Poems for Earth Day + A Meditation on Extinction by Duane Taylor

Passenger Pigeons by James John Audubon (1785-1851)

Passenger Pigeons by James John Audubon (1785-1851)


Duane Taylor, a Health Sciences student in Toronto, is our Zócalo Poets Guest Editor for Earth Day 2014.  He sent us the following “contemplation” (with poems):

.     .     .
In the poem, ‘In Memoriam, AHH’, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) memorializes his dear friend, Arthur Hallam. Tennyson questions what the loss of a single life or a whole species means to God and Nature. Like many of his contemporaries, Tennyson spoke of a conflict between his faith and the then-novel idea of Evolution – though it had not yet been named as that.
Tennyson’s conflict was somewhat different than the one we’d likely find today—there was no question of God’s place in the universe. The being whose place was being called into question was Man’s.


Alfred Tennyson
In Memoriam A. H. H. (1849)
[ excerpt ]
The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fail beyond the grave,
Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law?
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed?

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.
O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

.     .     .

In Christian theology, mankind is the pinnacle of Creation, the one who has been given dominion over all living things and the Earth, the one to whom, after God, all must bow.
But the theory of Evolution tells us, as it told Tennyson, that mankind is just one of countless species, or ‘types’, that has existed and will die and be replaced. Man’s time at the pinnacle is fleeting; after he is gone the earth will endure and more types will follow.
We see this truth set literally in stone; fossils speak of animals that no longer live. Moreover, they tell us of species so entirely absent that all of the species related to them, all of the species they saw, lived with and ate, are gone too. Entire worlds replaced at the rate of a few types at a time.
So little does Nature care for the type that it is estimated that 99.9% of all of the species that have ever existed are extinct.
One of these species was the Passenger Pigeon.

Prior to the 20th century, the Passenger Pigeon was a familiar sight, much like the Rock Dove (the ‘pigeons’ which are found in cities worldwide) is today. On their own, they were somewhat unremarkable birds. However, with a single exception, Passenger Pigeons were never on their own.
They existed in numbers that are impossible to conceive for us now. Billions of birds blackened the skies as they migrated across the North American continent.
They were so numerous that giant trees, overloaded with roosting birds, splintered and broke under the weight. A flock once took three days to pass overhead. In one grouping, the naturalist Alexander Wilson estimated there were 2,230,272,000 individuals – approximately eight times the total population of Rock Pigeons in the world.
And yet, as with all living things, they went.

Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan_Where is that Vanished Bird? (The Passenger Pigeon)_photomontage, 2007

Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan_Where is that Vanished Bird? (The Passenger Pigeon)_photomontage, 2007

.     .     .

Jenny McBride (Chicago, USA)
Nature is Dying

“Nature is dying,” said the doctor.
I already knew
About the huge flocks of birds
There used to be,
He said prothonotaries filling a tree
In the city where he grew up.
One of his friends
Told of Dakota blackbird flocks
Miles long, took hours to pass
“A long time ago.” said the doctor
But he’s less than 80.
But I hadn’t even heard about monarchs
Thick, even coming smack through the city
Sheets of orange butterflies.
“Nature is dying,” said the doctor.
“We’re trying to save her but…
“I’m not sure how good a job we’re doing.”
Even I’ve seen eternal lights go out
And I’m not half his age.
Those who are half my age, teens now
May mark the last phase of the change.
“Nature is dying,” said the doctor.
Nothing I didn’t know
Except that monarchs used to migrate
Right through Chicago
As if it weren’t even there.
We’re trying to save her
But it’s a struggle of attrition.

.     .     .

In much the same way it would be inconceivable to us that the ubiquitous rock doves could ever disappear, it was inconceivable to the people of the time that their Passenger Pigeons could ever disappear.

But through hunting and habitat destruction, over the course of fifty years, the flocks of billions were winnowed down to a single life.

This single life, like Tennyson’s friend toward whom Nature was so careless, had a name: Martha. She was a 29-year old female, who spent her final years in the Cincinnati Zoo. She was an ‘endling’, the term given to the last known member of a species.  Martha died on September 1st, 1914. It’s sometimes said that the Passenger Pigeon is the only species whose exact time and place of extinction is known.
While the idea is poetic, it isn’t necessarily true.
For many species, prior to the final extinction, there is what’s known as a functional extinction. This is when a species has declined past any hope of recovery. This can happen when there are too few members of a species left, as it did with the Passenger Pigeon.  Martha may have been the last single life of her type in September of 1914 , but her type had met its true end some unknown years hence, when the last fifty, forty or ten birds were shot in some unknown forest, field or plain. No one but God or Nature will ever know.
Still, the simplicity of a species ending at a precise time and date, like the period at the end of a sentence rather than an ellipsis, is a beautiful idea.
We can’t know when our own functional extinction will come, but, as with “In Memoriam, A.H.H”, we find answers in verse.

Woolly Mammoth and Cro-Magnon Boy, a 21st-century "cave drawing"

Woolly Mammoth and Cro-Magnon Boy, a 21st-century “cave drawing”

.     .     .
Archibald Lampman (1861-1899) was one of the late 19th-century Canadian poets who would come to be known as The Confederation Poets.
He wrote “The City at the End of Things” as an elegy for a natural world that had been destroyed by urbanization. Mankind’s ‘endling’ makes an appearance, and the poem suggests that in destroying Nature we destroy ourselves.


Archibald Lampman
The City at the End of Things (1899)
Beside the pounding cataracts
Of midnight streams unknown to us
‘Tis builded in the leafless tracts
And valleys huge of Tartarus.
Lurid and lofty and vast it seems;
It hath no rounded name that rings,
But I have heard it called in dreams
The City of the End of Things.
Its roofs and iron towers have grown
None knoweth how high within the night,
But in its murky streets far down
A flaming terrible and bright
Shakes all the stalking shadows there,
Across the walls, across the floors,
And shifts upon the upper air
From out a thousand furnace doors;
And all the while an awful sound
Keeps roaring on continually,
And crashes in the ceaseless round
Of a gigantic harmony.
Through its grim depths re-echoing
And all its weary height of walls,
With measured roar and iron ring,
The inhuman music lifts and falls.
Where no thing rests and no man is,
And only fire and night hold sway;
The beat, the thunder and the hiss
Cease not, and change not, night nor day.
And moving at unheard commands,
The abysses and vast fires between,
Flit figures that with clanking hands
Obey a hideous routine;
They are not flesh, they are not bone,
They see not with the human eye,
And from their iron lips is blown
A dreadful and monotonous cry;
And whoso of our mortal race
Should find that city unaware,
Lean Death would smite him face to face,
And blanch him with its venomed air:
Or caught by the terrific spell,
Each thread of memory snapt and cut,
His soul would shrivel and its shell
Go rattling like an empty nut.

It was not always so, but once,
In days that no man thinks upon,
Fair voices echoed from its stones,
The light above it leaped and shone:
Once there were multitudes of men,
That built that city in their pride,
Until its might was made, and then
They withered age by age and died.
But now of that prodigious race,
Three only in an iron tower,
Set like carved idols face to face,
Remain the masters of its power;
And at the city gate a fourth,
Gigantic and with dreadful eyes,
Sits looking toward the lightless north,
Beyond the reach of memories;
Fast rooted to the lurid floor,
A bulk that never moves a jot,
In his pale body dwells no more,
Or mind or soul – an idiot!
But sometime in the end those three
Shall perish and their hands be still,
And with the master’s touch shall flee
Their incommunicable skill.
A stillness absolute as death
Along the slacking wheels shall lie,
And, flagging at a single breath,
The fires shall moulder out and die.
The roar shall vanish at its height,
And over that tremendous town
The silence of eternal night
Shall gather close and settle down.
All its grim grandeur, tower and hall,
Shall be abandoned utterly,
And into rust and dust shall fall
From century to century;
Nor ever living thing shall grow,
Nor trunk of tree, nor blade of grass;
No drop shall fall, no wind shall blow,
Nor sound of any foot shall pass:
Alone of its accursèd state,
One thing the hand of Time shall spare,
For the grim Idiot at the gate
Is deathless and eternal there.

August Rodin_Le Penseur or The Thinker (seen here in the rain)_a 1904 bronze-cast sculpture at the Musée Rodin,  Paris_photograph by Innoxiuss

August Rodin_Le Penseur or The Thinker (seen here in the rain)_a 1904 bronze-cast sculpture at the Musée Rodin, Paris_photograph by Innoxiuss

And once that last grinning ‘endling’ is gone and mankind, like the Passenger Pigeon, is a memory of Nature, what remains?

T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”, and its final stanza, present us with one of our possible futures.

T.S. Eliot
The Hollow Men (1925)

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.

A penny for the Old Guy

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

.     .     .     .     .