Bestiary for the End Times

Elegies for the Extinct, Extinguished and Endangered

“Plus nous nous sentirons dépassés, plus loin nous risquerons d’avancer dans les secrets de ce monde à jamais disparu.”

“The more we feel overwhelmed, the further we will be likely to advance in the secrets of this forever-gone world.”– George Bataille, Lascaux, ou la naissance de l’art

“Once the war on nature reaches a level at which nothing is safe, it doesn’t matter if the intensity increases. The increment of greater blood thirst will be no more noticeable than the slight acceleration of a jet already streaking through the sky.” William De Buys, The Last Unicorn

Introduction

It is no surprise that the world we have not cared for is dying: the vast web of life that has emerged over eons in the miraculous fragile cocoon of our living planet seems, day by day, to be bound for extinction. In the meantime, however, it is a duty, at once moral and aesthetic to witness, to name, and to grieve for those we are losing – and to be aware that, no, we are not losing them, we are pushing them into the dark heart of oblivion, and with them, ourselves.

The wonderful British writer Robert MacFarlane, towards the end of his book Landmarks, which documents in precise and poetic terms the sheaves of forgotten and displaced place-words in the lexicons of the British Isles, proposes a new glossary: “It will be,” MacFarlane suggests, “a glossary of the Anthropocene – the earth epoch in which human activity has become the dominant shaping force of the environment and the climate such that it will leave a long-term signature in the strata record.” He terms the project “a Desecration Phrasebook.” In some sense, that is what this Bestiary is: a catalogue of the beings that our industrial civilization has consigned to oblivion.

“Such a glossary would need to detail the topographies of toxicity and dereliction that we have made, the spectacles of pollution, corruption and extinction we have induced, and the miracles of geo-engineering we have wrought. It would acknowledge human activity as a telluric force with an immense legacy. It would record, for instance, the ‘trash vortex’ that swirls in the gyres of the world’s great oceans, or aspects of the pale hills of radioactive mine-tailings that rear above Johannesburg, or terms for the chambers of the deep geological repositories in which we entomb our nuclear waste. Is there a word yet,” MacFarlane asks, “for the post-natural rain that falls when a cloud is rocket-seeded with silver iodide? Or an island newly revealed by the melting of sea ice in the North-West Passage? Or the glistening tide-marks left on coastlines by oil spills?”

And so here we are. A Bestiary for the End Times is in another sense our kill-list; the documentation, in rarefied poetic form, or our “greatest hits” – the relatives who crawl, fly, swim, walk or stand rooted in the living soils, whom, in order to build human civilization and bring it to its hubristic apogee in late-stage capitalism, we have eaten, beaten, bullied, sullied, neglected, abused and abandoned. 

But the intention here is not to chastise, moralize, or demoralize the human part of us that has wrought such devastation. It is, rather, to name and honor the dead, and to re-member them, as in, to renew their presence as parts of our own living body, and, grandiose as it sounds – is this not a time for big thoughts? – to bow down before them as gods. I am helped in this by a window into the culture of the Ainu people of Hokkaido, given us by the poet and translator Donald Phillipi:

The gods admire
the beauties of the human
homeland, and they long
to come and visit
 
but they seldom do.
When they do visit
they come not only
for sightseeing –
 
they come to do business.
The wealth of the gods
consists of the gifts
they receive from humans.
 
The gods come masquerading
as animals, and, allowing
themselves to be killed,
they give the hunter the gift
 
of their animal disguise.
When the god’s costume is
removed, its spirit is released
back it its own world.
 
And so, if a proper ritual is held
all the gods are set free.[1]

[1] Anthropological interpretation of Ainu cosmology from Donald Phillipi, Songs of Gods, Songs of Humans: The Epic Tradition of the Ainu
 

You, old animal brothers, you, old animal sisters,

as the white sun bares his glittering teeth

as the lilac moon rests her soft body in sleep

I wake and I offer you this feast.

I wake and I deliver you these small, near-silent words.

Please accept them as if they were a basket

of the most tender bamboo shoots,

the juiciest uncurling fingers of the first leaves of March

a cake of the most dripping amber honey,

salted with the crunch of melted bees,

a nest of ants so sweet their odor makes you drunk

as flowers drunk on morning dew.

Please eat these words and carry on living

unbroken and undiminished in this world, in the other world

as you will my elder brothers

as you will my elder sisters.

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