Through Art and Buried Memory
From American Poetry Review:
Lately, the word extinction floats around in my interior conversations, spurred most obviously by environmental destruction, endless and senseless wars, and of course my own awareness of personal mortality. In the trips I’ve made over the last five years to see the Ice Age painted caves in France and Spain, art that’s between 10,000 and 40,000 years old, I saw the astounding cave Rouffignac, known as Cave of a Hundred Mammoths, where artists painted and engraved those great creatures, a trail of mammoths throughout the enormous tunnels. Whatever we have left of these beings seems precious. The startling depictions of the extinct mammals remind me that our ancestors coexisted with them and it was thrilling to be so near the art made by those who had studied and hunted the mammoths, making tools and sculptures from the giant tusks. In the same cave there are huge holes dug by extinct cave bears along the miles-long pitch black tunnels; after hibernating the bears sharpened their claws by standing and scraping them down the cave walls, sometimes leaving their marks over the images of the mammoths. I’ve seen too a habitation and burial site of our cousins, the Neanderthals, with whom we coexisted some 40,000 years ago in Europe, with whom we share DNA, and they too are of course extinct. In the future, is that how we will come to know many of the creatures of our world, through art and buried memory? That is if we ourselves are here to remember them?
That word, extinct, is a shape-shifter in my thoughts—it is biological, environmental, philosophical, and deeply personal. It can be a kind of depression or general despair, a horrifying concern for other species, for my species, but it also brings other things to mind: genocide, the death of languages and whole cultures. I am haunted by our cultural and religious belief in our superiority over those with whom we share the planet:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. (Genesis 2:26)
Extinction is part of the language of war in which villages, or cities, or cultures, or eco-systems are wiped out,and rape, pillage, collateral damage, are normal words. Here’s some insight from the biologist Edward O. Wilson, from his essay “Is Humanity Suicidal?”
Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth. It was a misfortune for the living world in particular, many scientists believe, that a carnivorous primate and not some more benign form of animal made the breakthrough. Our species retains the hereditary traits that add greatly to our destructive impact. We are tribal and aggressively territorial, intent on private space beyond minimal requirements, and oriented by selfish sexual and reproductive drives. Cooperation beyond the family and tribal levels comes hard. (Wilson, 184)
What about the extinction of parts of consciousness? What about the exile of the feminine from religious, social and political life, from art and history? An extinction so widespread we hardly understand its consequences—thousands of years of loss, the degradation and isolation of women, the erasure of their knowledge, and the loss of their potential to contribute, beyond the domestic, to the world they live in.
How do we write when these questions threaten to swallow us?