Two hundred species went extinct today. The last individual from each of these 200 species dies each day. Merely fifteen years ago, that number was 150. While extinctions are a natural process, the scale of the current mass extinction is a direct result of industrial civilization.
In this article, Rebecca writes about her grief for all her lost kins, and about some groups who are actively working to save some of the remaining ones.
Featured image: By Doug Van Houten
Hearing the last song of a male Kauai ‘O’o tears me up. He was singing for a female who will never come. Now his lovely voice is gone too. I cry for him, and for all the species we have lost. First listed as endangered in 1967, the Kauai ‘O’o lived in the forests of Kaua’i, and was extinct 20 years later, after their habitat was destroyed by human activity.
One in a million species expires naturally each year, but now extinctions are happening 1,000 times faster. Humans are driving species extinct more rapidly than ever before in the history of the planet. Since the dawn of industrial civilization, we have lost eighty-three percent of wild mammals and fifty percent of plants, and a million more species are at risk —all largely as a result of human actions.
Everywhere there is life, there is song.
The planet is always singing. Humans are meant to live in sync, our unique note resounding within the symphony. Instead, our dominant culture is killing all the other voices, one by one, as if removing instruments from an orchestra. Some birds have forgotten their song, like the once abundant regent honeyeater. Now critically endangered, they are unable to find other honeyeaters and hear their songs.
The world needs the bitter and resonant cry of every creature, even our own deep voices, attuning with the song of the world. As a wilderness and soul guide, I invite people to listen to the voices of all the others and remember their own unique notes, the mythic purpose of their souls. I was made for this work. Yet it is not enough to stop the destruction of the last remaining wild species.
Did the Kauai ‘O’o know he was calling out to an empty world? “The costs of civilization are too high,” his song pierces me. “Remember the connection we once had.” The first human words sounded like birds. Humans and birds evolved from a common ancestor, a reptile millions of years ago. Both grew to form complex vocalizations and social groups. Rare whistling languages, often called bird languages, used to be found all over the world. The truest voices of our ancestors, they are now heard only in a handful of places with scattered settlements or mountainous terrain.
In south-western Costa Rica, I lived amongst the Guaymi people in rustic dwellings, eating home-grown rice and beans in banana leaves. We taught each other, in Spanish, our first languages. When the Guaymi whistled to each other, the sound traveled a great distance through the rainforest. They looked beautiful with their heads and bodies vibrating, faces and lips moving wildly to form the unusual sounds.
In the foothills of the Himalayas, the Hmong people speak in whistles. In their courtship rituals, now rarely-performed, boys would wander through nearby villages at nightfall, whistling poetry. If a girl responded, the dialogue would continue. The lovers added nonsense syllables to assure the secrecy of their melody.
“Is anyone alive out there?” the Kauai ‘O’o sings, but there is no reply, nor will there ever be again. Is he sorrowful? That is what I feel when I sense what is happening and read things like of all the mammals now on Earth, ninety-six percent are livestock and humans—only four percent are wild mammals.
Tears flow. I long for a world more alive than the one we inhabit. For rivers to run clear and flocks of birds to fill the sky. Ancient trees to cover the land. Oceans to teem with whales and coral. For machines that mine coal, oil, and trees to be dismantled. For people to stop extracting and start honoring. For lost cultures and species to return, and be driven out no more.
Longing is prayer, and prayer is a conversation. If we listen to nature and our dreams, we can be guided towards the actions that matter most. If we ask and await the mystery, we can receive a response and then embody what is asked. Prayer is what we become when we offer our lives in creative service.
Will civilization collapse first, before the biosphere?
Or after all species and wild places are already gone? Species can’t survive without unspoiled habitat, but there is less every day. Even in the wake of late-stage global capitalism, I long for a sustainable society, rooted in an ethical approach in its relationship with the land, honoring the voices of river, bird, rock, and tree.
These collaborative relationships have existed for millennium. The Yao people still team up with the honeyguide bird in sub-Saharan Africa to hunt for honey. Using a series of special chirps, humans and birds communicate with each other. The honeyguide birds lead the way to hidden beehives, and the Yao people share the sweetness with their avian friends.
Is the Kauai ‘O’o aware this is his last message to the world? What will humanity’s last song be? The last passenger pigeon died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo. She had a palsy that made her tremble and never laid a fertile egg in her life. In the 19th century, passenger pigeon migrations darkened the sky. Flocks took hours to pass and were so loud that human conversation was impossible. These birds sustained people through the winter. By the mid-1890’s, flock sizes numbered in the dozens rather than hundreds of billions.
Passenger pigeons were hunted out of existence. After the invention of the telegraph and the railroad, the commercial pigeon industry boomed. Hunters killed them in their nesting grounds and harvested the squabs. No one stopped when their numbers crashed. People slaughtered them until the end. In the 19th century, people did not believe they could drive a species to extinction. This seems to mirror a denial still present today. Most people do not believe humans are destroying the biosphere of the living planet.
“People need these jobs,” the passenger pigeon industry said to avoid restrictions on hunting. Industries today make similar claims, as their mines, dams, and industrial agriculture clear cut and pave over ecosystems, poison rivers and the sea, and dry up underground aquifers.
Indigenous peoples have always been the Earth’s greatest defenders.
Indigenous people protect eighty percent of global diversity, even though they comprise less than five percent of the world’s population. The Earth needs more people to stand in solidarity. I wonder if the Kauai ‘O’o felt as desperate as I do, if he understood that the planet is being plundered. I imagine myself singing alongside him, calling out—are you out there? What will you do to protect the beloved Earth?
Industry plans to destroy a critical corridor for pronghorn antelope and mule deer, nesting ground for golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, and prairie falcons. Lithium Americas is slated to build a lithium mine on Thacker Pass. They say it will provide jobs. Falsely, they call it green to manufacture belief that it somehow will not destroy the biosphere. Five to eight percent of the global population of endangered sage-grouse live there.
The watershed is home to the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout and the endemic King’s River pryg. I invite you to join environmentalists Max Wilbert and Will Falk in protesting the mine. I will be joining them the last two weeks of April.
The songs of eagles, hawks, falcons, and sagebrush are priceless and irreplaceable.
This is the video that inspired Rebecca’s article.