By Jim Miller
There is something deeply and tragically resonant about extinction in paradise. After returning from a hike on Haleakala where I was lucky enough to have spotted a number of rare birds, I sat on the lanai of my room on the edge of the Maui rainforest and read this from Errol Fuller’s haunting book, Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record:
There are two groups of birds on the Hawaiian Islands that are notorious for the number of extinct species they contain. Although these birds are not particularly closely related, they have names that are similar and this sometimes causes confusion. The birds of one group are known as honeycreepers, and the others as honeyeaters. Both names derive from the fact that many species feed on nectar, although most also eat other things like blossoms, insects or mollusks.
Well adapted to a multitude of differing niches, these birds thrived as long as their environment remained unchanged, but, Fuller explains, “the reason for their success would spell their ultimate doom . . . [a]s humans altered the situation.” One of these lost honeycreepers is the `O`u, “A small plum bird” with “a bright yellow head” and a “parrot-beak” whose last stand on Mauna Loa and Kauai was overcome by volcanic eruption and hurricane respectively.
Another casualty was the Po`ouli, a “sturdy little bird with a short tail [that] was found deep in the rainforest at high elevations on the side of the volcano Haleakala, on the island of Maui. At the time of discovery there seemed to be around 200 birds, but in the years that followed, this population slumped. By the mid-1990s no more than six or seven individuals were left.”
What strikes one most upon reading Fuller is how many of the extinct birds and animals he details were discovered just before the demise of their species:
Several of the extinctions happened at the end of the 19th century or the start of the 20th, and there is no photographic record of most of the species concerned. In fact, some birds disappeared within just a few years of their discovery and were only ever seen by a handful of ornithologists on a handful of occasions. That there were probably rather more species at this time, and that these never came to attention, seems highly likely.
Thus those of us lucky enough to be alive and able to roam in the world’s last remaining wild spaces are chasing deeply endangered beauty. This is a bittersweet gift as we know that even if we are successful in halting the sixth extinction, so much more of this stunning world will inevitably be lost forever.
To ponder this possibility is to know that just as every day each of us are closer to our deaths, perhaps someday, not too far away, all of us will be extinct, lost in deep time like so many species before us.
But the paradox of holding this knowledge close to us is that it underlines the notion that where there is dread, there is still wonder—the sea of elegant green leaves and hanging branches that surround me, the fresh white plumeria blooming in abundance, the chorus of birdsong floating on the gentle breeze.
Looking off into the distance, the dance of the afternoon sun on the deep blue sea as seen through palm fronds and the lush green foliage of banana and guava trees beside the hala screwpines of the lanai is not some vision pregnant with possibility; it is the glittering jewel of this moment of unspeakable beauty—right now, here in the dense, humid present that sticks to your skin.
ABOUT THE CHRONICLES…
Summer is here and it’s time to take a break from my usual column and stretch the form a little with some chronicles. As I explained last year, the chronicle is a literary genre born in Brazil:
In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven-year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil [The Brazilian News] not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,” a genre peculiar to Brazil. As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”
What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.” As a novelist, Pontiero tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.” It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt.
More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less–I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with two novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe. Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector. So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.”
Nonetheless the urge to narrate persists . . .