The Last Descent

We are living in an age of loss: the sixth mass extinction. Following this year's shocking report that the planet has lost half its wildlife in the past 40 years, and in the run-up to the 2018 Remembrance Day for Lost Species, we launch 'The Vanishing'. In this new section, we seek responses not only to extinction – the deaths of entire species – but to the quieter extirpations, losses and disappearances that are steadily stripping our world of its complexity and beauty. How do we, as writers and artists, stay human during such times?

Today we start with images and words about vanishing house martins, from Somerset-based artist Emma Tuck.

Emma's work is informed by the natural world, inevitably refracted through the psychological and the political. She lives in Frome, Somerset but spent many years living on an organic smallholding/nature reserve in West Wales. She is an exhibited artist and was awarded associate membership of the Society of Botanical Artists in 2011.

The image of a wild animal becomes the starting-point of a daydream: a point from which the daydreamer departs with his back turned.

– John Berger, Why Look At Animals? (1980)


I sat down to make these drawings in despair at the demise of the house martin. Over twelve summers, I had watched the numbers of nests on our house in mid-Wales dwindle from twelve down to four or five. Some of our neighbours gloomily reported that the birds had stopped returning to long-established nest sites at all.

No one knows what is behind this steep decline. It could be the degradation of European nesting sites, of over-wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa or of stop-off points on the migration route, or a combination of all three. More likely, it is part of the bigger biodiversity crisis – the disappearance of species everywhere in direct proportion to the spread of humans everywhere.

In his meditation on our relationship with other animals, John Berger reflected on the retreat of animals from the real world and into the imagination. We no longer see them for who they are but what they are in relation to us – companion, commodity, spectacle.

Of the birds who nested in the eaves of our house, I know almost nothing – nothing of their dreams or doubts, pleasures or sorrows. So, unquestionably, the house martin in my drawings is a creature of my mind. Maybe she is the last of her species. Maybe she is a survivor surveying the end of an old world and the beginning of a new one in which humans have vanished – it is surely only a matter of time and how much we take down with us.

We are observing her: a solitary bird making a perilous journey through an alien and impoverished landscape. But she is also turning her wary gaze on us – at least what we have done to the world: snapshots of devastation, wing-beat by wing-beat. From the razed and increasingly industrialised Welsh uplands; navigating the sterile farmland and ‘bastard countryside’ of southern England; traversing oceans and Europe’s lifeless metropolises; sailing across Almeria’s sea of bleached polyethylene greenhouses and the vast expanse of the Sahara; and on towards Nigeria’s pollutant-belching oil refineries; finally to wintering grounds in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, slowly being ravaged by armed conflict, deforestation, farming and oil exploration.

If we do not turn our back, we see things as they are. I am trying to daydream with my eyes wide open.

Dark Mountain: Issue 14 TERRA

The Autumn 2018 issue is a collection of prose, photography and printwork about journeys, place and belonging

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  1. Thank you for this. Images and words of real grace and beauty. I often think about the migrating birds, their incredibly long journeys and what must pass beneath wings. Once an unfurling glory, now a metastasizing nightmare.

    We are coming to learn that the insect kingdom is collapsing, and I suspect that has something to do with the missing martins.

    I always knew this time was coming, just not so soon.


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