The lost

In Hobart last week for the Emerging Writers Festival, I went to pay my respects to one of my favourite tape loops: the video of the last thylacine in captivity, which is on permanent display in the new thylacine room. You can watch it on YouTube, courtesy of the Archives Office of Tasmania.

The video is shot from the thylacine’s height. It begins with his signature yawn. Forty-three seconds of pacing follow, and a scratch of the belly with a back leg before he gnaws at a bone. The marsupial nose is pressed against its meal. I watch an animal inhaling and processing an understanding of meat that is now permanently lost.

I find myself writing a lot about dead animals lately. I’m obsessing over time and environmental loss, both in the novel on which I am I’m working and the short stories that I write to escape it. For a long time, I took the principles of conservation for granted, assuming human beings should preserve the natural world for future generations. But of course, the approach is both insufficient and impossible. Nature is not fixed or whole. We are feral animals here, as much as the fox that killed one of my chickens last week, as much as the chicken herself.

A conservationist paradigm should lead me to cull the fox and the hen alike. But the relationship is much more complicated. The argument between the fox and the hen and me seems richer than who belongs where. What is he thinking when he drags one sheepskin boot down the path and leaves it there like the signature of a serial killer? What else is missing from the landscape because of his hunger, and what does he mean to say?

In the South Australian Museum, I like to visit the room of extinct animals. A light comes on when you brush aside the curtain, and the animals are laid out gently in their case. They are small marsupials, mostly, vulnerable in their skins. There’s a pig-footed bandicoot, completely extinct; two species of bettong which have disappeared from the mainland; three quolls and a red-tailed phascogale extinct in SA; and the skin of the toolache wallaby, completely gone, the last one dying in captivity in 1927. In the midst of the main gallery’s expressive curiosity, it’s a small, subdued hall of grief.

In Rob Morrison’s discussion of the rationale behind the wonderful Biodiversity Gallery, he writes only briefly of the extinction room, and notes that ‘South Australia has the dubious honour of being called the mammalian extinction capital of the world’.

With its pedagogical focus, its drawing-towards-science, the wider gallery seeks to do something more optimistic than its Victorian-era and kunstkammer antecedents. The kunstkammer evolved from both a taxonomical, exploratory-imperialist context and from the world of the hunting trophy. Within its cabinets, the specimens of the extinct stand side by side with the living. They have additional value for their rarity but also because of their exoticism, as though the past is not just another country but an odd continent.

Images of the lost, and natural history museums themselves, are compelling because they store a cultural memory of which animals are a part. What is lost with the thylacine is not the icon, who survives in his forty-three seconds of immortality, or the image, which is easily preserved, or even the body, be it taxidermied or 3D-printed. What is lost is a part of what it meant to be alive in 1936. There is a loss of unexplored potential, the understanding of thylacineness, of another animal’s being. The disappearance of an animal radically affects our experience of place and time. Visiting the image is a way of paying my respects to a very human regret.

Conservationists themselves are careful of the emotional pull. Targeting the symbolic and aesthetic value of an animal limits us to preserving the animal as symbol, as image – and in this age, neither requires the animal itself to live. Contemporary conservation movements are far more interested in sustaining systems and connections than they are individual species. The two bettongs in that room are remembered by scientists for their fungus-eating ability, now that reseachers are able to read the systemic stress the creatures’ disappearance has placed on the forest.

But it’s still the charismatic megafauna that fascinates the rest of us. The icons of regret. The ones that died on our watch. When I look at the bettongs I don’t see what a scientist sees. I experience an estranged sort of grief. What did it feel like to hear that rustle in the leaves? To breathe the breath of that native tiger in its cage? What does the polar bear and the white rhinoceros know?

As the planet warms, we’re struck with a sort of Noah’s Ark dilemma. We’re haggling over what belongs on the ark and what does not, not just in terms of what we save, but in terms of what we bother to imagine. Urgent priority or friendly funding gives some animals status. And the scale of potential human loss, of cultural loss, overwhelms animal loss. But species loss is also cultural loss.

The weight that can bring about paralysis and despair. The knowledge of time – that all things must die, and all species – is sometimes used to justify a nihilistic approach to land in Australia, as if we inhabit a place that is already past redemption. Rabbits and cats and foxes have had their way: why not let fracking and uranium mining have theirs? Against this nihilism and its utility of profit, conservation is a weak expression, and art hardly worth mentioning. I wonder what the purpose of writing might be except to distract us from our own worst acts, and our responsibilities. I wonder what writing might offer in the face of so much grief.

We live in an age of extinction, and yet an awakening regarding the rights of animals. At times the knowledge of climate change and environmental catastrophe can overwhelm all else, including the creative impulse. When Australia is willing to elect a climate denialist, it seems inevitable that the loss will continue apace. When I read about the rapid decline of life in the ocean, I feel speechless.

What I love about these galleries of the extinct is the ability to experience the lost. Like viewing a photograph of a long-dead relative, contemplating the lost is a way of grounding ourselves in time: making ourselves wonder about the past, and configuring the possibilities of belonging. For me, this must include a stronger link between human and non-human animals. The lost will remain unknown: what the toolache wallaby and the pig-footed bandicoot knew will remain unknown. But visiting the place of the thylacine, watching him pace, has a moral value. I believe that I might draw strength from it, as I imagine a world without the mala wallaby, a world without the polar bear, without fish, without birds, without us.

The museum is an act of grief as much as a place of the imagination. Against the scale of loss we face as temperatures rise, I know that speechlessness is not a useful response. A story or an essay can seem an equally feeble expression, a futile distraction. But grief is also about bearing witness. Something lingers in those forty-three seconds between myself and the thylacine, a thin thread of not understanding, that keeps drawing me back. The loss that has happened on our watch can’t be reversed, simply by watching. But the watching matters, nonetheless.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

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  1. The sadness of realising that the world is ageing more rapidly than its inhabitants. A resonant, thoughtful, disquieting elegy.

  2. This was so beautiful, thank you. I think about Lonesome George all the time. He lived for over a century until his death in 2012, and was the last of his subspecies of Galapagos Tortoise. As much as he was a symbol, he was also a wonderful individual creature.

  3. this is a thought provoking, multifaceted piece. i find myself wondering about impermanence, preservation (as well as conservation), insignificance, humility and letting go (vs nihilism). even though all of this will be one day swallowed by the sun, if it were possible, i’d still gladly trade the last thylacine for our head wingnut any day.

  4. Thanks so much for this Jennifer. I’ve watched that thylacine footage many times and it never gets easier, or less compelling. Tasmanian’s are far too familiar with extinction, though little seems to have changed because of it, and we’re on the cusp of losing the Tasmanian devil as we speak, largely because of habitat depletion. I have a four year old child and I can only imagine the kinds of extinctions she’ll have to learn to comprehend in her life-time.
    As a new writer I feel the responsibility to tell these stories keenly, and I’m struggling to find a balance between the baring witness that you describe – and which I’m beginning to understand is not a passive stance – and the weight of didacticism. I don’t feel I have the choice to turn away, as the changing climate and all that it means for us and our world inhabits such a vast space in my subconscious that there’s little room for anything else, but I’m wary of the difficulties it entails for a writer.
    Anyway, you’ve made me feel a little less alone in my grief, and crystallised the need to go on. Silence is unthinkable really, however futile the act of writing might seem. So thank you.

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