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Monthly Archives: September 2014

For A Coming Extinction

Gray whale
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing
(WS Merwin, from The Lice, 1967)

Wikimedia Commons

Pottwal, Zeichnung un 1870

Whales, at one point in their evolutionary history, were land mammals. I learned this today.

At one point, about 50 million years ago, small, carnivorous, hoofed and furry creatures about the size of a dog, living near lakeshores in the area today known as Pakistan started evolving a more and more amphibious lifestyle. As far as we can tell they started taking to the water either to hide from predators or in order to hunt drinking prey from cover of water. Over time, their eye sockets evolved and climbed to the top of the head, so the little creatures could be entirely submerged with only eyes above water. These creatures are today spoken of as the first cetaceans, the first of the genus of whales. They are called Pakicetidae. Literally: Pakistani whales.

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Over millions of years, these creatures — whose ancestors, remember, crawled from the waters at great cost only about 400 million years earlier — took more and more to the water, finding more and more of their lives there. Evolution rewarded those who ventured farther, those who innovated in the water, rather than on land. One thing led to another. Did they take to the sea, or did the sea take them?

A pakicetus, circa 50 million years ago.

Eventually they changed, some threshold passed, a recognizable difference graduating, attenuating, catching hold. Soon, comparatively soon, geological timescale-soon, they are  crocodile-like mammals preying on small land mammals at the edges of the vast lakes. They ventured further, gradually changing into larger, more mobile creatures and as the climates changed and the geology shifted, venturing into salt water and acquiring more euryhaline properties as the lakes of what would later become Pakistan were touched by the sea.

And suddenly, growing, changing, everywhere: the ocean opens smooth like a highway to the rest of the planet. In the blink of a fossilized eye, the geological record shows them suddenly in subtropical oceans across the globe. They elongate, become much more intelligent, develop social abilities. They evolve and keep evolving. Now they are a worldwide thing. The direct descendants of those small, furry creatures huddling on shorelines in Pakistan in the Eocene are the largest animals ever to have existed on Earth.

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Imagine that creature, scurrying from rock to rock in the shallows of inland lakes, slipping into the water, looking for food, surfacing again. Quick and light, restless like a stray dog, shaking itself to get rid of the water but unable to get entirely dry. It’s hooves click on the slippery rocks at the water’s edge. It comes to rest on an outcropping now, and stares at the lapping of the waters. The sun is setting over the lake and the forest grows dark and starts singing songs we will never hear.

If it could reason, what would it think, this little thing huddled on a shore in Central Asia? How would it think about what would become of its descendants? The smooth vastness of their bulk. Their dense, slow inscrutability. So little remaining of the little creature with hooves at the lakeside. At a deep, profound level, it’s progeny is for entirely different things than he is. Built to engage with a different set of problems, with a world entirely different from the shorelines, shallows and shelter that he knows. It is him, but it is something so different from him that it might be from another planet. To the little creature on the shore, the gulf is unbreachable, like the ocean itself that he will take to and conquer (and in which he is threatened, now, these tens of millions of years later, by these upstart apes, with that deeper, impersonal kind of extinction, in which what you were ceases to fit into the scheme of things).

And how would we think, if we knew what is coming, if we could see what becomes of our descendants? What happens to us in a million years? Ten million? Fifty? Surely if something descended from us exists it will be as utterly unlike us as whales and Pakicetidae. The constant, merciless work of evolution accelerated by several orders of magnitude by cultural change, our ability to shortcut through Design Space will have brought forth something that is for different things than we are. Something that will be uncrecognisable. Our children are not for us, they are for themselves. The distance to you grows each day, each year, each generation.

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A friend of mine died today. Not a close friend, but a friend. He had been leaving for years, but now he’s never coming back. Another friend — a close friend — wrote to let me know that his wife and him are expecting their first child in six months. The exchange of generations happens all around us, each creature born into the resistance of the world. And the world eats away at us as long as we’re here, with teeth made of years and adversity. It never stops.

This evening, my daughter was bathing in the bathtub. I watched her playing in the water, splashing, lying down in it, turning on her back, turning on her belly. She’s always loved water, as though born to it. Her spinal column, our shared feature with all other mammals, filaments aglow with energy and impulse, sat outlined against the skin of her back. Half of her mine. I thought about my dead friend and the child coming. I thought about my beautiful daughter, half me, so close to me, becoming something of her own every day. I already see the pathway leading away from us, out into the world. The things that are close recede. The present slips away. New things come into the world to take our place. How far does love extend beyond the present twist of the helix?

I sat staring into the turbulent waters, like the little creature on the shoreline. Looking out into what came next.

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Bzzzzz. CC-BY-2.0, Stanislav Sedov

For a few weeks this summer, I was combatting a pest infection in my apartment. A particularly insidious species of beetle had invaded my flat during the summer and I came home to find its larvae happily rummaging through my woolen sweaters with their teeth. To save my wardrobe, I had to spend hours and hours vacuuming the little bastards out of my clothes, noise-cancelling headphones on to keep the noise, as I put it to my friends, from making me kill someone.

It was hot work, and almost certainly futile, constantly aware that any single beetle missed, any egg unsuctioned would mean having to do the whole thing over again.

You get to do a lot of thinking while doing work like that. One never thinks through, for instance, the fact that clothes have twice the surface area one first thinks they do: they have the same area on the inside that they do on the outside. Both need vacuuming.

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But the thing I confess was most on my mindbesides the rather interesting Human Rights History course from Berkeley which I was listening to — was the morality of my actions. Note the phrase I used above: keeping the noise from making me kill someone. The fact is, that I was killing someone. That was the whole point of what I was doing. In the course of my work I killed several hundred rather complex creatures at various stages of their life cycles, from egg, to larva, pupa and imago. I didn’t enjoy it.

In fact, that’s putting it rather too lightly. I have always found killing or even bothering animals to be repugnant. I never smack flies, and only rarely mosquitoes. I find shooing birds away bothersome, i go to extraordinary lengths to get even wasps, ants and the most grotesquely large spiders safely out the window (glass as trap, paper slipped under the edge). Activities like fishing or hunting, so central to the entirety of human culture and the life of biologically modern man, is alien to me, and I have not done either for many years now. Staring into the lifeless eyes of a recently living fish or deer makes me anguished, haunts my dreams. I can still feel the sense of profound, suddenly irreversible moral wrong after the first time I snapped the neck of a fish, watched the last attempted breaths, the gasping motions of the mouth and felt like a murderer.

Is it squeamishness that keeps me from being able to kill? Maybe so, I certainly seem to be more sensitive to the suffering of other creatures than many people around me. But just as much, I think, my discomfort is about the instrumentalism of it. The fact that I am dealing out death, creating enormous suffering, pain and fear, for reasons entirely having to do with discomfort, inconvenience. I could easily coexist with the pests for a time at least, but I choose (obviously) to kill them, instead. These little things are synanthropes, creatures which thrive (“unnaturally”, so to speak) on living near human environments. They love to eat our hair and dead skin, and our clothes. And they are spreading from their original habitats now, apparently, because of (anthropogenic) climate change.

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So I choose to kill, despite my moral qualms about it. I also choose to still eat meat, despite my profound moral discomfort and indeed anguish at the state of factory farming. I have come to think that perhaps this makes me even more wrong. I am aware that what I am doing is wrong, and I still do it — despite the knowledge. Surely that’s worse than just not being aware? Like the slave-owning founding father Thomas Jefferson, who managed to keep owning slaves despite knowing it was morally wrong (and, even more repulsively, while being the person writing “we hold these truths to be self-evident …” before heading home to his slavehold).

There is still something deeply unsettled and unsettling about my relationship to the suffering and death of animals which I will need to explore further. I suspect that more regular vegetarianism is a thing which is very much in my steadily nearer future. But killing pests and swatting the occasional mosquito seems to not be an option that seems viable in the long run. I suspect that some of the moral qualifications for this is that simply being alive means causing much death. This seems true for nearly all species. Our very bodies are veritable war zones of microfauna killing each other. We are battlegrounds, mobile slaughterhouses. There is no pure place to stand.

This perspective, and indeed all of the thoughts in this post, were driven home to me today reading this excellent and very readable essay on killing animals by the philosopher Steven Cave. He seems to find an interesting middle ground which seems close to the one I occupy, and he has given the matter thought.

Now, I’m not a biologist, but I know that a fly is an animal, and more specifically, an insect. As such, it has (or had) wings, legs, eyes, antenna and a host of internal organs. Those parts are in turn made of cells, each one of which is hugely complex. And in those cells, among many other things, are – or were – the fly’s genes, which in turn embody an astonishing intricacy and an ancient, multi-million-year history, while in the fly’s gut would have been countless bacteria with their own genes, their own goals. Worlds within worlds, now squidged together into a single dark smudge that I am already finding it hard to pinpoint among the scratches and coffee rings. A history of life spread out before me, if only I were able to read it.

At this point, I guess that readers will be dividing into two parties. One party, probably the majority, will be thinking, ‘Get over it, it’s a fly.’ This, it seems to me, is a very reasonable position. Flies die in large numbers all the time – some, indeed, at my hand, whether I intend it or not (and I sometimes do). And in the summer evenings, when I sit on our terrace and watch swifts in their spectacle of swooping and screeching, this beautiful display is, of course, at the same time an orgy of insect death.

The other party of readers, probably the minority, will be horrified at my casual killing of this delicate life-form. They will be appalled at the waste and stupidity of my carelessness. To them, I must be an oaf; at best ignorant, at worst malevolent. And this, it seems to me, is also a very reasonable position. Even though I habitually write – sometimes about complex subjects – it is certain that with one mistimed finger-swipe I destroyed complexity and beauty many orders of magnitude greater than any I will ever create.

Thus it seems to me quite reasonable to think that the death of the fly is entirely insignificant and that it is at the same time a kind of catastrophe. To entertain such contradictions is always uncomfortable, but in this case the dissonance echoes far and wide, bouncing off countless other decisions about what to buy, what to eat – what to kill; highlighting the inconsistencies in our philosophies, our attempts to make sense of our place in the world and our relations to our co‑inhabitants on Earth. The reality is that we do not know what to think about death: not that of a fly, or of a dog or a pig, or of ourselves.

 

Is reducing the amount of suffering we cause a major goal for living a good life? Increasingly, reducing suffering and having empathy with it seem key to me to being a good person, to being who I want to be. But finding a mediation between that and a functioning everyday life is the task I feel squeamish about undertaking. That and stepping on beetles.

And, of course, coming back from a few days out of town this Saturday, we found the little bastards running the show in our bedroom again. Fewer than last time, but enough that the circle of killing and eradicating can, must, start all over again. I grit my teeth and prepare for the slaughter, and turning the hoover on, it short-circuits, smoke billowing from under the hood, like a car at the side of a highway. Lives saved, tens of them, while I, who was just so fiddly about dealing death, swear and damn and curse their existence.

And now a beautiful unicorn chaser. Starling murmurations are pretty much the most beautiful thing I know of (and also an orgy of death):

Photo: Yoshikazu Takada (CC BY 2.0)

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

— WS. Merwin, from The Lice (1967)

September less septembery by the year. Unseasonably warm the new normal. The leaves planning, apparently, on staying green until far into October. The undiminished fecundity of nature seems to perversely be multiplying the thoughts of mortality that always creep in at the start of autumn. I’m worried about more extensive, deeper kinds of extinction than my own, now.

I keep thinking of that essay by Zadie Smith I blogged about this spring. Singing an elegy for the stolen seasons seems appropriate, as the world leaders gather in New York to agree to keep doing nothing, fast. I listen to songs written a few years before I was born or in my childhood and notice that lyrics about September always include references to naked branches and a feeling of leaves falling, falling, falling. I look out the window now, and the colours have barely turned. A yellowing green field, as far as the eye can see.

Apologies for the absence, everyone. I have been occupied with real life (children! work! housing! mortgages!). I hope to recommence posting here about now.