Megan Mayhew Bergman’s column is about naturalism. This week, she discusses the role of modern elegiac writing in an era of extinction.
It is truly strange to no longer inhabit the earth,
to no longer practice customs barely acquired,
not to give a meaning of human futurity
to roses, and other expressly promising things
—Rilke, “The First Elegy”
Last week, my daughters and I were talking about the extinction of the northern white rhino, looking at a photograph I took last November through a fence at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
“He’s the last of his kind,” I said, pointing to the hulking animal in sagging, dusty-white skin. “And one day soon, no northern white rhinos will exist.”
“Why?” they wanted to know.
Detailing the horrors of poaching and civil war in the Congo and Sudan seems harsh, and I’m still learning how to talk to my girls about the human hand in death and change. When a neighbor died, the answer was still safely that “death is the natural course of things,” but the answers become more complex when we talk about war, extinction, or place. How do we acknowledge human complicity, the way resource consumption impacts the habitat and survival of other species?
My husband is a veterinarian, and animals are essential to our children’s upbringing. We own five dogs, three cats, chickens, and an old Nubian goat. I think often of Lydia Millet’s 2012 op-ed in the New York Times, where she wrote of the important role of animals in children’s play and imagination, their prevalence in books and toy stores.
But what if toys were eventually all humanity has for children to know of lions and giraffes? In her elegy, Millett writes, “Those of us who are watching as the large mammals of the savanna, the colorful fish of the bleaching reefs, the seals and walruses of the melting poles are sacrificed to what could be the planet’s sixth mass species extinction: will we be the last, maybe the only, generation to grieve at their departure?” It seems we are at least the last generation to record it.
Elegiac writing is a way to catalog loss, perhaps contextualize it, and to occasionally make sense of the aftermath. Lately, I’ve seen elegiac writing everywhere, most recently in Mary Oliver’s collection of essays, Upstream, in which she eulogizes the old Provincetown she called home:
And then the terrible change began. The great rafts of fish began to diminish. The satisfaction of a day’s work also began to vanish. Overfishing, climate change, and little boats that were growing older every year were the causes … A town cannot live on dreams.
This year, there have also been J. D. Vance’s best-selling Hillbilly Elegy, postelection elegies for the country and democracy, The Atlantic’s elegy for giraffes, and Outside’s viral obituary for the Great Barrier Reef. It’s author, Rowan Jacobsen, began: “The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old.”
Some decried Jacobsen’s obituary as premature—the Great Barrier Reef is not fully dead—but it was an inventive and powerful use of form, wading into the inevitable death of a living structure. Jacobsen wrote explicitly about the hypothetical loss:
For most of its life, the reef was the world’s largest living structure, and the only one visible from space. It was 1,400 miles long, with 2,900 individual reefs and 1,050 islands. In total area, it was larger than the United Kingdom, and it contained more biodiversity than all of Europe combined. It harbored 1,625 species of fish, 3,000 species of mollusk, 450 species of coral, 220 species of birds, and 30 species of whales and dolphins. Among its many other achievements, the reef was home to one of the world’s largest populations of dugong and the largest breeding ground of green turtles.
Cue the empty virtual howl of mass mourning. I admire these authors’ willingness to spare false hope for the comfort of others, willing to spell out certain, looming catastrophe. “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” Joan Didion wrote. A writer can lead the public into that grief, and perhaps an awakening.
These days, I find myself writing in elegiac fashion of my daughters’ girlhoods. This was triggered one day in late summer when the three of us were swimming nude in the clear water of the backyard pool. As they swam to me, eyes glistening, hair slicked back, with their innocent bodies, I knew it was the last summer we would swim this way.
There is a burden of knowledge that falls upon a child—an onset of modesty, an awareness that there is pain and suffering in the world. They start to witness the power of body and mind. They begin bearing the weight of all they have learned and all that is expected of them. They develop the tools to imagine their futures.
That day at the pool the girls emerged from the water and ate bright orange popsicles, juice dripping down their wrists. As a mother, you learn the look of an unburdened face, and as I watched them move through the summer afternoon, I wished they could stay on one side of the line, know a life in a fresh world, live on a healthy planet.
In poetry, traditional elegies move through three stages: lament, praise, and solace. The modern elegiac form may struggle increasingly with the latter. What solace can be found in a dying planet?
Come January, we’ll have a climate skeptic leading our nation, a man I presume has never spent a great deal of time in nature outside a golf course. He has an enormous educational opportunity ahead, steering our nation through important years of rising seas, disturbed weather patterns, significant extinctions, and the global civil unrest these challenges provoke. It takes humility and foresight to lead a nation through such physical and psychologically trying times. It is my greatest wish that our president-elect will miraculously become a fellow mourner and act accordingly. Given his appointment of at least five climate-change skeptics to his cabinet, this seems unlikely.
We live in a time of rapid change. Mom-and-pop stores go under. Rhinos and giraffes vanish. Tribes and tribal languages disappear, like the last uncontacted tribes of Brazil, who are under pressure from disease and land loss. Coastlines change shape and homes, like those in my native eastern North Carolina, are swallowed by the sea. Children age into awareness. Forests fall. Flocks thin. Given the rate of extinction, estimated at a thousand to ten thousand times the natural order, the number of potential elegies in future years will be endless.
Perhaps one reason I elegize my daughters’ girlhoods is that I’ve liked who I can be in their presence, someone vital and necessary who can afford hope for the future. Joan Didion wrote that “when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.” It is sometimes not the actual person or place at the heart of a literary elegy, but our relationship to the lost thing, our essence in the wake of its absence. Didion is right. The heart of a literary elegy is ourselves. Who we were once and are no longer. What we can no longer have.