Summer Chronicles #6: Mourning the Passing of Animals from Our Lives

by on July 29, 2019 · 0 comments

in Environment, Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

Anyone who has ever cared for small children knows how central the role of animals is for fostering imagination and compassion in young people.

In my family’s case, our son’s childhood was awash in stuffed animals—beavers, raccoons, skunks, elephants, badgers, bears, rabbits, and a plethora of other creatures — every one of whom had a name, relatives, and a full-blown set of connections with other animals as well as with our family and friends.

His little pals would come over and learn the stories of our animal friends as would our grown-up pals. All of these animals had different voices and personalities and origin stories. It was our own domestic mythology for an imaginary chain of being.

Of course, everything was heavily anthropomorphized, but despite that, I am convinced that this early imaginative identification with the animal world played a significant role in making my son and many other people’s children more compassionate–they can identify with not just other humans, but other beings as well.

I think it is this sentimental connection to our imaginary animal worlds that makes living in the Anthropocene so difficult for us.  On the one hand, those of us who don’t understand the gravity of our times have a hard time believing that a huge swath of the stuff of our childhood imaginations is destined for the dustbin of history.  On the other hand, for those of us who know what time it is, it makes the cold-hard realities of living in the midst of the Sixth Extinction that much more heartbreaking.

The brutal truth of our moment is that we are living through what will be known, even if we manage to save ourselves, as a great dying.  Animals are passing from our lives in huge numbers.

As the most recent United Nations report on the matter tells us in no uncertain terms, the bonds that hold the natural world together are unraveling.  Our forests, oceans, rivers, and other wild spaces are endangered, and the animals that depend on them are dying, with one million species now imperiled in the near future unless we dramatically change our course in terms of conservation and fighting climate change.

But even if we are wise enough to do the right thing and radically alter our relationship to the natural world, we still won’t be able to save countless species that are, at present teetering on the brink.  Rather than addressing this in an abstract and distancing way by merely citing numbers, I think some of the animals who have become extinct recently deserve more specific notice.

Last year alone brought the loss of two songbirds from Brazil: the Cryptic Treehunter and the Alagoas Foliage-gleaner, whose voices will never again be heard.  In Hawaii, the Po’ouli is presumed gone. For those of you who took your children to see the animated film Rio, you’ll be sad to hear that the Spix’s macaw is now extinct in the wild.  Ominously, the trend of mainland bird species joining the list of the lost suggests that the extinction wave for birds is no longer a phenomenon felt largely in island regions.

In addition to these bird species, the last wild male northern white rhino died last year, and red wolves and the vaquita (a dolphin-like porpoise) are thought to be on their way out.  Other species of toads, amphibians, and insects too numerous to cite have also passed from our lives with many, many more on the horizon. On the whole, we are losing species one to ten thousand times the background rate—the worst die-off since the loss of dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

While it’s commonly believed that the only way to get people to care about mass animal extinction is by tying it to potential human costs, it’s worth thinking for a moment about the loss of animal life as a loss in and of itself.   The ecosystem is poorer for their passing and WE are poorer for it too. Letting animals go without acknowledgement makes us smaller and pettier. A part of our larger self is gone. So please, dear reader, take a minute to mourn not just for how this might harm you, but also for the passing of our fellow beings from the world.

They will, at least in my house, be sorely missed.


In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven-year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil (The Brazilian News) not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,” a genre peculiar to Brazil.  As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes.  The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”

What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.”  As a novelist, Pontiero tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.”  It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt.

More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less—I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with three novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe.  Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector. So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.”

Nonetheless the urge to narrate persists. Along with Lispector, I am cursed with it–for better or worse. So, for a few lazy weeks of summer I will, as I have for a few years now, try my hand at the form.

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