The First Mass Remembrance

| 1st April 2009
The First Mass Remembrance
The new work by artist Maya Lin, famous for her memorial to US soldiers lost in Vietnam, commemorates the species destroyed and endangered by human action. As the list of the dead grows, David Hawkins wonders if the future is set in stone

Recently a small homemade poster appeared on the streets of east London.

A grainy, pixellated image illustrated the words ‘Missing: Panamanian golden frog’. This species is listed as ‘critically endangered’ on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List, but may in fact have been extinct since 2007. A little piece of public art like this can yank us out of the daily grind and remind us what’s going on at the frontiers of the sixth mass extinction (6X) elsewhere in the world. Yet actually this process is happening all the time, and every one of us is implicated.

American artist Maya Lin is going for a more expansive gesture with her new work ‘What is Missing?’ to be launched on 22 April, Earth Day 2009. Lin is famous for her controversial Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, a long gouge in the earth of a flat green field, lined with black marble teeming with the names of the dead.

The new memorial is going to be very different. It is intended to record all species that have become extinct in recent times. Multimedia and multi-location, it will incorporate a website, a book and video installations. There is a key similarity between this work and a war memorial, however: that are born out of human action. War is man-made, as is 6X – the first anthropogenic mass extinction.

Extinction is a natural process, but we have exacerbated it, pushing it over a tipping point. The IUCN Red List for 2008 reviewed 44,838 species, of which it concluded that 16,928 (38 per cent) are currently in danger of extinction.

Some estimates suggest that on average we are losing a distinct species every 20 minutes. Biologist EO Wilson believes that more than half all species may be gone within a century.

Evolution, extinction
These creatures represent 3.5 billion years of evolution and survival, of long chains of intricate DNA unspooling. Reading a list of the recently departed, with their exotic, otherworldly names, is like examining a huge box of multicoloured fossils. And it swiftly becomes exhausting. Just as early natural historians of the Amazon were overwhelmed by the vastness of the biodiversity that confronted them, when we try to reckon what is now going or gone we are soon confused. Extinction is hard to deal with. A memorial is a way of ordering these thoughts, of making them solid.

If something becomes extinct it is often hard to say exactly when it happened. Many species are ‘missing in action’ – last seen at X, on the night of X – or live in very remote habitats. We don’t usually have proof, a public death like that of the po’ouli (a species of honeycreeper) from Hawaii. Ironically only ‘discovered’ in 1973, the last bird passed away in captivity on 28 November 2004.

Frequently, we only hear about a ‘new’ species when its permanent disappearance is already a foregone conclusion. The title of Lin’s work addresses the uncertainty, the unquantifiable mystery of extinction too.

Of course, some things are more susceptible than others. Certain species thrive under the new conditions caused by humanity. In his book The End of the Wild, Steven M Meyer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology divides all species into three categories: ghost, relic and weed.

The latter are urban foxes, brown rats and cockroaches. In no way are they all bad, but they multiply and live happily amid the offal of our consumer culture. Relic species are those only kept alive in zoos, national parks or pockets of designated ‘wilderness’. Finally, covering a signifi cant proportion of all life on Earth, ghost species are those doomed to extinction, gradually fading away while we look on. Such a terrifying vision highlights the PH need for habitat protection, something Lin’s memorial will also address, as it focuses ‘equal attention on threatened habitats and ecosystems’. A holistic approach to extinction is vital; What is Missing? will even remind us of lost birdsong and the dimming of stars through light-pollution.

As biodiversity decreases, so, by extension, does our sphere of consciousness: the world is smaller, simpler, less varied. Studies have shown that ecosystems are more likely to  recover from damage, and do so more rapidly, the greater the variety of species there is within them. What’s to say that this variety and abundance isn’t also tied up with human wellbeing? In the face of this, memory and imagination are more and more crucial. If we don’t exercise those mental muscles our minds will narrow with our surroundings. In this scenario, art isn’t just a coping mechanism – it’s necessary for our survival.

A growing memorial
What is Missing? is an ongoing project – as the list of extinctions can only grow, so too the memorial –but this also means there is still work to be done, awareness to be raised, diversity to be preserved.

This paradoxical memorial is a massive call-to-action in disguise, framed as a question it’s up to us to answer. Scientific data is the groundwork for the task, but only the arts can enliven our imaginations and jog our memories to the deep remembering we need.

By making her memorial into a positive, forward-thinking act, in trying to change people’s behaviour and urging them to examine their relationship to biodiversity more closely, Lin ushers in a new approach.

The extinction of any single species, whether charismatic megafauna or minute insect, is a biological tragedy. Lin’s work attempts to make something out of that new emptiness. Perhaps the greatest burden that we and coming generations have to bear is a sustained and worldwide effort of remembering. We will have to recollect everything we’ve lost. What sets us apart as a species is that consciousness, and the grave responsibility it embodies.

In many ways What is Missing? looks set to be more like a global network than a memorial. Homing in on biodiversity, sustainability and conservation, it will remind us what we still have left and what’s at stake – and that is something to hold on to.

What you can do
•FAMILIARISE YOURSELF WITH WHAT’S OUT THERE and what’s at stake using the online database Encyclopedia of Life. This all-encompassing resource is still a work in progress, but soon we’ll be crossing more off the list than we’re adding.
•SUPPORT ECOSYSTEMS AND BIODIVERSITY with Fauna and Flora International, php, and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.
•TAKE A CLOSER LOOK AT WHAT IS MISSING? and Maya Lin’s other work on her website.
•READ THE INSPIRING EO WILSON on biodiversity’s importance in The Diversity of Life or The Future of Life, and try the poetry of Les Murray or Peter Reading.

David Hawkins is a freelance writer and editor

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