I sometimes ask people if they can name an extinct species and am never surprised when they cannot list much more than the dodo or the dinosaurs.
Yet, hundreds of species have become extinct since the year 1500. So why do so few people know about them? It may be that we lack rich stories of individual vanished species, with which to connect and relate.
Daniel Hudon’s new book Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals is an attempt to fill this gap for a hundred of the lost species. The pages are filled with tributes to many birds, as well as frogs and snakes and antelopes, monkeys, mice and marsupials.
“I felt these species deserved to be better known,” Hudon told me. “I felt they could be celebrated more. They evolved on the tree of life just like we did and it’s our fault they’re gone so I wanted to acknowledge them somehow.”
Hudon brings into stark focus the final moments of species such as the Laysan honeycreeper — whose last three individuals were obliterated by a sandstorm in 1923. This extinction happened just days after an expedition managed to find and film one of the birds singing. The film, like the bird now, is sadly silent.
Hudon hints at how other species met their end. He tells how the last people to see the Wake Island rail were Japanese soldiers who, during World War II, found themselves on the atoll in the middle of the Pacific. The soldiers were stranded, and starving…
Many of the lost species evolved on islands where no humans had trod – where paradise was not yet lost. Hudon tells how, as people came to settle, to fell trees and collect feathers and hunt for meat, the tide soon turned on these island innocents.
Alone, our species might have left more alive, but we brought rabbits and cats and rats that ravaged the native flora and fauna. Nature got redder in tooth and claw.
Hudon is not alone. In 2016, the New York Times published this eulogy when the last known Rabb’s tree frog died. Outside Magazine published an obituary for the Great Barrier Reef. And John Platt has spent more than a decade documenting dead and dying species.
His Extinction Blog evolved into Scientific American’s Extinction Countdown and has now dispersed to a new home at The Revelator. “I have lost track of how many extinctions I have written about over the years,” Platt wrote in 2014. “There will be more to come.”
Indeed there will.
Some of Hudon’s eulogies are just half a page or, in the case of the Tahitian sandpiper, only four poetic sentences. Others are longer. In them, Hudon stirs black-and-white facts into the rainbow of his imagination. He quotes poets and writers. So we learn what Borges and Blake thought of beasts that are now forever beyond our gaze.
Hudon wrote his eulogies to celebrate lost species in the hope they won’t be forgotten. They are reminders that as one species goes extinct another takes its place, next-in-line on the grim conveyor belt that is accelerating as it rumbles into our future.
In telling these stories Hudon may help to slow that machine.
*Read an extract of Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals by Daniel Hudon in the August 2017 edition of the journal Alterity.
Film credit: The Swan Song of the Laysan Honeyeater (Donald Ryder Dickey, 1923) / Wikimedia Commons