Opinion

An Endangered Menagerie: Remembering Our Vanishing Species

The mountain ash eucalypt, regent honeyeaters and potoroos are all vanishing at an astonishing rate, alongside countless others. Here, we assemble excerpts from a new essay collection aiming to bear witness to this age of loss.

Image of the Regent Honeyeater by Kevin Trotman, Creative Commons license.

In January, a year after the Black Summer bushfires tore across eastern Australia, writers and philosophers gathered at the Requiem exhibition to mourn, memorialise and meditate on this devastating loss of life. These stories have been collected in An Endangered Menagerie, available on the Plumwood Mountain website. Here are three short excerpts, by SEI researchers Thom van Dooren, Sophie Chao and Dalia Nassar.

 

Introduction — Thom van Dooren

As Australia burned during the 2019-2020 bushfire season, many of us struggled to reckon with the scale of the loss. Alongside the immense impacts on human communities—including the loss of life, of property, of income, and of security—we tried to make sense of the devastation faced by the wider community of life: of billions of dead animals and of the vast areas of bushland, millions of acres, that they once inhabited.

This intense period also brought us face to face, in a dramatic and tangible way, with the increasingly significant role that bushfire—and anthropogenic climate change—are now playing in our country’s unfolding extinction crisis. Alongside the deaths of countless individual animals and plants, these fires also pushed a variety of already threatened plant and animal species that much closer towards the edge of oblivion, threatening to strip from the world the immense, intergenerational, evolutionary, projects that their species represent.

Anthropogenic extinction, of course, is nothing new in Australia. Right from the outset of colonisation, a steady stream of species began slipping away. Long before the fires of last year, we already had a reputation in this area. Australia holds the unenviable distinction of being the mammalian extinction capital of the world—and alongside their furry number, a host of reptiles, amphibians, birds, and plants—as well as countless invertebrates, many of which have not even been described by science—have also been lost.

How are we to make sense of loss and endangerment on this scale? Of the incredible diversity of living beings whose future is being steadily eroded?

 

Ode to the Gilbert’s Potoroo — Sophie Chao

Potoroo, potoroo
Your long, slim brown tail moves fast in the grass
Your slender curved snout trails ground, rock, and bark
You smell, then you spring, they you sense, stop, and start
As you forage for fungi under cover of dark
In a vast moonlit country
Across bushland and creeks
Fur dense on the body and pale on the chest
Sparse on the tail, and full on the cheeks

Potoroo, potoroo,
The Black Summer fires ate half of your land
Against fire and flame and climate we race
With cameras and trackers we search for your trace
Around you have flourished the campaigns and calls
With bait stations we attract those who survived through the flames
We struggle to sight you, lure you, and feed you
With glistening treats we hope to entice you
Peanut butter, dried oats, golden syrup and truffle oil, to name but a few

Potoroo, potoroo
You have seen this before
Found, near-extinct, and once more reborn
Lazarus you were, but may be no more
Reduced you may be to the lost stuff of lore

But somewhere still in this vast moonlit country
There holds in the soil your still-living memory
A long, slim brown tail that moves fast in the grass
A slender curved snout that trails ground, rock, and bark
Across rivers and woodlands and bushlands and creeks
Fur dense on the body and pale on the chest
Sparse on the tail, and full on the cheeks

 

Mountain Ash / Eucalyptus Regnans — Dalia Nassar

The mountain ash is by all accounts a magnificent tree. Approaching a mountain ash forest, one is struck by the transition, perhaps from the open space of a recently clear-felled forest, to a lush and vibrant grove teeming with manferns, myrtle beeches, and these enormous trees—majestically towering above everything else. While their grey-green trunks taper as they rise, at the bottom their girth is wide and covered in moss. You sense their age, but also their generosity. In their hollows lie the critically endangered Leadbeater possums. On their branches, which are so high you can barely distinguish them, sit yellow-tailed black cockatoos. You feel like you’ve arrived in an enchanted forest, a magical, wise and ancient place. And you recall how these forests have often been described by visitors as ‘green cathedrals’. Perhaps you feel the need to pray in them—or to them.

In need of both rain and fire, the mountain ash’s existence is structured by exactness and time. It is only a certain kind of fire at the right time that will kill the old trees while also allowing for the seeds to germinate. If the fire is too frequent, as has been the case since European colonisation, the trees do not attain the necessary maturity to produce seeds—and cannot reproduce. If it is too infrequent—the trees also die.

 

Smoke and Song: On the Unravelling of Regent Honeyeater Life — Thom van Dooren

One of my strongest memories of last summer in the Blue Mountains, through long days thick with smoke, weighed down by a dry baking heat, was the palpable presence of an absence, a silence of birds. To be sure, there were many new sounds to take their place: helicopters and sirens, sometimes howling winds, and for those unlucky enough to be at the fire front, the roaring of flames. But a little further from the action, in still moments, I remember the eerie silence. In this part of the world, though rarely seen or heard even at the best of times, one of the birds now missing in this new way was the regent honeyeater. Having only recently become aware of these incredible, threatened, neighbours, I watched on with a growing sense of dread as the fires moved through some of their last remaining breeding sites, at the height of what should have been their breeding season.

“Having only recently become aware of these incredible, threatened, neighbours, I watched on with a growing sense of dread as the fires moved through some of their last remaining breeding sites, at the height of what should have been their breeding season.”

Like so many other species in this part of the world, the decline of the regent honeyeater is intimately tied to the destruction of the box-ironbark and other Eucalypt forests they once called home. On an unbelievable scale, these forests have been cleared, fragmented, and degraded. In recent decades, the impacts of climate change have been added to this lethal mix.

These days, when those few regent honeyeaters still hatched in the forest are old enough to leave their parents’ territory—at about 40 days of age—they’re lucky to find any other birds to learn from during that critical, sensitive, period in their first months when they develop much of what will be their song. Or, more accurately, they’re unlikely to encounter any other regent honeyeaters. And so, instead, many young birds now seem to be learning the songs of other species, of wattlebirds and friarbirds, of currawongs and rosellas; one bird has even been observed imitating the long, mournful, call of the bush stone curlew.

Here we see that extinction does not arrive all at once; it is an unravelling, an undoing, of ways of life, of intricately entwined social and ecological relationships. An organism’s way of being in the world—in this case its distinctive song culture—can be, and often is, lost long before that final death. Lost in a way that not only foretells, but in its own way helps also to bring about, that ultimate loss that is an extinction. In this way, the song of the regent honeyeater is woven into a larger story of forest decline, of wanton land clearing and escalating drought and bushfire; processes that are remaking, undoing, eradicating, both life forms and their precious, evolving, forms of life.

 

The complete essays and poems in An Endangered Menagerie are available to read online through Plumwood Mountain. Edited by Thom van Dooren, it features the work of SEI Researchers Sophie Chao and Dalia Nassar, alongside Peter Minter and Joshua Lobb.

These stories were originally presented in January at Requiem, an exhibition curated by Janet Laurence and the Sydney Environment Institute, led by Dannielle Celermajer and Michelle St Anne.


Thom van Dooren is an environmental philosopher and writer at the University of Sydney and the University of Oslo. His most recent book is The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds.

Sophie Chao is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Her research explores the intersections of Indigeneity, ecology, and capitalism in the Pacific. For more information, please visit www.morethanhumanworlds.com.

Dalia Nassar is a philosopher at the University of Sydney. Her work is at the intersection of the history of philosophy, the history of science, environmental philosophy and aesthetics. She is currently completing a book manuscript on the role of art, and artistic tools and devices, in the emergence of ecological thinking in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.