Endangered Species 101 — in poetry

  • The Dire Elegies


Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson, father of sociobiology and a relentless biodiversity advocate, once estimated that human gluttony helps exterminate species at the rate of one every 20 minutes. The Dire Elegies laments the plight of North America’s endangered wildlife in poetic detail — but this is more than a disgruntled ode to dying species and their trampled habitat. Inside these artfully hand-stitched pages, 59 poets bind together verbal pictures of encounters with everything from grizzlies to gnatcatchers, framing the moral dilemmas perched at the intersection of species survival and subdivisions.

"Is death by bear to be preferred to death by bomb?" asks Maxine Kumin at the close of "You Are in Bear Country." Forced to choose between practical advice about meeting Ursus arctos horribilis and the "absurd leaps" one’s mind might make in these "extenuating circumstances," Kumin chooses the bear.

Simple, concise and poignant notes accompany the verses, melding emotional nostalgia for Texas blind salamanders or California condors with hard scientific, historical and political realities. It’s Endangered Species 101 in poetic form, ranging from habitat threats and scientific breakthroughs to lawsuits and recovery plans.

The Dire Elegies poets include Pulitzer Prize winners as well as college students. The collection begins with the sexiest controversial carnivores and works its way down to bog turtles, beetles and some truly likeable lichen. It’s an irresistible — and enchanting — message of hope for species preservation, and a gift to readers who might usually shy away from poetry.

Proceeds from The Dire Elegies go to the Natural Resources Defense Council Biogems project.

The Dire Elegies
Edited by Karla Linn Merrifield with Roger M. Weir
128 pages, softcover: $19.95.
FootHills Publishing, 2006.