When you tug a thread

I tore this picture from the newspaper last month and put it on the shelf behind some books, but the image didn’t let go. The sorrow it engendered seemed disproportionate. I follow the news and know that human lives and hopes and dreams are being extinguished all over. Children’s lives and hopes and dreams. Why bother about a hundred-year-old photo of some extinct animals?

They are Tasmanian tigers, or thylacines, in a zoo in about 1910. They were hunted to extinction in the wild around that time, and the last of their kind – though there are occasional unverified sightings to this day – died in captivity in 1936.

The thylacine was a marsupial. It raised its young in pouches like a kangaroo, and evidently evolved to fill a dog-shaped hole in its environment. “Convergent evolution”, zoologists call it. I guess because of some conditioned affinity for dogs, I’m more moved by those faces than I could be by any image of a dodo. See those curious, questing, intelligent eyes. And the physiognomy, so familiar and yet so strange. What a dreadful loss.

I’m not sure if we ever carried out a proper accounting for this loss, and I believe we need to – for our own well-being if nothing else. Our ancestors wouldn’t have allowed such a thing to pass without appropriate acknowledgement. Without mourning.

I’m talking here about our deep ancestors, way back when our kind still lived and died amid wonder and mystery, both as a part of Nature and apart from it. Way back before wild grasses were tamed on the silty flood plain. Before wild creatures were hobbled and roped into our enclosures. Before settlements, property, hierarchies, laws, slaves, money, taxes, royalty, God, soldiers, politicians, bureaucrats and the execution block. Before we had to indulge wealthy simpletons boasting about their plans for colonies on Mars and everyone living to 100! Before all the generations of stunted minds and lives. Back to when our distant but actually not so distant kin were strong and alert, and well aware of how deadly our gifts of fire and tools and storytelling could be for the magical web of life on which it all depended.

We could consider the thylacine just another twig snapped off the Darwinian tree, one of many. After all, those who study these things tell us that 99-point-something per cent of all species ever have gone extinct, that’s how evolution works. So… chill. But no. Tug a thread, and then another, and pretty soon the whole fabric comes loose. That must have been clear as daylight to our ancient kin, for whom every waking morning was a reminder of how blessed they were and how dependent on Nature’s grace. It was clear to Shakespeare (“For nothing so vile that on the earth doth live / But to the earth some special good doth give”) and it’s clear to a lot of us today. It’s an important truth yet one that’s glossed over in the narratives that drive our global, urban-agro-industrial culture. So the threads go on being tugged out, one after another.

Scholars of the Sixth Mass Extinction report that species are now blinking out at between 100 and 10,000 times the background rate of extinction. No time to mourn them all, of course. In fact, no time to mourn any of them. Our culture of extraction and consumption has to keep pressing forward, eliminating obstacles along the way.

Stop now and it all collapses.

Carry on and it all collapses.

But at least let’s account for what we’ve done and where we’re at. Even though it hurts. Our deep ancestors, if they came among us now, would surely look at us – their own distant progeny – with eyes of affection, and admiration, and sadness. They’d know full well the price that is paid for injuring Nature, and they’d understand the thylacine can’t be brought back. The thread can’t be pushed back into the fabric, no matter how hard we might wish that.

I believe they’d also consider it the responsibility of our kind, once Nature’s favourite child, to face up to what’s done, to take on that burden – not bury it – then live with it as best we can.

4 Replies to “When you tug a thread”

  1. Yes, this photograph and others that I have seen elsewhere seem to indicate that these were beautiful animals and their mindless hunting into extinction is one of our great crimes. Why into extinction? Perhaps they killed chickens or lambs but why into extinction?
    The mindset continues on amongst the majority of my colleagues in the ranching community, this intense knee-jerk fear of wild carnivores and the war upon them, even when they are not doing any significant damage. There is a case for protecting one’s flocks or herds from immediate threat but this limited case becomes a blanket policy of kill on sight, or even, as one rancher was telling me with pride, of hunting coyotes from airplanes. Coyote, tough creatures that they are, may be in no danger of extinction but it is the same war against nature mindset at work.
    Thank you for this passionate piece, you are so right that mourning is crucial because our biggest, deepest problem is that our over-developed symbolic capacity – our intellects – are out of balance with our stunted emotions. We may have finely delineated and celebrated emotional lives amongst humans, (and even there we fail each other too often) but our emotional life with the world we live in is atrophied, as you point out. Our ancestors felt more fully than we do the connection to the world and mourned. Indigenous people, here in Hawaii and elsewhere, are still mourning. It may be too late to bend the arc of history towards another way of living in the world but if we get up every morning and try, just a little, if we lay another emotional and intellectual foundation for the children, because this arc will take generations, if we become capable of mourning and therefore loving and valuing what was lost, if we can turn our intellects to serve the world instead of exploit it, it may not be too late. Too late for the thylacine, yes, but not for those other creatures that are still hanging on. Thank you for this.

    1. To take up that phrase you use, Michelle, the war against nature – that could be our epitaph for the past ten thousand years. The battles have profited groups of us along the way – shooting coyotes from the air, bulldozing the forest, drift-netting the ocean – but as a species we can only lose the war.

      I think that’s one of things I projected into that photo and why it caused me such dismay. “What on earth are you doing this for?” those thylacine expressions seem to say. “Can’t you see where it leads?”

      You put your finger on it, we need emotional rehab – to say the least! – to help us towards a healthier and more honest relationship with nature. Indigenous worldviews have a lot to offer in this respect. Many good people are working on this in many ways. We can try a little every day. But it’s not easy. I would even say it hurts.

  2. Hard to fathom at times, the why of human behavior. We have so many gifts yet we see so oblivious of the consequences of our actions. Misogyny, aggression, the acting out of frustration upon another. Far too often we are mindless of our destruction; of forests, lakes, streams, fields, populations of animals driven into extinction. It is hard to fathom. It is easy to hate humanity. It never does much good, hating the destroyers. Even more difficult, praying for them.
    On Saturday I was working in the loader rolling last years leaf pile. I saw a mother mouse scampering up the pile with a baby still coming out of her. I stared in shock, feeling terrible but knowing there was nothing I could do to help her. She made it over the top and I lost sight of her. Later I saw a coyote standing on top of the pile looking at me. I suppose it came there to hunt for mice. I found myself feeling two contradictory things; hoping the mother mouse found safety to have the rest of her liter, and hoping the coyote would find food for her liter someplace nearby. Life tugs on our heartstrings all the time!
    Jody
    PS. Michelle, I thought of you this morning seeing snow falling on the daffodils you took a picture of as you were leaving Indiana. Weird weather this spring! Last week in the 70’s this week snow!

  3. Thanks Chris for bringing us to thinking about what we have collectively done and what we are still doing. Like you indicate the current rates of extirpation and extinction (albeit calculated by unknown methods) are outrageously far above a “normal” background rate through time. Seems to me that it is essentially impossible not to be a part of the problem no matter how hard you try. It is way beyond the idea of not stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk or on the ants. Even if it is not you personally, or me personally, it is all of us. The growth our species is omnivorous to all others, whether we physically eat them or not, we push them off the planet into history as we spread. So… your post brings us to the thought, the realization, to a recognition, to a meditation on cause and effect, and unintended consequences, and yes to a mourning and sorrow if you are able to leave room for those feelings in our collective stampede toward the future.

    have a few old photos to add but cannot figure how to get them into this reply so will try to get them into a new post….

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