Friday, April 30, 2021

Gone - Michael Blencowe

A book about the search for what remains of the world's extinct creatures is the kind of thing I want to read and be better informed about, but sometimes find it hard to muster the enthusiasm for. It's possibly a testament to how much this kind of writing has changed over the last decade that once I open these books they turn out to be much more engaging than I could have imagined.

Blencowe focuses on 11 creatures, but mentions more. He became interested in extinct species as a boy and some of that youthful enthusiasm remains - which is important, because part of that enthusiasm is hope, and we need hope if we're going to do anything about the mess we're in. There's also the tangible excitement Blencowe feels when he gets to hold something like a Moa bone, or observe a the skeleton of a Steller's Sea Cow. 

A certain amount of humour is another part of this books charm, it's mostly the self depreciating kind and aimed squarely at the author, sometimes at descriptions of other human endeavors, and the balance is just right. Extinction is not a funny subject, but the occasional moment of lightness makes reading about it a much more accessible occupation. It helps when Blencowe is pointing out how basically shitty humans can be as well - as when the last Great Auks are being deliberately hunted into extinction because their corpses represent cash from collectors. 

There's a lot I hadn't really considered here before - such as how late in the day it was before we came to accept extinction as a possibility, or how in the west christian beliefs would have coloured ideas about the need for conservation. Although the chapters on New Zealand make it clear that environmental destruction isn't an exclusively white christian issue. 

Mranwhile there are stories here that will be more or less familiar, like that of the Dodo, the Great Auk, or the Pinta Island tortoise. In the case of the Pinta Island Tortoise we've watched it's final demise in slow motion whilst people have done what they could to change the outcome, but when it comes to Great Auks, still with us possibly into the 1850's it's hard not to feel angry about their fate. There was nothing accidental about it, these birds were once wide spread, and it's hard not to feel cheated out of something by their loss.

There is a butterfly in this book, the Xerces Blue that was native to a particular stretch of dunes in what is now San Francesco - gone with their habitat, which makes you wonder what else was casually lost under building lots, and in how many ways the food chain has been disrupted. The Rocky Mountain Locust is a classic example of this - their swarms were measured in trillions of bodies and measured in the size of countries. By 1902 they'd gone and it's not quite clear why. Possibly changes in farming disrupted their lifecycle. They are mentioned almost in passing, but there disappearance raises uncomfortable questions.

In other places highly localised species are wiped out by hungry sailors (understandable at least), or by the invasive pests they bring with them either by accident in the case of rats, or deliberately. This might be in the form of pigs or goats, released so that they in turn will be a source of food on islands that are seen as little more than refueling stages on long ocean voyages - but end up out competing the native fauna for food. It's the waves of predators introduced as pets (cats) or to control other invasive species (rabbits, followed by stoats and their ilk) which again end up decimating both the food native species ate, and then predating on them. 

And yet there are occasional moments of hope. A better understanding of what we're losing, efforts to protect , and the very occasional and almost miraculous re appearance of species that were thought to be lost forever. It's too late for Huia, the Dodo, the Great Auk - but it might not be too late for everything currently on the red list. The concentration on specific species here is also a reminder that doing our best to preserve one charismatic species can have the positive side effect of helping everything else that thrives in the same habitat.

'Gone' is as charismatic as some of the species that it describes, and whilst I'm not convinced that accessible is precisely the word I want to describe it - Lev Parikian called it charming on Twitter this morning which is probably closer to the mark - I do like the way that it's a particularly easy book to read. One that feels like a good starting point for almost anyone (I'm considering passing this copy onto my godson, still at Primary school, to share with his mum) to begin a conversation from. Clear without being simplistic or dumbed down, this is a book that really needs to be read widely. 

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