Saying Goodbye

Mourning the loss of a species begins with remembering it

  • Mark Jerome Walters
  • Dec 01, 1998
One fall evening in 1996, Barry Stieglitz and his 5-year-old son Nikolai were walking along an abandoned road in Florida´s National Key Deer Refuge when they spotted a tiny fawn. The diminutive Key deer are about 3 feet tall as adults, and a fawn is scarcely larger than a hare. Only about 400 of the animals remain.

All are confined to an 8,000-acre refuge bisected by busy Highway 1. Motorists hit and kill more than 60 of the deer every year, and as manager of the refuge, Stieglitz spends much of his time tracking fatalities. The evening with Nikolai was a rare opportunity to breathe in the beauty of the place and admire the miniature, cloven-hoofed wonders under his charge.

"As we walked along the old road, we heard the clicking of hooves on exposed caprock," Stieglitz recalls. "We watched in amazement as a fawn paused just ahead of us in the red sunset. Nikolai was spellbound, and so was I. Then the fawn vanished."

In its place came a fear. "Will the time come when an epidemic, forest fire or terrible hurricane wipes out the Key deer? The kind of experience Nikolai and I shared, rare enough nowadays, could easily perish forever. That tiny fawn stood for all the small miracles my generation has taken for granted--and all my son´s stands to lose."

To witness the survivors of vanishing species--to swim with Florida´s endangered manatees in a crystal lagoon as they graze on lush sea grass, or to hear the unison calls of whooping cranes in a Texas dawn--is to plot a tenuous point on the map of human experience. It is also to struggle with emotions for which there are few precedents. As conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac in 1949, "For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun."

Each extinction is a unique voice silenced in a universal conversation of which we ourselves are only one participant. When the tiny wings of the last Xerces blue butterfly ceased to flutter, our world grew quieter by a whisper and duller by a hue. Our world grew dumber still when the last raspy call of the dusky seaside sparrow rose and fell within the straw-and-emerald marshes of Florida´s east coast. Should the Key deer disappear, Stieglitz knows that the percussive tap of their small hooves on rock will drop from the universal symphony.

What is the psychological and emotional toll of this growing silence? Have we even begun to grasp the price extinction will extract from future human emotion, spirit and creativity? Natural extinctions are a part of the weaving and fraying of life, but human activities have drastically accelerated the rate. Of our own choice, the community of life becomes less intelligent--in the broadest sense of the word. Of what import is the legendary torching of priceless maps and manuscripts at the fifth-century library at Alexandria, Egypt, compared to the tens of millions of years of accumulated intelligence wiped out with the loss of each species?

We have compiled the biological accounting of our spendthrift ways in lists of endangered and extinct species. What about our moral or spiritual accounting? Where is our mourning and remorse? Where is our reckoning--to ourselves and to our great-great-grandchildren--about the tens of thousands of species we have destroyed?

In our various responses to the demise of other species--scientific studies, activism, museum exhibits--rarely do we consider these deeper questions. Rarely, in turning our attention from a recently extinct species to our last-ditch effort to save another, do we pause to say goodbye. We may remember--but without true remembrance.

In lamenting the epidemic that struck the lovely wild dogwood trees that until recently laced the American countryside, hospital chaplain Phyllis Windle remarks in her essay "The Ecology of Grief," "Our external as well as our internal worlds may make environmental losses difficult to mourn. We have almost no social support for expressing this grief." She adds, "Even if I decided to grieve, how would I go about doing it?"

We do know that mourning begins with remembrance. On June 1, 1997, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology commemorated the 50th anniversary of a monument to the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon. Inspired by the monument, Aldo Leopold once wrote of need for memory: "Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know."

Imagine the residents of Brevard County, Florida, holding vigil on the marsh´s edge each June 15, the anniversary of the last dusky seaside sparrow´s passing in 1987. Or the citizens of San Francisco gathering each spring beneath the silvery- leaved eucalyptus at the Presidio to mourn the loss of the Xerces blue butterfly. Such remembrance of lost species could become a powerful force in our lives.

One spring day in 1987, Jerome Jackson, a professor of ornithology at Mississippi State University, stared into the shadows of oaks and gum trees along the Mississippi River in a remote, southern part of the state. Jackson´s soft voice rose above the song of spring warblers as he told a graduate student with whom he had often searched the southern woodlands, "This is the best habitat we´ve seen."

The ivory-billed woodpecker had not been seen in North America since the late 1940s, when the wooded home of the last known individuals along the Tensas River in Louisiana was cleared for soybean fields and stripped of its largest trees for timber. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the bird officially extinct in 1986, Jackson--a member of the advisory committee and an authority on woodpeckers--said the decision was premature.

A year later, there he stood in the hardwood grove. Jackson turned on a portable tape recorder, and through the amplified speaker rose the calls of an ivory-billed woodpecker recorded years before, when the whitish-billed, red-crested, crow-sized bird still lived deep in the wetlands and neighboring pine uplands. Jackson had tried this tactic before, and always the recording had fallen on deaf woods. Silence this time, too, at first. Then came the reply, ricocheting through the forest: the haunting sound of an ivorybill--a tinny toot, single and double notes intertwined, like a child´s toy horn.

"It was magic, a moment I´ll never forget and probably never repeat," Jackson recalls. "But it also had a note of sadness for me. Would we be the last on Earth to hear an ivorybill?" Further searching has turned up nothing, and Jackson has been left to make meaning of the moment mostly alone--both its joy and sadness. His colleagues are skeptical. Some ridicule his claim. Scientifically speaking, without a photograph or a recording of the event, it might as well never have happened. Even Jackson has begun to doubt what he heard.

Two years ago, my wife Noelle and I stood in the misty forests of the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa. There we witnessed, among the moss-laden boughs of ancient o´hia trees, 10 of the last 14 birds known as ´Alala still living in the wild. They hopped and glided from branch to branch, emitting intelligent squawks and picking off bark in search of insects. One pair, 10 feet above us in sunlit radiance, preened each other.

Thousands of ´Alala probably once lived in the vicinity of Mauna Loa. Now the birds are besieged by diseases, predators and habitat loss. No chick has survived in the wild since 1992. Dozens of papers and articles have been written about the ´Alala. While many refer to the decline as a biological event, scarcely any consider the looming extinction as a cultural, personal or emotional tragedy for anyone, or for Native Hawaiians in particular, who knew the ´Alala.

Once I interviewed a biologist who had built his career on the study of a group of snails, known as partula, on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia. In the 1970s a carnivorous snail was introduced to the island as a source of protein for poor farmers. Within two decades it had driven several species of partula to extinction. "What has the extinction of species you knew so well meant to you?" I asked, half-expecting a soliloquy on personal loss.

"Our traditional study of the evolution of partula ended with the extinction," he replied. "But it offers us an opportunity to investigate what will happen to the niche the snail once occupied."

At times, however, even a hardened scientist can be undone by the extinction of an animal he has studied. A few days after the last dusky seaside sparrow--once a resident of eastern Florida´s Merritt Island--died in 1987, Herb Kale described himself to a colleague as "stalwart, cool and calm." An ornithologist with the Florida Audubon Society, Kale was known for his scientific detachment. "After all, I´m a scientist, not one of those emotional conservationists," he said. He had studied the dusky for decades and had helped manage the aging, lone-surviving bird before its death in captivity.

Months after the death, Kale received an epitaph written to the dusky by a friend: "To think that a necklace would never miss one of its pearls. Or a song one of its notes. Neither this spring, nor ever again, will your exuberant performances appear on nature´s stage." After reading it, Kale broke into sobs. "I´ll never, never again see that bird or hear that song in the St. Johns marshes!" he cried, letter in hand.

Kale once told me, "Memories of my sparrow will ride the final beat of my heart." When that last beat came during a heart attack late one night in 1995, Kale was one more light of living memory of the dusky extinguished. The end of a species is followed by the extinction of human experience: Who will mourn when the last soul to have personally known the dusky fades away?

Fearing that the dusky would be forgotten, for several years I gathered hundreds of recollections from people who had known the bird, and I wove them into a book. Now that a number of those people have died, are these mere few hundred pages all that stand between the once vibrant dusky and its passage into oblivion?

Eighty-six-year-old Harry Lange recalls with bafflement and sorrow that spring day in 1941 when he pulled out his net at San Francisco´s Presidio, swept it through the air to capture a Xerces blue butterfly and dumped his catch in his killing jar. Many times he had gone to vacant lots on the military post to add to his collection. He knew the insects had become more scarce in the preceding years, but he, as did other collectors, believed them still alive in several other places near San Francisco. But the previous few had dwindled to one, and that was the one Harry caught.

Not long ago I accompanied Harry to the very spot at the Presidio where he collected the specimen. Standing in an abandoned parking lot near the old naval hospital, he turned around a few times to get his bearings, mapping out his steps as he remembered them. "It would have been over there!" he finally announced, pointing with his finger down a slope and into a patch of underbrush. "I could never have imagined it would be the last seen alive."

To this day the retired entomology professor from the University of California, Davis, exudes a boyish wonder energized by a scientific zeal when he speaks of the small blue butterfly he studied and loved. But when he speaks of its unexpected extinction, bewilderment overcomes him. "There were no real surveys of the Xerces at the time, and we had no idea it was close to extinction. I always thought there would be more. I was wrong."

A few miles south of the Presidio, within a 3,600-acre recreational reserve on San Bruno Mountain, three other Bay Area butterflies still cling to existence--the mission blue, the callippe silverspot and the San Bruno elfin. I once watched a brilliant mission blue alight on a lupine before riding a stiff breeze and flying over a grassy hillock and out of sight. In the distance, the sprawl of San Francisco, an industrial park and the new development of Altamar gnawed at the mountain´s base, eroding butterfly habitat yard by yard. Would this be my parting glimpse of the mission blue, my near-death experience with a vanishing species?

I drove down the mountain and to the condominiums at Altamar. To my astonishment, the main road through the development, bedecked with colorful pennants for the grand opening, was called Mission Blue. I stopped by the sales office for a brochure. Its cover was graced with an elegant line-drawing of a butterfly. Farther along, Mission Blue intersected with Silverspot Drive. After I turned around on Callippe Court, I pondered the bittersweet experience of future generations who will be reminded of the iridescent butterflies that once flashed in the sunlight on San Bruno Mountain by the names on street signs.

Seventy-year-old Alexander Sprunt IV, an ornithologist and former director of field research for the National Audubon Society, remembers vividly the day more than 30 years ago when he accompanied his ornithologist father, Alexander Sprunt, Jr., to the I´on swamp outside of Charleston, South Carolina, to search for the rare Bachman´s warbler. A century earlier, the bird had ranged across the Southeast, but unregulated hunting and habitat loss there and in Caribbean wintering grounds had decimated its numbers.

"I heard the warbler high in the trees, singing on and on and on," Sprunt recalls of the wiry, insectlike song. It was the last he ever heard the warbler--and among the handful of final experiences of the species by anyone still living today. Decades have passed since the last documented sighting, and in all likelihood, Bachman´s warbler is extinct. "Looking back, I grow sad for what the world has lost," Sprunt says. "Witnessing the last of anything is a privilege, but a sad one. Memories are all that´s left."

But memory can also be a beginning. In his 1996 essay "The Mission of Memory," columnist and novelist Michael Ventura wrote, "When something becomes memory, it becomes us, a part of us, and it begins to behave as we do. How can that not be so? For we remember what we related to."

Science alone cannot assess the diminished quality of a world without the ivorybill or the Xerces blue. Psychologists have not begun to ponder the emotional toll of the loss of fellow life. Nor have theologians reckoned the spiritual impoverishment that extinction brings. To forget what we had is to forget what we have lost. And to forget what we have lost means never knowing what we had to begin with. That would be among the greatest tragedies of all.

Mark Jerome Walters is program director for environment at the Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York City. He is a veterinarian and the author of A Shadow and a Song (Chelsea Green, 1992).

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