The Extinction Variations: An Elegy for Earth’s Abundance and a Call to Action

The arts can be a powerful vehicle to express our concern over the ongoing annihilation of our Planet – as vividly and in as many and diverse ways as the arts offers. Here is just one such vehicle. This is from a completely different culture to Jamaica’s; but it is an example of what can be done, and with such artistry and such impact.

Earth’s wild song: a Bahama Mockingbird singing in Hellshire (threatened by the bulldozers of housing developments). My photo.

A few days ago, I attended the virtual world première of a film called “The Extinction Variations,” an emotional journey with spoken words by Kathleen Dean Moore and music by classical pianist Rachelle McCabe. It was a part of Spring Creek Project’s series “Music to Save Earth’s Songs.” The Project is seeking to fuse the arts, philosophy, and a practical approach to environmental science. Its lecture series is live streaming and then on YouTube (not all of them are posted yet, but this film is up there). The Project falls under the umbrella of Oregon State University’s College of Liberal Arts. It also includes a nine-week lecture series under the heading “Pandemic as Portal: Creating a Just Future on Earth.”

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

The music is Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli, which he wrote in 1931 – a dark period in his life. This piece expresses a whole range of moods. Beginning with a muted sadness, it plunges and whispers – from muted heartbreak, through anger, bewilderment, and ultimately determination. The music punctuates Ms. Dean Moore’s fluent and lyrical prose, which points to the “moral urgency of action” in the face of the Sixth Great Extinction. Yes, we have reached that point.

Since 1970 – the year Earth Day was founded – forty per cent of “everything that has the breath of life” has been extinguished, forever. Younger generations are seeing our Planet as “half of what it should be,” said Ms. Dean Moore, her voice trembling slightly. It’s an “impoverished, simplified, drained and bulldozed world.” Field guides and children’s picture books will portray animals, plants, insects that no longer exist. Polar bears, lions, elephants, owls, fireflies. The world is using 150 species a day. In developing countries, the rate is highest.

Ms. Dean Moore used several quotes from Thomas Berry, an interesting man from North Carolina, a cultural historian with a passion for Asian religions, who eventually turned to a study of the Earth and called himself a “geologian.” Now, we have the technology to dominate the Planet. I like these words of his:

“Our relationship with the earth involves something more than pragmatic use, academic understanding, or aesthetic appreciation. A truly human intimacy with the earth and with the entire natural world is needed. Our children should be properly introduced to the world in which they live.”

(Thomas Berry, “Human Presence,” in The Dream of the Earth, 13).

Ms. Dean Moore speaks sometimes against a backdrop of Oregon: on a hillside where stiff pine trees align themselves with rows of stumps, or on a coastline where seaweed drapes the rocks and cold, clear water pushes onto the shore. She also stands in a Walmart parking lot. Unlike our complicated landscapes in the tropics, with trailing vines and tangled plants, Oregon’s mountains, valleys and seascapes are cool, almost austere. However, you can easily close your eyes and place those words and thoughts in among our own green hills and on our shifting shores.

Ms. Dean Moore in among the rock pools on the Oregon coast.

The film is largely about extinction, as a result of climate change and humans who keep on taking. The rhythms of migration are disrupted, it seems. “The weather comes now, and goes; and who can make any sense of it?” Have you seen the frozen eye of a swallow, that arrived too soon in Oregon? asks Ms. Dean Moore.

The film takes on a political tone, as it must. Consumerism; corporate greed; environmental destruction that is either deliberate or careless; expanding population and consumption – all of these add up to the lifestyle that has sparked the Sixth Extinction. Unlike previous extinction periods, this one is not natural – it’s not an asteroid. It’s human decisions, with “lawless governments in deep collusion.” The sound of fossil fuel exploration is described as “the thud.” It does not make sense, nor is it right.

I loved this imagery: ours is an economy that “eats its own feet.” We are gnawing away at our own foundations, and we will eventually topple.

Rachelle McCabe’s performance is thoughtful, intense and tumultuous – everything Rachmaninoff is, and enhancing the words and images.

Although the general mood of the film is elegiac and at times somber, it concludes with a three-point “to do” list. Right, what are we going to do about it? There are three major actions that we can take, in whatever way is relevant to our society, our lives and our horizons. These are put forward as follows:

  • #1 Stop the killing: stand up against reckless, corporate greed. Stand up for all vulnerable beings. This will not happen by governments suddenly seeing the light; it is citizens’ conscience and actions that will make the difference – and citizens’ voices. We must say, “This is wrong and I will not allow it” (which reminds me of a recent comment by environmental activist Diana McCaulay, who noted in a recent discussion that you have to start by saying: “I object.” )
  • #2 Defend everything we have left: (“ferociously” adds Ms. Dean Moore). This has to be a concerted effort, a communal effort, “flotillas of arks” to the rescue, as another environmental thinker, essayist and poet, David Oates, writes.
  • #3 Create new ways of living in harmony with the Earth: Start again, and figure out those new ways. The “old way of life” is a problem and we cannot cling to it any longer. “Respect, restraint” should be critical values, going forward (aren’t we aware of all of this, in the age of COVID?) “Living in concert with the Earth” should be our goal, to use the film’s musical metaphor.

Are we humans really “the point of the whole thing”? I would say no, everything that lives is the point.

“How much are we willing to lose?” asks Ms. Dean Moore, with a tumbling list of species – sturgeons and whales, tree frogs and iguanas, ferns and butterflies. And what do we love too much to lose – what do we feel we can indeed do without? We seem to feel that Nature is dispensable. But do we even have that choice?

We are not only in physical danger; we are in moral danger. Which is worse?

You can find more about the work of these two women at musicandclimateaction.com They produce materials for community groups, and can be booked for live performances. I am so glad that this film brought them to my doorstep, giving me inspiration and pause for thought. Once again this brought home to me the power of the arts in expressing environmental and climate change issues. I look forward to seeing many, many Caribbean versions. I don’t see why not.

“Music to Save Earth’s Songs: Here is a Redwinged Blackbird singing. (Photo: Spring Creek Project)

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