Great Auk? Or Greatest Auk?

When I was younger, one of my favorite stories was Alice in Wonderland, and one of my favorite characters was the Dodo Bird.

I didn’t know what a Dodo was, so I asked my grandfather. He didn’t know, either, but he had a book of extinct species, so we looked it up. From that moment on, I was utterly smitten with the Dodo - a condition that worsened over time as my grandfather concocted story after story about how, before they went extinct, the Dodos used to run footraces up and down the railroad tracks next to our ranch and how they used to build their gigantic floating nests on the fish pond out of old life vests and wine corks.

But the fact is, it’s difficult to long for something you never properly “knew” in the first place. Let me explain.

My last post was a poem I wrote called “Giants Wild.” It was inspired by a conflation of thoughts I’d been having lately about the consequences of being human in a world where our species seems hell bent on destroying nature. You know. Shitting where we sleep and all that.

One of my favorite bloggers, Kym from over at Redheaded Blackbelt, commented on this post, saying,

“The beaches when I was a child were stacked with mounds of dead redwoods. There are less carcasses. The logging is less and what there is is less wasteful.”

She’s right, of course. After all, as the photos I posted illustrate, the painters on the headlands overlooking the mouth of Big River are painting there because the scene is gobsmackingly gorgeous - it no longer resembles the fractured landscape depicted in the vintage photos of mills and lumberyards that I also posted.

But my point was that the scene overlooking Big River likewise no longer resembles how it would have looked less than two hundred years ago. There is something essential that has vanished from the scene that the painters of today don’t even know to miss because it is always already absent for them.

I’m talking about the colossuses. Giant coast redwoods. Trees close to 400 feet high and almost eighty feet around the trunk. Eighty feet around! Look at how big that is. Just look!

When speculators ventured forth from Europe to seek their fortune, what they found was an abundance in nature. A bounty so great that they couldn’t conceive of it ever expiring. So hey, they thought, let’s stop here at the Galapagos and pick up land tortoises by the thousands to store in the holds of our ships as food. Then let’s stop over there in Iceland and scoop up Great Auks and their eggs indiscriminately for the same reason. After that, let’s go on over to the American Plains and shoot down millions of buffalo – not because we want to eat them or anything. But just for kicks! Last stop? The California Coast to raze to the ground 95% of the giant coast redwoods before it even occurs to anyone that maybe we should slow it down a little.

And don’t give me any of that nonsense that folks back then didn’t know any better. Look at these photos. Clearly these people know how unique and stupendous these trees are. Why else bother to stage these photos depicting the spectacle? And the carnage.

It takes these trees thousands of years to grow as big as they do. Some of them have caverns and water seeps inside of them that support not only huckleberry and salmonberry bushes that grow out of the redwood itself, but also creatures like salamanders and frogs who live their entire lives in the branches of these trees, never once touching the ground. Even the lichen and the fungi on these trees are hundreds of years old, and some scientists believe that each and every old coast redwood giant that is left standing might contain ecosystems unique to that single, particular tree.

Which likewise means that every single tree that was cut down in the past might likewise have been home to ecosystems unique to that tree. And at one time, there were millions of these trees. You do the math.

My point is this. Even though some things have gotten better, the fact remains that when it comes to driving our fellow creatures to the brink of extinction, there are no do-overs. Once the landscape has been devastated to such an extreme degree, there's no reconstructing it.

Take that oil that was spilled in the Gulf. That oil is spilled, and there's no unspilling it. Once it's spilled, it's spilled. Forever and ever. And no amount of “clean up” is going to restore the impacted areas in our lifetime, or in the lifetimes of those who come after us.

Likewise, giant coastal redwoods aren’t going to spring up along Big River today or tomorrow or even the next day. You and I will never, ever see that view. It’s gone, and it won't be back in our lifetime.

That view is also gone for the painters on the headlands. Worse, they don’t even know to miss the giant redwoods because they don’t know that they existed there in the first place. That’s the danger with the human monkeys. The short attention span. Somehow, if we don’t see it with our eyes, it doesn’t exist for us.

Jonny is a friend of this blog, and an excellent blogger in his own right. He’s leaving for Iceland tomorrow to help his friend, artist Todd McGrain with a sculpture installation that’s a part of Todd’s larger effort called “The Lost Bird Project." Essentially, Todd is in the midst of installing sculptures of five extinct bird species at the scene where the birds were last sighted. The five extinct bird species are the Carolina Parakeet, the Great Auk, the Heath Hen, the Labrador Duck and the Passenger Pigeon.

Jonny is going to Iceland to help Todd install his large-scale sculptures of the Great Auk on the island of Eldey. Jonny will be there over his birthday, and with any luck, Auroras Borealis will commemorate the auspicious day for him. Am I jealous? Ya think?

And not just because of the Amazing Journey to the Mythic Place to do the Cool Thing.

But because this is one of those art projects that actually resonates. Installing a group of Great Auk sculptures won’t bring the Great Auk back - this is again one of those examples of how there are no do-overs - but by re-creating this extinct bird for the human viewer, this helps the humans to have a visceral awareness of what was once there. And the resultant regret over the extinction of these magnificent birds might sow the seeds of not repeating the offense. Maybe.

So bon voyage, Jonny. Happy birthday and safe travels. I look forward to reading about your Lost Bird adventures in Iceland. The opportunity to place a marker that will increase human awareness, even if it’s just a little, is an enviable one. Because with any luck, that little bit of awareness might come with a nice, big pinch of regret.

Goodness knows we need it.


  1. Once I saw a condor. I wonder if I ever will again.

  2. Unfortunately the destroyers tend to win. They have an objective and go after it and then they are done. The savers have to be constantly alert forever and that is just hard to do, to stay vigilant without letting up.

    There is a line in a Pheobe Snow song "men with no feelings". Those words have haunted me for more years that I care to remember. It seems to sum up those people who can destroy 2,000 year old redwoods by the millions, or all the carrier pigeons in the world, or abuse a child, or firebomb a city, or beat a spouse to death or any of a myriad of things that we hear of every day and not feel a pang of remorse, sympathy, empathy or anything.

  3. Keep speaking with your mighty pen Jen! It's resonating.

  4. From DoDo Birds to Redwoods. I like the way you tie it all together.

    Your point is well -taken. The destruction of our natural world has to stop someday. The question is, will it be in time? And what will it take to motivate people to do the right thing now?

    We can only hope.

  5. A lot in that post!

    I do think the consciousness is improving, even if the situation on the ground isn't. 40 years ago ecology wasn't even a left wing political plank (my communist grandfather used to say "ecology is a bourgeois science), now even corporate hacks have to pay lip service to it. Of course, it always takes a disaster, like Santa Barbara 1969 or Love Canal. Unfortunately, I don't think this latest spill has changed anything.


  6. Staged photos? Common they all have that caught in the act look ;). Those poor redwoods. We need more Michael taylors. Luv your neighbor :)

  7. You're 100% right, Dagny - they look guilty as hell! And Michael Taylor rules, by the way. I'm jealous because Kym actually got to meet Steve Sillett and Marie Antoine - the scientists behind Richard Preston's book, "The Wild Trees."


    Can you believe how lucky she is? Kym, I'm also jealous that you've seen a condor. I've always wanted to see one. Maybe someday!

    Dave and Eric are both right when they question whether or not things will get better in time for humanity to recover. I also really liked Ken's take on destroyers versus savers. Destroying is such a simple impulse and saving is so much more complex. It's sometimes almost impossible to articulate the benefits of taking the right action because those benefits are so abstract and long-term, whereas the "benefits" of destruction are so immediately apparent. In the form of green bills and shiny, shiny coins...

    Thanks for the encouragement, Kris. Sometimes I feel like I'm yelling in the middle of a cyclone. But, as Eric points out, ecology wasn't even on the radar for lots of people until relatively recently. My hope is if the conversation continues, so will the improvements. Sometimes I feel like it's only postponing the inevitable, but still... Always try to fight the good fight, right?