Quatrain Questions with Joanna Lilley

Joanna Lilley reflects on the deeply heartbreaking but necessary task of writing extinct animals back to life.

1.    This collection must have been very difficult to write, given the heartbreaking nature of extinction and the knowledge that humans have played a direct role in the loss of so many species. What strategies did you use to cope with the feelings that resulted from writing this collection?

Yes, it was a difficult collection to write but it also felt necessary to write it. It helped me delve into and examine my lifelong worry about animals. I’ve never understood why as a species we are capable of causing other animals so much suffering or why so many people forget we are animals too. So in a sense the collection itself was a strategy for creating something out of all that concern and preoccupation, as well as dealing with the knowledge that humans have caused demise of so many species.

My intention in writing Endlings was very much to honour, acknowledge and celebrate animals that are no longer with us. It sounds fanciful and even grandiose, I know, but I wanted to somehow connect with them across history and try to listen to their voices and translate what they were saying into human language. It was a heartbreaking project but it became such a privilege to spend time with each creature and learn about them and try to imagine what their lives and consciousness were like.

There was perhaps an unintended strategy at play as well. I didn’t of course know it would happen but while I was writing the poems in Endlings I went through four bereavements as well as almost losing my father. My dog died, then seven months after that my sister, then seven months after that my mother, then five months after that my cat. I know it might not seem right to some people to include a dog and a cat in same list as a sister and mother and part of me wants to justify that by pointing out that I don’t have children. But regardless of differing opinions about what a proper hierarchy of grief should be, losing my animal friends broke my heart. All this accumulated, personal loss became, I think, an underlying emotion or undercurrent in the collection, even though my original, impossible wish was to try to step out of human experience and let the animals speak for themselves.

2.    In Endlings, you included two separate poems for both the passenger pigeon and helmeted muskox. Is there something special to you about these two animals that made you return to them twice?

I wondered about that myself when I was putting the collection together. I actually think it was more that when I was writing about those two species I was trying to cram too much into one poem and the poems broke apart. I couldn’t seem to be able to let any of the parts go and so two separate poems for each species emerged. Perhaps that was because there was much to say about those particular species.

I saw several specimens of passenger pigeons while I was visiting natural history museums to research this book and as soon as you start looking into extinction you discover that as an extinct species the passenger pigeon was as iconic as the dodo. The very last passenger pigeon to exist, the “endling” of the species, was called Martha and people would go to visit her at Cincinnati Zoo knowing she was the very last of her kind. She died in 1914 and was shipped off to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in a block of ice. I was lucky enough to “meet” her there, behind glass as she would have once been seen through bars. I wanted to imagine being someone who had seen her when she was alive and that was how one of the passenger pigeon poems emerged. The other poem was inspired by trying to imagine what it would have been like to be a passenger pigeon. There were so many of them at one time that when a flock flew overhead they would block out the sun and they would take three days for them to pass. It could have been like being part of one immense organism.

For the helmeted muskox, I had two different experiences that I tried to connect in one poem but the glue was too obvious so I broke them apart again. One poem emerged from being able to see and touch helmeted muskox fossils at the Government of Yukon fossil laboratory here in Whitehorse where I live and going to a talk there by a paleontologist. The other poem came from cross country skiing around the Yukon Wildlife Preserve near Whitehorse and the thrill of seeing muskox who look as if they haven’t evolved for millennia.

There are other species I could have written more than poem about but I unfortunately had to stop somewhere. The great auk and Steller’s sea cow were especially heartbreaking to write about and I would still like to keep writing about them as well as all the many other extinct species I didn’t write about at all.

3.    It would be possible to fill an entire book with extinctions caused by humans alone; why was it important to you to bring ancient extinctions into the conversation as well?

Yes, it would. I often feel I should be writing a sequel, as it were, to Endlings specifically focusing on the human-caused extinctions I couldn’t fit into this collection, although there are so many other ways to write about animals I’m still seeing what emerges from my current scribblings.

It was a conscious decision to write about species that became extinct before humans came along but not necessarily something I thought about for very long. It just felt right to go back beyond human existence and connect with species that existed entirely in their own context. We are terribly human-centric as a species and this manifests in so many different ways. Some people, as I’ve mentioned, forget we’re animals. Some people think only humans have a spiritual existence. Some people think it’s all right to treat other animals as commodities and mass produce them for food. Some people don’t think about other animals much at all.

It’s generally agreed that we are causing the planet’s current sixth mass extinction period and while I wanted to rant against this avoidable annihilation I also wanted to explore the five preceding mass extinction periods, perhaps to show that in terms of geological time we’re not as significant as we think we are. I didn’t do this in a systematic way but the result was that about half of the species in Endlings became extinct because of humans, several more may or may not have been human-caused and then the rest of the species I wrote about became extinct during other mass extinction periods or through evolution.

4.    At the time of this interview, we are in the midst of a global pandemic that has radically altered the way humans go about their day-to-day lives. What lessons do you think we need to take from this experience going forward in discussions about conservation? How optimistic are you about the future?

I’m very much hoping that the trajectory the human race is on will shift because of COVID-19. You could say I’m optimistic about the planet’s future but not so sure about Homo sapiens’ future. I’m very heartened and encouraged, however, to see how quickly we can alter our behaviour as a species and do so much to help each other individually and as a society. I’m really hoping we can transfer this sense of caring and effort and change in a radical way to the climate crisis. I’m hoping that governments and corporations will be astonished at what they can accomplish – not in any totalitarian sense (!) but apply it to saving other species, the planet and indeed ourselves.

I am of course deeply interested in what we’re reading about how COVID-19 began in other animals and jumped the species barrier to us – and how environmental and conservation organizations are calling for us to stop treating other animals so cruelly, such as keeping them in such cramped conditions, making it easy for infections to spread.

I think we’re demonstrating very clearly as a species how good we are at responding and taking action in the here and now in a crisis. Unfortunately, though, I’ve read how human beings aren’t so good at looking at the longer term and taking action in the context of a future that is more distant. Perhaps, though, in the aftermath of this pandemic we’ll prove that we have evolved to at last possess that ability.

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