Consulting Editor's Note
This evening I walk up our twilit-mountain during an unpredicted snowfall. Moving through the still-falling snow evokes a familiar tension between solace and grief, and I recall a phrase by Alfred North Whitehead: “Peace is primarily a trust in the efficacy of Beauty.” Yet, impinging on this peace are fire and wind, drought and flood, landslide and avalanche—manifestations of climate disruption unfolding in irregular seasons around the globe; somewhere it is somebody’s backyard or creature’s habitat, racked by devastation. Or perhaps the ruin of home is more of an incremental decline, increasingly perceptible, or even alarming, such as the melting Arctic region—recently renamed “New Arctic” by NOAA, because the Arctic as we once knew it is no more.
At the terminus/precipice of 2017/2018, any number of beautiful/terrifying happenings around the world, too numerous to count, call us to awareness and action: historic wildfires in California, and the just-past hurricane season, which brought Harvey, Irma, and Maria in the span of four weeks. A litany of calamities, including “endless war” and the steady flight of human and more-than-human climate/war refugees, help to situate our thinking–feeling within the matrix of the current moment—embedded as it is within the Sixth Great Extinction Event.
Climate disruption is a strong thematic undercurrent that threads through this issue. It becomes real to the holidaymaker via Memye Curtis Tucker’s “Last Days at the Beach,” when storms and sea-rise overwhelm the taken-for-granted; we are asked to imagine “blue waters in a faultless blue sky, and no one left to say blue.” Tiffany Higgins’ “The Maskless” places us in the “Northern California firestorm” of October 2017. The immediacy and viscerality of Higgins’ piece carry special power, and, importantly, connects an environmental calamity to social injustice, highlighting the farmworkers “still bent over grapevines, maskless in the dark grey air, to harvest the grapes, their overseers neither dismissing them from working in the smoke nor providing masks.”
Social injustice is one facet of a more complex and destructive driver of extinction: transversal structural violence, (including colonization), enacted via cultural, social, political, and economic systems, particularly affects indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups (human and more-than-human). Dwayne Brenna’s “Los Diablitos” tells a story of how women’s cultural practices, linked to their intimate knowledge of their environment, are threatened by a monolingual American’s gated “eco-village resort.” Brenna’s story reveals mutuality between the integrity of ecosystems and indigenous, local cultures and language. Endangerment to one is a critical threat to the other.
In “Peeling Bark for Bread,” Benjamin Cutler conveys a story of his childhood attempt to imitate the bread-making practice of Sami women of northern Scandinavia, whom we learn were “nearly wiped out / in the early 20th century through illegalization / of their language and forced sterilization.” I think of children growing up without cultural and linguistic traditions that link them deeply to the living world. We learn a recently coined Swedish word via Janet Joyner’s poem, "Uppgivenhetssyndrom," which describes the syndrome whereby young refugees go to bed and don't get up. Unable to move, eat, drink, speak or respond, they are expressing the deepest form of grieving—or psychic extinction—as response to violent displacement from a shattered home.
Conservation biologist, Michael Soulé has said that people save what they love; he also despairs over whether we can love enough to save enough. Inspired by Soulé, ecophilosophers Deborah Bird Rose and Thomas Van Dooren ask: What about unloved others? In “On Fire,” Linda Parsons writes of “our shaky earth” as “a timber / house perpetually afire, where only love / can rush in and save us.”
Trileigh Tucker complicates love itself as she evokes the complexity of human–animal relationships. Central to Tucker’s “Love in the Time of Extinction” is a Barred Owlet—her “illicit immigrant lover”—whom she learns is an invasive species. Highlighting the sensitivity and resiliency of life-webs, Tucker’s narrative asks: How do we reconcile our love for the particular with our love for the ecologic? Similarly, Clinton Peters challenges our human desires to “save what we love” in “Ecotones”—after a word that describes a transition area between two biomes where distinct communities meet and overlap. Randall, Peters’ well-intentioned central human character, seeks out conservation biologist Eldridge Jones, giving rise to an ecotone between studied conservation and “radical” activism. Yet ultimately, Randall is confronted by his own ignorance, arrogance, and grief when his well-meaning actions result in tragedy.
Nicholas Samaras, exiled as a child from Patmos, Greece (“Island of the Apocalypse”), says he “writes from a place of permanent exile”—which perhaps translates as an affinity for worlds threatened with permanent loss. “All Extinction is Gradual at First” evokes trees in distress and the ferocities of once predictable weather; off-seasons are no longer “off” because they have become the norm: “no season behaves itself.” In Samaras’ “Winter Music at the End of the World,” longing and loss are made phenomenal in the ephemerality of falling snow: “Absence becomes an almost sweet music. / … When I walk and hold the air, I am holding you.”
“Winter Music at the End of the World” gestures toward an interview by Nathan Poole with John Luther Adams: “Always Rising: Art and Activism of John Luther Adams.” Like others in this volume, whose work ponders a world without humans in it, Nathan Poole reflects on Adams’ “Become Ocean” (Pulitzer prize for music, 2014), which has been described as a soundtrack for the end of the world. “The music is so beautiful, it’s hard to think of this piece as ‘bleak’ or “apocalyptic’,” says Poole. “Perhaps a world without us in it doesn’t seem so bleak....” Adams responds:
For me, the apocalypse is beautiful. Painfully beautiful. And our presence in the face of those [terrifying, exhilarating] forces, what we call nature, is all the more beautiful when we realize that nature couldn't care less. But this whole idea of the apocalypse is really another narcissistic human notion. We don’t care about the end of the world. All we’re talking about is the end of us.
It is true that the earth (yet not necessarily bios) will continue indeterminately in cosmic continuum. But it could be that calling out humans for only caring about our own demise itself places us outside the web of relations by underestimating human capacities for empathy and grief that extend beyond our species. It also fails to recognize the many human Earth inhabitants, especially those of indigenous cultures, whose foundational worldview/s cosmologically embed the human in integral relationship.
Though “we” (a particular cultural strand of human mired in capitalism and/or global empire) are surely the central actors in the unraveling of this web, there is an alternative story that emerges from our issue’s assemblage. This is a story of concern beyond self or a single species, of pain for the world, and of mourning all we are taking down with us. Ecophilosopher Joanna Macy and others reckon our pain and grief are manifestations of Earth’s immune system, alerting our collective body to crisis. This narrative resonates through numerous pieces in this issue, such as Laura England’s meditation on armadillos in “Dangerous Intersections,” which grapples with the loss of animal lives and habitats to automobiles and roadways, and our complicity—unwilling and willing—in the destruction of life. Paul Brooke arouses anguish for the poached saiga and “dull Ural Steppe” in “Saga for Saiga.” Lesley Wheeler asks us to “imagine mastodons,” “calves and mothers inhal[ing] resin” in “American Incognitum.” Keygan Sands’ “Geologic” works as both basic primer for the science behind climate change and extinction, and as exaltation and lamentation for bats in decline.
There are intimations of Isaiah’s “calf and the lion and the yearling together” (11:6) in Catherine Carter’s “Copperheads in Heaven,” a gentle and incongruous gathering of misfits in a heaven she conjures “where there is a place for everything” that is and ever was. Her heaven includes unloved copperheads that sleep “on the windworn boards / in the tender autumn sun” at the feet of her old friend.
Human love and grief for trees and forests speak through several poems. Pando (the Trembling Giant), a vast grove of quaking aspens, is an endangered organism comprised of some 47,000 genetically identical trees, sharing a single root system in Utah, home of poet Ben Gundberg. Thought to be the heaviest known organism as well as one of the oldest (between 80,000 and a million years old), Pando is dying now, from a combination of drought, infestation, and disease. Ben Gundberg’s poem brings our attention to the “shared, knotted heart” of the aspen, as well as to the propensity of certain humans for reducing nature to its utility in the service of comfort and/or capital.
We are disoriented in Dannye Romine Powell’s “In the Night, the Wind in the Leaves,” half-dreaming, “as if we never were, / the earth newborn.” Robin Myers’ “[Think of how it could be]” moves us through the kitsch and “clatter” of the artificial and imitated before asking us to “accept the blessing of being surrounded by trees still made of tree.” Bermudian Chris Astwood’s “Forests of Myth” addresses the cultural memory of his island’s native cedar forests.
As readers might expect, several works take an “apocalyptic” turn, hearkening back to past extinction events, or otherwise taking a theological/eschatological bent to our theme. Benjamin Cutler pokes fun at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the “apocalypse-ready icebox” in Norway. “A Tomato Sandwich for the End-Times” “will be sweet enough as you eat alone on a snow mound / for one.” (Not designed to withstand soaring Arctic temperatures, last spring the vault sustained flood-damage from melting ice and permafrost.) In “Fable with Omens and Hazard Map,” Jane Satterfield homes in on earth- and culture-shattering hydraulic fracturing, foretold by raven-shadowed “flocks of seismographs” and “shake-out drills.” Corvidae as omen and messenger also appear in Catherine Carter’s “Crow Cosmogony.” Crows become creator gods, setting a universe in motion—“evolution / our solution to dogma and fate.” Trusting the universe unto itself, they become necessary recyclers of waste and the dead. Carter’s “The Rapture” imagines finality as blaze and flare—as “a meteor, a big one, rupturing earth”—a great cosmic shrug that sweeps away clean “the whole torturestory / forgotten forever.”
Carter’s “Rapture” calls to Adam Tamashasky’s “Meteor.” “Chicxulub,” the name of the poet’s daughter’s invented game, is also the impact crater beneath Yucatan Peninsula implicated in Earth’s fifth extinction, Cretaceous–Paleogene. “Meteor,” with Ray McManus’s “Whatever the Opposite of Extinction Is” and “Cave Art” are all about embodiment through consumption, art-making, story-telling and enactment. We strain to see if art on cave walls might tell of a story of a struggling culture. “Whatever the Opposite…” suggests patriarchy’s failure to “evolve just enough, while “The Meteor” offers some hope that children can reveal the awesomeness and terror of a story that may save us.
Lake Moore’s “Three Dreams About Water at the Jane Hotel,” locates us in the West Village of New York City in a ship-themed luxury hotel, historically a home for sailors. Four days after the Titanic sank on 15 April 1912, the ship’s surviving crew held a memorial service at the Jane; it also became a temporary refuge for survivors. Watery tragedies, rising seas, and the fate of the Titanic haunt the poem’s three dreams. We are wakened by an alarm, “icebreaking your sleep” while “the ocean is rising and / Soon all of this will be a horizon.”
Perhaps extinction begins and/or accelerates in our imaginations and communication. “[T]his essay is my exploration of the apparent fading away of nature in the minds of my students,” writes natural scientist Marilyn Vogel. Drawing from literature, science, history and popular culture, “The Falconer Cannot Hear the Falcon: Unseeing Nature in the Anthropocene” is a meditation on language and speech, on the “naming of things,” and consequently, how we perceive reality, live in the world, and relate to “nature” and each other. Phenomenologically rooted “Old Speech” is “the true naming of things”; abstraction follows from new speech, giving us “commodification of experience” and “enchanted alienation from nature.”
Old Speech is abundant in many of the works in this issue. John McCarthy’s review of Daniel Hudon’s Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals is followed by Hudon’s “The Freshwater Mussels of North America.” With words that conjure curiosity and imagination, “Freshwater Mussels” and Daniel Jenkin’s “Gray Lily” bring extinction home to Appalachia, i.e. winged spikes, catspaws, hazel pigtoe. Jenkins warns, “You don't remember her name, do you? / It’s too late now.”
The names of things are important to Cheyenne Nimes too, who begins her prose–poem “Start with the names” by revealing undercurrents of meaning in the word extinction. Jazz-like, Nimes threads several themes through her piece (i.e., water, games, light, crime), improvising over them. While “facts take us only so far, like an empty waterhole where animals & humans once drank,” statistical references become the bass notes that keep Nimes’ piece grounded.
John Means’ “355.0217” offers a vital dimension to our issue by highlighting the still-potent existential threat of militarized atomic energy and nuclear weapons; having waned in our imaginations (at least until recently), nuclear annihilation has been overshadowed by climate change . For Means, extinction includes vanquished places, historical fact, and collective memory.
Taken together with the visual art of Colleen Maynard’s fossil portraits in graphite and charcoal; Ann Kaplan’s photographs; and Tesa Madsen McQueen’s pen and ink “Refugia,” the writing in this issue widens our circles of concern, provokes grief, awe and anger, tests our assumptions of who and what to blame, challenges our politics and religious beliefs, and invites us to love, celebration, and lament.
E. O. Wilson believes we are living into what he calls the Eremozoic Era or Eremocene, the Age of Loneliness. As Wilson (2006) starkly puts it in The creation: An appeal to save life on Earth:
The human hammer having fallen, the sixth mass extinction has begun. This spasm of permanent loss is expected, if it is not abated, to reach the end-of-Mesozoic level by the end of the [21st] century. We will then enter what poets and scientists alike may choose to call the Eremozoic Era — The Age of Loneliness.
We may not be able to save what we love, after all. What is certain, for me, is that art, poetry, music/dance, story, dreams, contemplation and ritual, friendship and community, and trust in the efficacy of the still-abundant beauty of our universe constitute the constellation to follow as we navigate the mysterious and treacherous terrain that lies ahead.