My Son’s Ark

'The future we expected has changed shape.' For the third entry in our Kinship With Beasts series, we bring you a story originally written for our special issue ARK, in which Liz Jensen tells of staggering personal loss in the midst of the world's cascading crises. A writer and founding member of Extinction Rebellion’s Writers Rebel, her book about her biologist and activist son, Your Wild and Precious Life, is launched today. With an image by Angela Cockayne from her series 'Radical Fauna'.
is predominantly known as a novelist, most recently of the ecological thrillers The Rapture and The Uninvited. She is a founding member of Extinction Rebellion’s Writers Rebel, a literary movement using words and actions to highlight the climate and ecological emergency. She lives in Denmark and teaches creative writing there and in the UK.
It’s the end of the 20th century and my elderly father, who is a violin maker, has built a microcosmic world. The ark is a floating animal sanctuary, a larder, a breeding ground, a time capsule, a social science experiment, a panic room – and a toybox. It’s a gift for my son, who is three. It has a white cabin complete with portholes, a red roof, and a yellow detachable gangplank. The flat-bottomed hull is yellow, with a line of blue waves to indicate the waterline. It’s unseaworthy, but he doesn’t care. He loves it fiercely.

The ark is the perfect gift for Raphaël, because what my father grasps about him instinctively is not that he’s a little Noah, but that he’s an animal – and that while many children gradually disconnect from their innate creaturehood, Raphaël will never lose sight of his. As a baby, he slept with a cat in his pram, lulled by feline purring. He loved making animal noises: the cow’s moo, the cat’s meow, the dog’s bark, the fish’s mouth going pop pop pop. His favourite video was a documentary about the legendary giant squid. Rigid with awe, he’d watch the hyper-realistic animation of Architeuthis attacking a whale five times its size, latching on with its suckers, then pulsing its titanic body and streaming through the darkness. The creatures of the deep seemed to speak to him in a way no human could.

At three, Raphaël loves not just the birds, squirrels, foxes, frogs and insects in our back garden and the animals in the zoo and in the city farm, but their plastic replicas. He and his brother have an impressive collection: cow, elephant, dog, camel, moose, sheep, lion, tiger, bear, ostrich, snake, chicken, goat, crab, shark, stork, scorpion. Now that the animals have a home, he walks them up the gangplank of the ark onto the narrow deck, or he takes off the red roof and stores them in the hull. In and out they go, endlessly. Sometimes he sorts them into categories. Land animals. Sea animals. Flying animals. Dinosaurs.

‘Arks are to save the animals that are alive so they can have babies,’ his brother argues. ‘And dinosaurs are extinct.’

But Raphaël doesn’t understand death yet, let alone extinction. Everything he loves is magic and draws breath.

Four years after my father gives Raphaël the ark, I am freshly divorced, and we still haven’t finished unpacking our removal boxes when my father  has a fall, goes to hospital, and dies of septicaemia. Raphaël crawls under the bunk bed and cries for his grandfather. He says he wants to die too. Rocked by my own grief, I can’t explain death to him, except to say that when something dies it turns into a new form of energy, but what the hell do I know? Does death mean the end of consciousness? What if consciousness isn’t generated by the brain, but is instead a vast electromagnetic entity with which the soul merges when the body expires?

Does my dead father, transformed into energy, know that Raphaël will recover from the brutal summer and autumn of 2001 and stop wanting to be dead? Does he know that Raphaël will inherit his skills in craftsmanship? That with the ark parked in a corner of his bedroom next to his gerbils, he’ll go on to build a rabbit cage, and carve a crossbow; that as a young teenager he’ll strip copper wire from old flex and make ingenious chain-mail necklaces; that when he leaves school he’ll design his own elaborately beautiful tattoos; that he’ll whittle coconut shells into jewellery to give to girls? That Raphaël’s love of what he calls the Wild will deepen and evolve? That he’ll study zoology, and become a wildlife biologist and photographer? That he’ll work in jungles and on beaches and up mountains? That he’ll study the eyelash palm pit viper and track jaguars in Costa Rica, work on sea turtle and dolphin conservation projects in Greece and Fiji, and fall in love with a trafficked night monkey at a rescue centre in Bolivia? And that back in the UK, he’ll become an ingenious and multiply-arrested Extinction Rebellion activist, and be charged with criminal damage after vandalising the Brazilian embassy in London in support of the indigenous rainforest protectors murdered for the sake of livestock feed?

Will he also know that my son will never have his day in court?

Will he know that on 6th February 2020, at the age of 25, Raphaël will collapse while running, and that because his heart contains the ticking bomb called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, it will stop beating? Forever?

Does he know now that Raphaël, too, is dead?

‘My son died.’ I had to learn to say that.

His death in February 2020 wasn’t the only thing that had been brewing for years and arrived suddenly. It coincided with a flashpoint in history. In a short space of time, it became clear that the pandemic was a symptom of the planet’s anthropogenic malaise. It hit the world like grief. It had the same muscularity, the same survival instinct, the same refusal to loosen its jaws. Like grief, it would not just change the trajectory of untold lives, but shine a clear sharp light on all that we are losing, and what we will die without. It is commonly said of losing a child: ‘You get through it, but you  never get over it.’ This wisdom applies not just to bereaved parents, but to the grief – past, present and anticipatory – of a civilisation in the midst of an existential trauma. The future we expected has changed shape.

The future we expected has changed shape.

For months after the electrical misfiring that caused Raphaël’s heart to stop, my own heart ached. It was as if a mineral had accreted in there, forming jagged crystals. It was blood temperature and a muddy dark purple. Mostly it just sat motionless behind my sternum, but occasionally it shifted its weight and tortured me in a new place. I wanted, urgently, not to be me. Like Raphaël, when he was seven, I wanted to die.

Raphaël grieved for this planet in the way all wildlife biologists do. He grieved for all the species he knew would become extinct in his  lifetime. He grieved for their habitats. He grieved for the trafficked and abused animals he worked with: creatures so traumatised by abusive humans and so disconnected from their natural habitats that they would never survive independently in the Wild. He grieved over the fact that 66% of the planet’s mammal biomass is livestock reared for meat, while only 4% is wildlife – of which a million species are on the brink. When he met any threatened species, he told me, he felt that in recording it, he was also writing its obituary. No more splendid poison frogs, no more smooth handfish, no more spined dwarf mantis, no more nazareno, no more Bonin pipistrelle bats, no more pipewort, no more hundreds of thousands of other species of plants, insects, fish, mammals and reptiles and invertebrates. It’s said that when a creature becomes extinct, it dies three times: first physically, then in language, and then in memory itself. Raphaël died physically. His second death – in language – won’t happen for as long as his name is still spoken. But our memories die with us. When that happens, will my son die a third time, and become extinct?

I don’t know. But I know that we can do all we can to keep what we love alive. And keep on living. I don’t want to die any more, and I care about the future more intensely than I ever did. While Raphaël would have seen the rolling crisis in which we live as a symptom of the world’s lethal imbalance, he’d also have seen an opportunity to redress it. If there is a tiny aperture at the heart of every crisis through which the light comes in, he’d have spotted it. Widened it. Let in more light, and watched it spread.

If there is a tiny aperture at the heart of every crisis through which the light comes in, he’d have spotted it.

I have tried to do the same with my own apocalypse. Although it’s vast to me, and it hurts like hell, I have begun to reframe my loss as a small one in the great scheme of things. As I write, other mothers are losing their sons in far more horrific circumstances.

Raphaël’s toy ark now sits on the floor in my living room, filled with plastic animals, and perhaps another child will play with it one day.

Sometimes, I still have to say ‘my son died.’

But secretly I add the thing that matters most. My son lived.

And he still does. I feel his energy. He’s living another story now, alongside his grandfather. And one day I’ll see them both again, along with all the others I have loved who were there one day, and then were not.

Until then, I picture him on the deck of the great ark of discarnate creaturehood, or shoaling in the floodwaters with the mackerel. I see him soaring in the sky with vultures. I hear the rustle of foliage as he rampages through the tree canopy with the howler monkeys. I smell him burrowing in the earth with the foxes, chicken blood on his fur. I sense him flitting darkly with the bats and moths. I feel him pulsing alongside the great Architeuthis.

And I think: how lucky I was. And am.

 

Your Wild and Precious Life: On grief, hope and rebellion, by Liz Jensen, is available 7th March 2024 from Canongate Books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


IMAGE: Limpet Eaters by Angela Cockayne from Radical Fauna
‘We urgently need to change our diets or we will starve’
Wax, crustacean, wire, limpet shells
Radical Fauna is a commentary from a compendium of chimerical creatures in the closing days of the Anthropocene and the first bewildering days of a new age yet to be defined. These ‘strandliners’ – ever-changing tidal offerings – are the remains of the day, an era, of millennia, and the last 500 years of oceanic discovery, enlightenment and annihilation, all in the blink of a planetary eye (from Issue 22 ARK)

Working as an artist and curator Angela Cockayne uses found objects to create artworks that comment on the human predicament within the natural world. Her recent project ‘Ark Embrace’ repurposes an old fishing vessel as a contemporary ethical cabinet of curiosity housing over 500 artworks to explore our relationship with the ocean and its mythologies. Radical Fauna, a limited edition publication was released at Hweg Gallery Penzance, UK.

 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 22 – ARK

Our full-colour Autumn 2022 edition is an ARK carrying a cargo of testimonies, stories and artwork gleaned after the flood

 

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