The Bramble Cay Melomys, rat like creatures who lived on a small island in the Barrier Reef, is generally recognised as the first mammal to have become extinct because of anthropocene climate change. Although it hadn't been seen since 2009 , its extinction was confirmed in 2019.
When we mourn someone we usually have a strong sense of what they were, their shape, size, smell - the space they occupied in our life. The question I have asked myself repeatedly over the last year or so, since I heard about this extinction, is what is mourning without this?
It is not a question that I have approached uniquely , or that the Bramble Cay Melomys uniquely demands from us. Biologists, cartoonists and environmental activists in Australia have considered the event in retrospect in ways which suggest the kind of ways human grief can go ( memorialising, recrimination, idealising, ). My own perusal of the Red List (as part of a campaign to encourage our National Museum in Scotland to update its role call of animal extinctions suggest that 219 vertebrate species of have become extinct since 2010, since they last repainted their display). But mostly I think we feel guilty. And that guilt can stop us grieving, and stop us approaching the actions that can help us change.
I decided to make a memorial to the Melomys, a kind of floating island which sank beneath the flooded waters of a local pond on the anniversary of the official declaration of its extinction ( see blog post, https://riverofthings.wordpress.com/2020/04/17/extinction-day/) . During its making I dreamed about small rodents (not unlike the gerbils which lived in a cage in a corner of my kitchen) swimming frantically and increasingly less strongly as they sunk beneath the waves of a tropical storm. In the background tankers and container ships carry fossil fuels and ores through the Torres Strait from a burning Australia towards the Asean tiger, in a remorseless and mechanised way. There is no one around .
I want to shed tears, and not to let go. In that knot of feelings I can identify existential fears of drowning, the sadness of finding the dead bodies of gerbils over the last year, a wish not to feel powerless and a deep anger about both my own powerlessness ,and the ongoing resistance to acknowledging climate change ( and the emotions of loss and anxiety) which should follow from this, as from hundreds of other small overlooked underreported deaths of animals, forests, refugees, COVID victims which the Anthropocene still demands we overlook, so that I can sit in my kitchen and type this article into a multinationally-sourced, delocalised-hyperobject which can wing this out into the ether to you. This wont save anything. We are simply living wrong. I know that.
I've grieved the Melomys for around a year now. The lack of the encounter with them and their home, has probably helped me reach out into the world for other kinds of connection. I've wondered what is being like for sparrows, frogs, gerbils, bats , trees, fungi. I don't want them to die unknown and unloved . I don't want to be someone who lets that happen. I don t want to let go. I imagine that my life is going to contain a long series of witnessing avoidable deaths and losses of Beings. At the moment I am realising that the beings I will never meet are still distant to me, but I am also looking nervously to the skies for the return of the fieldfares and sedge warblers, and that in time, I will notice it has been a long time since I saw familiar companions - a stonechat or a curlew.. I must face being bereft, to have lost something which is part of me too, which tells us in a very embodied and humbling way that we are connected. And that part of the connection I have with these beings has killed them.
I wonder what it felt like to have a totem, and am tempted to adopt the Melomys, as i think others have done with extinct species (like the Thylacine) or endangered ones ( like the Northern white rhino or the Giant panda). But this is only another way to try and keep it alive, and I can see I have again been tricked back into the circles of the grieving process. We believe there must be an escape but there never is. Something precious has been lost, and we will always know that, and find ways of living on through that notion.