The Topography of Extinction
The silhouettes of two Amazon parrots can be seen chattering in an eerie and unrecognizable language in artist Rachel Berwick’s may-por-e’. The shadows of these rare birds remind the viewer of an ever increasing disconnect from the fast-disappearing natural world, while their cryptic chatter, when identified as the dead language Maypure, forcefully reminds us that we are just as threatened by extinction as our feathered friends.
Extinction is an uncomfortable subject to tackle. The guilt, pity, and sadness manifested by the irreversible disappearance of a living thing is enough to prevent most people from pondering it on a daily basis. Yet, it is exactly this uncomfortable and intentional avoidance that helps to form what I will call the topography of extinction.
Extinction is unavoidable. Eons of extinctions, catastrophic and minor, have helped to shape and mold the current crop of species on earth today. The fossil records indicate 99.9% of all species to ever have lived have gone extinct, and while this sounds significant enough to excuse us for the current pace of extinction it must be understood within the scale of geologic time. And given that humans are barely capable of considering life 5 years into the future (and sometimes into the past), how can we expect humanity to conceive of the impact we are unintentionally having on biodiversity in 10, 100, or 1,000 years?
Berwick’s parrots in may-por-e’ are powerful symbols of our relationship with extinction, both cultural and biological, as they become like ghosts speaking to us in an unknowable and spectral language that is as unsettling and haunting as it is beautiful. Her inspiration came from the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt account of his travels to South America where he acquired a parrot from a Carib Indian tribe which had completely destroyed the neighboring Maypure’ tribe. Von Humboldt’s parrot had been kept as a pet by the Maypure’ tribe and had unknowingly become the sole inheritor of their now dead language.
The irony that a bird should become the inheritor of an entire culture is what makes Berwick’s work so successful. This metaphorical reversal reminds us of what it means to be on the receiving end of extermination, while outlining our own responsibility as stewards of the natural world. We, like the parrot, are responsible for the preservation of something increasingly rare: biodiversity.
Berwick further explores this topic of responsibility, encompassing both extermination as well as preservation, in A Vanishing:Martha. Martha is the name of the last documented passenger pigeon, once the most populous bird in North America with flocks containing as many as 2 billion birds, who died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
In Berwick’s installation, two rows of brass rods with attached amber casts of passenger pigeons begin with numerous piegons on either edge and diminish as they move towards the intersection where only one bird remains, namely Martha. This intersection of two gradually diminishing populations represents how even small populations of animals are effectively extinct due to their limited genetic viability. While Martha may have survived until 1914 her species had become extinct many years earlier.
Early French-American explorers wrote of the Passenger pigeon as being “countless in number” and of “infinite multitudes,” and it is because of this that they are well-remembered and tragic symbols of contemporary extinction. Accounts of passenger pigeon hunting invoke a bird that was too innocent and too incredulous to understand the true threat of hunting because they felt safe in their large numbers. They were fed alcohol-soaked grain and caught easily with nets or asphyxiated by fires lit beneath their trees, too stubborn to leave their roosts. Where once a nesting colony covered nearly 850 square miles, today none remain.
If ever there were a mirror to our own stubborn innocence in regards to the ongoing destruction of biodiversity, it is the passenger pigeon and the men who hunted them to extinction. It is not too late to ensure that we will never have to endure the sadness embodied by the last surviving member of a species. Let us hope we can say goodbye to Martha once and for all.