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The Consolations of Extinction

We do what we can without going crazy, but is it ever enough?

by Christopher Cokinos

Published in the May/June 2007 issue of Orion magazine



Painting by Alexis Rockman, used with permission

SNOW IN THE SUMMER ISN’T UNHEARD OF in Utah’s Cache Valley, where I live. Last year, after a warm spell, I was suddenly back in my parka—a puffy, crazed scarecrow—waving a broom wildly among branches of juniper, maple, and linden in the yard, knocking off wet snow that threatened to crack branches and did. As I walked round the house, I tromped by flower beds edged with local dolomite rocks and blooming white with Cerastium, the aptly named snow-in-summer.

Right now, though, as I lean back in my hammock on a warm, lazy June day beside the river, snow in summer is the falling fluff from peachleaf willow catkins, a drowsy blizzard of seeds. A whole catkin fell onto my geology book, and I lifted the just-burst seeds and tossed them outward. Sometimes the fluff accretes, like the dust of a forming solar system, the small accumulations that build planets, and one such willow-mass will globe, drift down to the cobbled bank, and then teeter, or else drop to the sunlit water of the Blacksmith Fork.

Beneath this willow grove—eight thick trunks—I watch the slender leaves waver in wind. Light wavers too. I reach down for water, no, wine, a small bottle leaning on this rock beach. I look at the Blacksmith Fork racing along. Where some branches are caught in the current, water leaps. Beside and behind me grow vines of purple shooting stars. I read or don’t. I listen to the sound of what I jokingly call the truncated wren—a yellow warbler, whose staccato bursts remind me, oddly, of the wind-up burbling of a house wren. Days like this are slow as creation, as precession. As necessary as air.

WILLOWS HAVE NOT ALWAYS BEEN HERE, though they have been casting shadows for at least 50 million years. Every time I get in the hammock I think of that. The thought becomes praise by repetition. Willows are venerable trees.

For a time, there was once a tree called Glossopteris. An illustration of a fossil leaf of this tree reminds me a bit of a willow leaf, long and narrow. Glossopteris grew to nearly twenty feet in height, tapering like a subalpine fir to its top. One book I have calls “Glossopteris and its kin” a “hardy flora.” Glossopteris survived the transition between the Permian and Triassic, which was hardly uneventful, but then faded into extinction by the late Triassic. There wasn’t anyone around to launch a Save-the-Glossopteris campaign. No one to climb the last tree and issue press releases. Without fanfare, Glossopteris was gone.

If I were to rise and wade across the river from Hammock Beach, then clamber up the rocky bank that Kathe and I are revegetating—to repair the damage from illegally dumped fill—I’d scramble beside the cottonwood we planted, a tree as high as a Glossopteris, and I’d brush against blossoming wild rose, thorns catching on my skin and shirt. Then I’d jump over our fence to the road, where, a few paces away, grow the stalks of scouring rushes—a plant dinosaurs stomped by along late Triassic rivers. Perched in my hammock, I wonder suddenly: Are those green stalks really the same plants the dinosaurs knew? Or was that common horsetail? Both are Equisetum. Both are ancient. Horsetails, I’ve read, “have a long geologic range, from Devonian to Recent.” Devonian: some 360 to 400 million years ago! The rushes in question grow unobtrusively in dry ground and gravel above an irrigation ditch. Their ancestors were among the first plants to have vascular channels in their stems, the first plants to draw water upward, allowing for vertical growth. I love the jointed stems of these rushes, their silica-scratchy texture, their antiquity. They grow right next to pavement, and each year I pull some of the Johnsongrass and dyer’s woad that threaten to crowd the rushes out.

One of the things I’ve read lately in the hammock is a spiral-bound book called A Collector’s Guide to Rock, Mineral & Fossil Localities of Utah. The book includes a familiar, though useful, metaphor for deep time. With one frame for each year of the Earth’s 4.6 billion-year history—there are twenty-four frames in a second—a film of that history would run for six years, all day, all night, every day of the week. Most of the movie would be astronomical and geological: the formation of the Earth, the filling of oceans, the movement of continents. Not until the sixth spring would vertebrates appear. That summer and fall, the dinosaurs would come and go. Not till the last month of the last year would mammals and birds proliferate. On the last morning of the last month of the last year would skulk the first protohumans. And in the last three seconds of the last night of the last month of the last year would arrive and pass the great events of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. That’s it. Three seconds out of six years.

Such a perspective nurtures sanity. So does this: 99.9 percent of all species that have ever evolved on this planet are gone forever.

Civilization is not a given. Extinction is.

THE LATTER PERMIAN SEEMS STRANGE to me, with dragonflies as big as birds. But also familiar, with cockroaches scuttling about. In the ocean cruised trilobites, the first creatures on Earth to see, creatures we know only through fossils. In the seas were fish and sharks and kelp; on land, the world was green. But it was a different sort of green and quieter: no flowers, no birds, no bees. And not yet dinosaurs, not yet mammals.

Then, about 250 million years ago, something happened—the largest extinction event in the history of the planet. The end-Permian extinction was a holocaust of thorough proportions; some 95 percent of all species, marine and terrestrial, were lost. Scientists continue to argue about its cause. The debate is, in some respects, a classic one: volcanism (on a massive scale) versus meteorite impact (on a massive scale). Scientists are probing this mystery by studying the mineral compositions of the Siberian Traps, a region created by volcanic floods, and by examining core samples that may contain the remains of a meteorite impact. At present, the case for impact is sketchier than the case for volcanism, and there were, in fact, huge outpourings of lava floods at the time. The question for the volcanists is whether such lava flows could have caused the necessary effects to nearly wipe clean the slate of Earth. Other researchers argue that a slowly changing environment in the Permian allowed toxic gases—hydrogen sulfide is a culprit—to build up in the oceans and then, catastrophically, be released into the air. A sudden release of methane stored in permafrost and as underwater ice is yet another suspect.

Regardless of the cause, the early Triassic was a miserable time, dominated by dust and heat and erosion and choking fumes. Greg Retallack, a University of Oregon expert in ancient soils, estimates that carbon dioxide jumped from its Permian norm of three hundred parts per billion to eight thousand parts per billion. Oxygen levels plummeted on land and in the sea. Retallack compares the changes in gases to moving the entire biosphere to the top of a mountain.

The early Triassic was also a time of acid rain. The ozone layer may have been shredded. And some researchers have argued that the early Triassic was heaven-sent for mushrooms, because mushrooms love the dead. Retallack calls this cheery Earth a “postapocalyptic greenhouse.” Things were so bad that, according to end-Permian expert Douglas Erwin, even “insects experienced their only documented mass extinction.”

One creature was doing okay—Lystrosaurus , a reptile that looks to me like a hybrid of a pig, dachshund, and saber-toothed cat. For a while, 95 percent of all the land animals on the Earth were Lystrosaurus . Paleontologist Michael Benton, in his book on the Permian wipeout, says that because it lacked other competitors for plants—and had no predators—Lystrosaurus  just managed “to scratch a living.” Retallack and others believe, however, that Lystrosaurus  did have some attributes that helped it through the awful early Triassic, including its purported behavior as a burrower and its “barrel chest,” which may have helped it breathe in the noxious environment.

Imagine waking up tomorrow, walking across the continents and finding, say, only squirrels.

I OFTEN FEEL OVERWHELMED by the enormity of the end-Permian extinction. Nearly everything dead. Everywhere. It’s nearly unfathomable.

I often feel overwhelmed by the enormity of another extinction event, our current crisis, the Holocene extinction, the sixth known mass die-off in the planet’s history and the only one whose cause is due to the activity of conscious, rational, intelligent beings, activity that has driven the extinction rate to one thousand times higher than the background rates in the fossil record.

Sometimes I feel that I’m supposed to save the entire biosphere. Sometimes I just hang my head in exhaustion and doubt. At the end of his book Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago, Douglas Erwin writes that some paleontologists believe that conservation biologists have significantly misunderstood the fossil record when making claims like the one I just made regarding the human acceleration of extinction rates. In 1996, then president of the Paleontological Society Jack Sepkoski said that we were some 280 to a few thousand years away from an extinction on the scale of the end-Permian.

“As Jack Sepkoski well understood (but many conservation biologists do not),” writes Erwin, “any comparison of fossil extinction rates to current estimates is inherently flawed because the data are so different. With certain obvious exceptions (passenger pigeons, mastodons, and saber-toothed tigers leap to mind), most of the species that humans have so thoughtlessly eliminated are local, often rare, and unlikely to be preserved in the fossil record.”

“It is far more appropriate,” he continues, “to compare past mass extinctions to the number of species that have disappeared among common, widespread, and durable species. There is no political motivation for such a comparison, of course, as it would significantly lower the apparent similarity between past mass extinctions and the current situation.”

Perhaps so, I think. Though 280 years isn’t much time at the low end of Sepkoski’s scale. Make that 270 years.

For Erwin, the upshot is this: If we are in a mass extinction, we are probably doomed anyway. If we aren’t, then we may have time to preserve more than we might have thought.

Confronted with this welter of contradictory assertions and feelings, I will occasionally retreat to my study. I’ll pick up a chunk of gray rock. It formed in the early Triassic ocean, then running low on oxygen. I collected the rock one night in New Zealand, at a lovely place called Kaka Point, where banded dotterels called and raced along the surf line. While the geologists I was traveling with were falling asleep in our rented cabin, I sat on a large boulder formed in the Triassic “dead zone” and listened to birds. I watched the ocean roll in and out, crash down and foam, retreat, advance. Clouds blotted starlight. I felt swept up.

Sometimes, when I’m sitting at my desk, staring out at a maple, a blue spruce, cheatgrass, junk in a neighbor’s pasture, cottonwoods, mountains, and blue sky, I slowly trace my finger along a bump in that small gray stone, a ridge that marks the benthic passage of a Triassic worm. One of the survivors. For life is a song. Life is a hemorrhage. That bump is a narrative of the deep past, and even if, finally, I can’t really comprehend it, I am comforted.

Such are the consolations of extinction.

AT THE FAR END OF THE PLANET’S FUTURE, there are only about 5 billion years before the sun bloats to a red giant. When it does, the sun will be bigger, much bigger, about 160 times bigger—and much brighter, some 3,000 times brighter. Well before then, the waters of the Earth will have boiled off, the surface will have been burnt to a crisp. That will happen in a billion years. Even by that point, the planet will have been a desert world for hundreds of millions of years.

If we’re still around then—if our descendants are around—how can we save the biosphere from what astronomer Chris Impey calls “death by stellar cremation”? Some scientists have seriously suggested altering the orbits of asteroids in order to alter the orbit of our home world, so that we might extend life’s span a bit longer. We seem ready to dare anything.

Further ahead, there will come the age when the sun cools off, becoming an Earth-sized white dwarf that dims, finally, into a black dwarf, a lump of carbon and oxygen, a dark cold gem at the center of a former solar system.

The consolations of extinction are the comforts of deep time, an acceptance of passage. “Take your place with grace,” Bruce Cockburn sings, “and then be on your way.”

The consolations of extinction are an acceptance of death, of all deaths, always, in all places. My lover, myself, my parents, my sister and niece, my grandnephew, my friends, my two sweet cats. The orioles this season sipping nectar from a feeder. The American dipper that makes sounds like clacking pebbles as it flies upriver, downriver, and back again. The river itself. The foothills I glimpse from my hammock are the shorelines of ancient Lake Bonneville, whose remnant Great Salt Lake will dry up too. Families die. Genera die. Whole ecosystems die. The solar system’s planets—nine, no, eight, or, okay, maybe twelve, count ‘em how you will—they’re goners too. Stars, including all 400 billion in the Milky Way: doomed. Galaxies, all of them, all 100-plus billion of them: doomed. Even protons will decay someday, the ages of the atom finally closed. This universe—one, perhaps, in an infinite multiverse—will die in a darkness and cold beyond our imaginings.

DON’T MISUNDERSTAND ME. I am not counseling indifference to contemporary extinctions. I’m not counseling a life of civic inaction or, worse, a life of civic inaction coupled with consumerist bliss. I don’t muse on stellar eschatology in order to cultivate a sophisticated nihilism or to justify purchasing a 900-inch-wide plasma-screen television.

I’m counseling diligence, but also calm: hands that work in the present and eyes that see through it. I’m suggesting that our PalmPilots and DayMinders and Nature Conservancy calendars show not only year, month, date, and day of the week but also geologic epoch. It’s a Tuesday in the Holocene. I’m saying that too much grief for the world means less energy to help it along.

When I’m not at the desk writing, I’ll be at the edge of Cutler Marsh counting white-faced ibises for the second year in a row, the beginning of a local effort to have the marsh declared an Important Bird Area and later, I trust, a National Wildlife Refuge. I’ll be attending a meeting of concerned neighbors who are watchdogging development along our road. Or I’ll be writing to the manager of a state refuge to discuss the local Audubon chapter’s interest in habitat-improvement projects. Today I’ll water some newly planted cottonwoods.

Some of these efforts will matter, others may not.

I do what I can without going crazy.

I do what I can because I don’t want to see the white-faced ibis as a species die in my lifetime. Because I don’t want to walk one day to the river in back of my house and find that the willows have withered. Because I don’t want to wake up on May mornings and not hear meadowlarks. Because I don’t want to suddenly miss the chirpy business of the yellow warbler. So I try to do my part to keep them around, both for myself—and do let us admit a very deep selfishness at the core of activism—and for the sake of their lives lasting as long as they possibly can.

Of course it is never enough.

My partner and I own a hybrid, we’ve decided not to have kids, we wipe our rears with 100 percent post-consumer toilet paper, print our essays with 100 percent post-consumer office paper, we buy local produce in the summers, we’re even xeriscaping.

But sometimes days or weeks go by when I don’t do anything more for the Holocene Earth. Sometimes I set aside my store-bought soy patties (“flame grilled”) to run my knife through a thick steak (usually bison). Sometimes I turn the furnace up. Sometimes I let our wind-generated, grid-purchased electricity juice the television so I can watch the NFL Network or even a blue movie. I haven’t replaced every bulb in the house with a compact fluorescent, we also own, ahem, an SUV, and I can’t stand hemp.

Were he alive today, Walt Whitman, that great American poet, probably would sit down and watch TV with me. We’d chant together, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then . . . I contradict myself; I am large . . . I contain multitudes.” We’d consider grass blades and stars; then we’d tune in some bluegrass beamed down by satellite.

So there you have it. Politically incorrect contradictions. Comforts and distress. The postmodern and the ancient. Activist and asshole. Momentary, hourly, daily, weekly, seesawing between work and laziness, between hope and despair, just one of the billions trying to understand how we’re supposed to “save the world” (read: the present-day biosphere) when at the same time we may be as responsible for its undoing as those we criticize. Confusing, isn’t it?

Here’s what I know: I know that when you find yourself free of the poisons that too much angst can cultivate, then something marvelous happens. You can sense how very old the planet is, how very old life and death are, and you can keep going on, you can keep doing the work you do in this universe, feeling despair when you feel despair, feeling—amazing—joy when you feel joy.

How can this happen, this letting-go and holding-on all at once? This doing that isn’t striving? This right work that is calm? Lao-Tzu once gave us hints. But, really, it’s hard to say, hard to say. Maybe it happens when you see—I mean really see—the broken axial spine of a trilobite impressed in mountain shale. It happens on a day you can remember: up a wide, hummocky gully in Idaho, with rockhounds staring through hand lenses beneath a sky streaming with peristyles of sunlight, then ragged with dark clouds spitting real snow, the aspen leaves flickering lightdark, lightdark, lightdark, hyper-real.

Because places—and the things that inhabit them—are artifacts of time. They too flicker.

Just now, beneath willow trees casting their summer snow, I set aside books and memories and fears simply to watch whatever happens in the branches, to watch cloud shadows on the Bear River Range of Paleozoic sedimentary rock, to watch the river pass on, as it always will, until it doesn’t. Such time beneath the willows does not flood away hope or outrage or action or exhaustion or grief or guilt or lust or love, but puts me deeply in time so those things come and go, as they must, seeds on water. 

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Christopher Cokinos is the author of Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. He teaches at Utah State University.

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