Shaken by the news that the earth has lost 50% of its wildlife in the last forty years, I turn to the words of Terry Tempest Williams and the photographs of Joel Sartore. The following passage comes from a radio interview with Williams conducted by Justine Toms in 1994:
"I think about how, for all practical purpses, the Tahoe salmon are gone as we know them," Williams muses. "Less than a hundred years ago, according to the stories of native peoples [on the American west coast], you could walk across the backs of salmon to reach the other side of the river. Now we're lucky if we see one or two. What does that mean? What does that mean in terms of our idea of community? What does that mean in terms of the sustainability of our relations, deep relations?
"So much more than ever before, I feel both the joy of wilderness and the absolute pain in terms of what we are losing. And I think we're afraid of inhabiting, of staying in, this landscape of grief. Yet if we don't acknowledge the losses, then I feel we won't be able to step forward with compassionate intelligence to make the changes necessary to maintain wildness on the planet."
Toms responds: "You talk about the paradox of feeling the joy in what is still available and the pain of what we are losing. Let's stay with the paradox for the moment. How does it help us to stay there and feel both places?"
"I don't know," Williams answers frankly, "except that I believe it's a dance. And I believe that it makes us more human. I love Clarice Lispector when she writes in her book, An Apprenticeship, that 'what human beings want more than anything else is to become human beings.' If we don't allow ourselves to feel the full range of emotion -- deep joy and deep pain -- then I think we are less than who we can be."
How do we express, even use, this dance as writers, or as other kinds of creators? In "Last Days, Last Words" (Dark Mountain, Issue 3), John Rember advises:
"There's plenty to write about in this word, especially if you can keep existentially funny and honesty grief-stricken about it."
"You ask what gives me hope," says Terry Tempest Williams in a later interview. "Two words: forgiveness and restoration."
My heart beat faster when I read those words. They apply to so many things.
For further reading poised on that narrow ground between joy and grief, I recommend: The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds by Diane Ackerman, Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths, An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Williams, Singing to the Sound: Visions of Nature, Animals, and Spirit by Brenda Peterson, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World by Linda Hogan, Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild by Ellen Meloy, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram, The Outermost House by Henry Beston, Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea, & Human Life by George Monbiot, Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez, Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore, Findings by Kathleen Jamie, Language and Longing by Carolyn Servid, Scatterlings by Martin Shaw, and The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris. This isn't an exhaustive list by any means, just a good place to start.*
The photographs here are from Joel Sartore's Photo Ark project, sponsored by National Geographic. "For many of Earth’s creatures, time is running out," he explains. "Half of the world’s plant and animal species will soon be threatened with extinction. The goal of the Photo Ark is to document biodiversity, show what’s at stake and to get people to care while there’s still time. More than 3,700 species have been photographed to date, with more to come."
I highly recommend Sartore's beautiful (and heart-breaking) book Rare: Portraits of America's Endangered Species, as well as his other works on endangered animals around the world. You can see more of his photographs, and buy prints of them (to support the Photo Ark project) on Sartore's website.
Words & pictures: The interview passages above are from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). All rights to the text and photographs above reserved by the authors and artist.
* Although this post was published in 2014, please note that I've added a few books published since then to the Recommended Reading list (autumn, 2017).