Extinction is loneliness
A first-person account
It’s practically impossible to write about extinction without eliciting avoidance and quick-next-clicks from readers. I hope to offer something different with this piece. Please give it a go.
You’re walking in the forest. With every step you are being bathed in wafting clouds of terpenes, aromatic volatiles, pheromones, tree sperm, mushroom spores, witch hazel and lily pollen. All of this invisible to the eye, but viscerally detectable in the nostrils, in the brain, where nature’s compounds bind to receptors waiting with open tendrils for their fix. Here, life is humming, life is binding, making more and more and more of itself, beckoning with sweet scents to make love in a symbiotic orgy of earthy chemicals and lustful plant life.
All this, and you, an innocent receiver within this decadent soup. You should consider yourself lucky.
50 million years have gone by. Recent history. I detect your familiar scent on the breeze — hot, baking doughy bread. It is irresistible. I drop everything and make my way over to you, burying myself in your dusty folds, scooping out your cool nectar chambers into my mouth. You’ll feed and immunize my young, and their young, and all those who come after me, and all with this with one highly-tuned murmur that you’ve learned for no one else but me.
Our human bodies and the delicate skin of the earth are covered inside and out with a staggering bedlam of microfauna, bacteria, microbes and fungi that provide an interdependent and complex web of needs and wants to each other and to ourselves. Every millisecond, plants the world over are releasing tonnes of fructose, amino acids, enzymes, lipids, antibacterials, a whole cocktail of chemicals into the underground rhizosphere (the mycelium strands that link up entire ecosystems like the internet). These plant-bacterial populations have been exchanging and interacting in this way from anywhere between 140 to 700 million years.
Imagine that for a second. It would be as if you had a next-door neighbour who you had exchanged pastries, cheese, honey and gossip with for 700 million years. Despite their tired bad jokes, that bond, that friendship, that reliance, and the specificity of your interaction, is more ancient than continents.
Birds collect medicinal plants and weave them into their nests so that their volatile oils prevent infestations and boost the immune systems of their young. Sawflies gather terpenes from pine trees and recombine them in their bodies, to spray at any attacking predator. The lumbering post-hibernation bear digs up the osha root with her claws, munches on it then uses it disinfect her stomach from intestinal worms and clean her fur. Pregnant elephants consume tree bark to stimulate birth contractions. Squid fill themselves with biolumiscent bacteria to blend in with the stars and moon at night, camouflaging them from predators. You can’t make this stuff up
What happens when millions of years of co-dependent and tightly woven feedbacks and relationships just vanish? What happens when you go to that 400-million-year-old neighbour’s door, and it flaps open on the wind, empty inside, silence thundering in an dead home?
Extinction is loneliness. I can see it no other way. How else would the beetle, the acacia ant, the bacteria, the salmon, experience the absence of part of themselves? To have your song be greeted, forever, by nobody. To have no one left to come visit you. To have no one who will carry your delicate powdery seeds from one place to the next. This is heartbreak. This is an outstretched hand waiting millennia for anybody to greet its soft warm flesh.
When we understand the stories and deep relationships that lie behind abstract terms like ‘biodiversity’ and ‘ecosystems’, we begin to perceive what is being lost. We have all known the feeling of shattering loneliness. We all know what it’s like not to be met, not to be seen, not to feel like there is anybody out there. Now imagine that, into infinity. Imagine having to reshape your entire body just to take on the form of some new world, but that new world keeps shifting so quickly, it keeps changing at such breakneck speed that you simply can’t keep up. And so you fade away, as well. You disappear. And so will all those who relied on you.
This is what extinction is. This is “species die-off”. That is what we are enabling by encroaching deeper and deeper, building roads and apartment buildings, feeding the incessant lust for controlled inputs, tightening the noose around the neck of life. Absence, invisibility, a silent death of a million cuts.
Imagine now a planet of hollow shapes. Shapes that once held unimaginable forms of life, shapes designed to entice, feed, procreate, generate, shapes that hold the negative empty space of what no longer is. An orchid’s womb carved into the shape of the female honeybee who used to come visit. The only memory of a bee now just a painting by a dying flower.
There will be collective amnesia and there is already a shifting baseline syndrome. New generations will be blinded to what has been lost for the innocent reason that they never knew it. A tree farm looks like a healthy forest for those who have never stepped foot in old growth. A silent sunrise is just another sunrise for those who never knew the symphony of birdsong.
Perhaps this is better. Perhaps the less we know of what has been lost, the less we will suffer grief. And yet… And yet… I cannot help but intuit that our bodies remember and our bodies know. Our bodies know what it feels like to be inside of a climax, vividly generative, overflowingly generous ecosystem. Our bodies know what it’s like to be bathed in life’s exclamations and cabaret of pheromones. We know.
Let’s remember what extinction is. What it feels like to those who are dying. Let’s bring it closer to home, envelop its sadness in our arms, and promise, with all our hearts, not on my watch. Not on my watch.
(Tales of plant life in this piece are deeply inspired by the books of Stephen Harrod Buhner and Otherlands by Thomas Halliday. Cartoon credit is for https://xkcd.com/1259/)