Reflection

Storying Extinction: A Reflection on Loss, Crisis, and Co-existence

Sophie Chao meditates on the power of storytelling as a means of remembering and repairing multispecies connections in times of crisis.

Gilbert's Potoroo. Image by David Whidborne, via Shutterstock:1613377585.

The Black Summer of 2019 – 2020 saw nearly three billion animals killed or displaced and forty-six million acres of forest destroyed. In the continent with the highest rate of mammal extinction, over one hundred species already endangered or threatened were driven to the brink of disappearance – the long-footed potoroo, mouse-sized dunnart, and grey-barked nightcap oak, among many others. As the impacts of climate change continue to intensify, fire will play an increasingly significant role in the ongoing loss of species in Australia.

The Requiem panel “An Endangered Menagerie” on January 22 brought together five philosophers, writers, and scientists to explore extinction, loss, and crisis through a series of short reflections, each taking as its central protagonist a particular threatened plant or animal species. This lively motley of critters included the timid Gilbert’s potoroo, the delicate Regent honeyeater, the beach-dwelling Hooded plover, the petal-clasped Giant dragonfly, and the towering Mountain ash, along with the complex ecosystems that each depends upon to survive – from cool mountain ranges and coastal stretches to dry bushlands and moist peatlands.

While diverse in their forms, histories, relations, and needs, all of these beings share one thing in common: a growing vulnerability to the violence – both slow and spectacular – of anthropogenic climate change. For instance, fire has and continues to represent the greatest threat for the Gilbert’s potoroo, a marsupial that thrives best in environments untouched by flames for at least thirty years. Meanwhile, agricultural expansion and the razing of box-ironbark woodlands have jeopardised the dietary and habitat needs of the Regent honeyeater bird since the beginnings of European colonisation. On the sandy ocean beaches of southern Australia, it is the presence of humans, alongside an array of feral predators, that endanger the nests, eggs, and futures of the Hooded plover.

For some among these species, it is not the fact of fire in itself that is threatening, but rather the particular kinds of fire that are now increasingly afflicting the continent – fires that are both more frequent and more ferocious. Take the Mountain ash, for instance. The oleaginous bark of this ancient and monumental dweller of the Tasmanian cool forests is particularly flammable, rendering it vulnerable to death by fire. And yet fire is also what the Mountain ash needs in order to release its seeds, that then flourish in the soils prepared by the flames for their germination. For this species, the scale, frequency, and timing of fire can thus signal the end of life for existing trees and the beginning of new life for future generations. In this complex and delicate relationship between flame and forest, fire reveals itself a pharmakonic force – one that can be alternately life-giving or life-destroying, and also both at once.

“It is not the fact of fire in itself that is threatening, but rather the particular kinds of fire that are now increasingly afflicting the continent – fires that are both more frequent and more ferocious.”

Storying extinction, loss, and crisis is no easy task. One the one hand, witnessing the visceral violence of fire and anthropogenic climate change on multispecies lives, bodies, and relations reminds us of our accountability and responsibility towards the more-than-human world. To witness destruction and death at such a scale demands a response. But how should we speak about, or for, the fates of our threatened other-than-human companions? In the impossibility of knowing that other’s rich and complex world, how do we story its lives and losses? And what can these stories do for the more-than-human dwellers of an unevenly shared and increasingly vulnerable planet?

In the image of the relational ontology of nature, a good starting point in storying extinction is to reflect on our own every day and eventful connections to the more-than-human world. For some speakers, this connection was unanticipated and harrowingly sensory – a charred, Giant dragonfly encountered at the height of the fires, alighting upon desk and paperwork. For others, the connection is mundane yet no less meaningful – a signboard at a nearby beach, indicating the ever-dwindling number of Hooded plover nests, fledglings, and eggs, yet often lost to the visitor’s eye. In other instances, threatened species come to matter as we come to understand the incredible complexity of their natural histories and behaviors – the artful sonic mimicry that modulates the Regent honeyeater’s call, the sacrificial logic shaping Mountain ash lives, deaths, and afterlives, or the century-long disappearance and unexpected resurgence of “Lazarus species” such as the Gilbert’s Potoroo. Diverse in their form, contexts, and consequences, these connections speak to the equally diverse ways in which human livings and doings are imbricated with non-human continuation and extinction.

Remembering and repairing multispecies connections in times of crisis also calls for imaginative modes of storying extinction – even as words may fail us in describing extinction’s true force and scale. The refrain offers one such imaginative mode for storying loss and destruction. As a form of repetition, refrains punctuated the narratives of loss and violence shared by several speakers on the panel.

In the middle of the night.

Plover eggs found: zero.

Potoroo, potoroo.

Burnt.

As a stylistic device, the refrain traditionally operates in poetry and song to create rhythm, to call specific attention to certain melodic or lyrical points, and to thereby enhance their point and poignancy. There is in the word a sense of intentional breaking or pausing, as when the lyrics or melody of a song or poem are interrupted by a repeated refrain. In its active mode, the term “refrain” finds its etymological roots in the mid-14thcentury Old French word refraigner, meaning to “hold back,” which we inherit today in the verbal form “to refrain.”

As style and substance, the refrain speak in potent, if ambivalent ways, to the form and effects of multispecies worlds and their disappearance. Refrain, as repetition, is incantatory. It forces us to remember, commemorate, and memorialise the beings that we bring forth in our utterances, and that are critically vulnerable to great planetary undoings. In repeating the name of a species at the brink of extinction, for instance, we refuse to forget its liveliness, sympoietic existence, and consequential presence. Indeed, repetition and refrain articulate in a performative mode the rhythms not just of the stories we tell, but also of the polytemporal lives that we recount – the intersecting patterns of growth, reproduction, propagation, senescence, and rebirth of multiple, inter-connected organisms. Repetition draws attention to the words that matter – the gripping reality of non-human death, the frittering remains of charred burrows and bodies, the statistics and figures that clinically quantify extinction. In repeating the witnessing of violence, we refuse to abscond ourselves from the part we play in perpetuating or enabling that violence. In repeating this violence together with others – our friends, family, readers, and audiences – we also refuse to singularise our stories and instead invite the participation of all who are in one way or another invested in more-than-human chains of living and dying.

“Refrain, as repetition, is incantatory. It forces us to remember, commemorate, and memorialise […]. In repeating the name of a species at the brink of extinction, we refuse to forget its liveliness, sympoietic existence, and consequential presence.”

Refrain and repetition do other kinds of work as well. As a temporary return to the familiar – the words we have already heard, and the names we have come to know – the refrain offers us a moment of pause, respite, and potential restoration, if only for an instant. At the same time, repetition is a signal for caution and action in the face of increasingly unpredictable climate conditions. It reminds us that fires will inevitably happen again if we do not act in the present to salvage the future. In doing so, the refrain invites us to consider how we might hold back – literally, refrain – from perpetuating paradigms and practices of mastery and domination over the non-human world that have been instrumental to that world’s demise. Instead, we might learn to co-exist in and with this world through an ethos of restraint, care, caution, and respect.

As a tool for storying both emergence and extinction, refraining thus speaks at once to the repetition of lifecycles that animate the planet’s ecosystems and to the repetition of disaster and crisis that increasingly haunts the planet’s diverse inhabitants. The one nourishing, the other destructive, multispecies refrains may help us better notice, narrate, and navigate multispecies worlds. Together, they may help foster the collective will needed to protect the rhythms of more-than-human existence on the one hand and to refuse the repetition of crisis on the other.


Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the Charles Perkins Centre. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Oriental Studies (First Class) and a Master of Science in Social Anthropology from The University of Oxford and a PhD (Cum Laude) from Macquarie University.

Sophie’s research explores the intersections of capitalism, ecology, and indigeneity in Indonesia, with a specific focus on changing interspecies relations in the context of deforestation and agribusiness development. Her current research deploys inter-disciplinary methods to explore the nutritional and cultural impacts of agribusiness on indigenous food-based socialities, identities, and ecologies. For more information, please visit www.morethanhumanworlds.com.