From art as elegy to art as action


How do we grieve? How do we grieve for all that disappears into the insatiable maw of human appetite? How do we grieve for the eventual loss of something as beautiful and terrifying as the polar bear?

The small, white-haired woman’s voice broke as she stood to ask her impossibly difficult question, the other audience members turning somber faces toward her – lines of attention spun inward like the spokes of a wheel, like mourners reaching hands to their most bereaved.

We panelists – poet Kim Stafford, author Luis Alberto Urrea and myself -- paused to exchange glances. We were supposed to be talking about the future of writing in the West, closing a week-long series of workshops and readings celebrating 25 years of Fishtrap, a nonprofit devoted to Western letters. It was an unwieldy topic, to be sure, but it suddenly seemed far more manageable than the one just laid in our laps.

How DO we grasp the obliteration of so much we have known and loved?

Biologists and natural historians used to collect specimens of life from all corners of the globe just to understand the variety it contained. These days, we catalog and collect to forestall complete loss and to understand our role in it — not just of distinct species, but of our collective memories of those species, of what the world has been. National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore has his Photo Ark. Trish Carney has her meditation on roadkill. Even architect Maya Lin, perhaps best known for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, has set in motion a memorial to the nature-that-was – perhaps the most ambitious of them all.

Lin's “What is missing?” is a multiplatform, interactive endeavor that seeks to raise awareness that we are in the midst of – and are ourselves the cause of – the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. It includes permanent and traveling installations and sculptures at various science institutions around the world – larger-than-life gramophone-inspired listening cones that play film clips and sounds of threatened and endangered species, an “empty room” where viewers enter a darkened space and see species only by catching flickering projections on a thin, hand-held screen, electronic billboards in Times Square and over 75 films. Its center, though, is a beautifully spare website that opens with a black screen and a constellation of bright dots that rearrange themselves into mammal, bird, and amphibian shapes before resolving into a map of the world’s losses – a global “Map of Memory” -- including the West’s once mindboggling abundance of salmon and bison, its California grizzly bear, its vast prairie-dog colonies, its undisturbed rivers and topsoil.

Viewers can add to this catalog – the meadowlarks they no longer see at the ends of their driveways, the horned toads that used to haunt their gardens. (In fact, I’d encourage you to add your own stories; the Interior West appears as a sort of black hole in the map’s accounting).

But here is where the traditional concept of elegy breaks down, for this is a preemptive memorial. More than monumentalize a lost past, it suggests that some of the coming loss can be prevented. There are long lists of ways to shrink your environmental footprint. And if you turn the clock forward on the map to the present, descriptions of current conservation efforts appear across the globe. The clock turned to the future will eventually present the project’s most ambitious undertaking -- “A Greenprint for the Future,” a series of satellite images of the lit world by night, with the lights rearranged to reflect what Earth would look like if human needs were balanced with those of, well, everything else.

“ ‘What is missing?’ will allow people to see an entire river system as a place, or the African Plains migratory corridors as a place – habitats that must be seen outside of man-made boundary zones,” Lin writes in her artist’s statement. Beyond that, though, it allows viewers to see the world as a whole place, a dynamic place, characterized not just by its collective losses, but by the upswell of efforts to stem them, and to re-imagine how we occupy our home.

Perhaps here, at last, is an answer to that woman’s question at the final Fishtrap panel. Looking forward, grieving for what has been, we must remember that loss is not new to the world, and that loss is also possibility.

In basic ecology, you learn that destruction is itself a creative force. Mass extinctions are followed by the frenzied development of new life, new forms, new species. Even now you can see that habitats that host strong forces of change – volcanoes, blowdowns, wildfire, extremes of weather and disease – often become the richest and most diverse. These varied, unpredictable landscapes provide a greater variety of niches for different kinds of creatures to occupy, and force them to innovate through evolution simply to survive. The end (and never-ending) result of all this? A living menagerie that multiplies in variety and is continually reborn with improbably spectacular results.

You can think of the creative world this way, too. As author David James Duncan pointed out in his moving keynote address at that same Fishtrap conference, artists often produce their best work from places of great pain – the personal and societal disasters that shape their vision.

Perhaps this world of deepening wounds, shared across our landscapes and all of our lives, is already multiplying our creative opportunities -- and our capacity to reflect, reinterpret, innovate and ultimately, hopefully, act.

Sarah Gilman is High Country News associate editor

Images are the author's own, taken at a "wildlife viewing area" on the long, empty stretch of highway between Farson and Pinedale, Wyoming. There were at least nine coyotes here. Their proximity and near-identical states of decay suggest someone killed them intentionally -- presumably with poison or a gun.

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