The first name you were given by us was Mātuhituhi.
Did you know that? In those days, we coexisted quite happily.
Later, we called you Bush Wren.
We wanted to classify you, so we decided that you belonged in
the genus of New Zealand wrens, Xenicus.
We gave you another name, Xenicus Longipes, ‘the long-footed
We discovered you. We named you. We categorised you.
You used to live in the forest; you didn’t really fly very well, but that didn’t matter. You were safe in the forest and could move around easily with your long feet. You were so little: only 9cm long and weighing just 16g.
You built your nests on the ground, which used to be perfectly safe; that was how you’d always done it.
You lived in what is now New Zealand, perhaps for hundreds, thousands of years before we came to your home.
Then we brought predators, deliberately and accidentally, who gradually took over. It wasn’t that long before there were only a few of you left, and then just one. And then no more.
It didn’t take very long for us to destroy you, without really noticing. Less than 100 years before you were all gone. No more births and no more deaths.
We killed you. We tried to save you. We failed you.
We tried to stop it, but it was too late. We tried to find a way to keep you alive, but it didn’t work. We lost you.
You were unique and you were sacred. We are diminished by
We had no right to do this to you. You did not deserve this.
I am sorry.
I remember you. Even though you and I were never on this Earth at the same time. You are significant to me and I will not forget your names. I will not forget what you look like.
How do we even begin to grieve these losses, these extinctions? How do we grieve the enormity of the breakdown of our climate?
Is it not appropriate to feel these emotions (grief, anger, desolation, hopelessness, guilt, fear, frustration, anxiety, depression, emptiness, and denial), given what we know about what is happening, and given the threats to our very existence? As Jiddu Krishnamurti famously said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” (Charles Eisenstein talks about this very thing here https://charleseisenstein.org/video/it-is-no-measure-of-health-to-be-well-adjusted-to-a-profoundly-sick-society/.) My view is that these feelings shouldn’t be avoided but need to be talked about openly, as a step on the path to fixing the mess we have created, i.e. changing our sick society into one which works in harmony with the natural world, rather than in an exploitative way. Grieving and expressing our anger and our sorrow and our rage will help us to connect to ourselves and each other, and will make it easier to move through these paralysing feelings and into action.
How do we reconcile the guilt we feel over humanity’s role
in this destruction? Can we ever forgive ourselves?
How do we live with this existential fear of our own
extinction hanging over us? How do we cope with our fear for ourselves and for
the next generations?
One way to start is by remembering those that have been lost; by honouring them and trying to ensure that their existence was not meaningless. There is a sacred duty of remembrance that we bear, I believe. We must remember all that have been lost, even though only a small proportion were actually known to us by name. We must remember them all.
I’ve always liked the idea of the ‘tomb of the unknown soldier’ – a feeling that it was somehow overwhelmingly important to remember those who were lost beyond our ability to name them. The idea of this came out of the horrors of the First World War, when so many died that some soldiers were buried without their names being known. This unknowing remembrance has become a sacred duty in so many countries, and the tomb of the unknown soldier is still honoured today.
In just this way, I believe we have a sacred duty to remember those creatures and plants who have existed and then ceased to exist without ever being known. There have been so many of them.
In the same way, I also believe we have a duty to remember all humans who have died unmourned and unremembered. It is the same sacred duty of remembrance.
Joanna Macy says, “We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings. Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal. That is what is happening as we see people honestly confronting the sorrows of our time.”