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Know the West

Mourning the world we've lost


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

The white-haired woman’s voice broke as she stood to ask her 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, the poet Kim Stafford, author Luis Alberto Urrea and myself, paused to exchange glances. We were supposed to be discussing the future of writing in the West, closing a conference celebrating 25 years of Fishtrap, a nonprofit in Enterprise, Ore., dedicated to Western writing. It was an unwieldy topic, but it seemed suddenly manageable in comparison. How do we grasp the obliteration of so much we have known and loved?

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

Lin's “What is missing?” seeks to raise awareness that we are in the midst of -- and are ourselves mostly responsible for -- Earth’s sixth mass extinction. It includes permanent and traveling installations and sculptures displayed 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 hand-held screen, electronic billboards in Times Square, and over 75 films. Its center, though, is a 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 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.

But here is where the traditional concept of elegy breaks down. For Lin’s is a pre-emptive memorial, insisting that the cascade of loss-yet-to-come can be prevented. It lists ways to shrink your environmental footprint. And if you turn the clock on the map to the present, descriptions of current conservation efforts appear across the globe. The clock turned forward will eventually present “A Greenprint for the Future,” satellite images of Earth by night, with the lights rearranged to reflect how it would look if human needs were balanced with, well, those of 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. More than that, though, it asks viewers to see the Earth itself as a whole place, characterized not just by its collective losses, but by the upswell of efforts to stem them and to re-imagine our lives.

Perhaps here is an answer to that woman’s question at Fishtrap. 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. And habitats prone to strong forces of change -- volcanoes, blowdowns, wildfire, extremes of weather and disease -- are often the richest and most diverse. These landscapes provide a greater variety of niches for creatures to occupy, and force innovation through evolution. The end (and never-ending) result is a living menagerie that is continually reborn with improbably spectacular results.

You can think also of the creative world this way. As the writer David James Duncan pointed out 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 is already multiplying our creative opportunities -- and our capacity to reflect, reinterpret, innovate and ultimately, hopefully, act.

Sarah Gilman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado. She is the magazine’s associate editor.