evolving from photographer of single photographic images to artist of extended works, multimedia installations and social practice. She maintains her art studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico while directing the Eden in Iraq Wastewater Garden Project in southern Iraq, under the umbrella of NGO Nature Iraq, Iraq’s pre-eminent environmental group.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 17

The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.

 

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