The Language of Extinction

When wildfires destroy habitats, more than species are lost.

Holly Haworth May 22, 2020

Clockwise from top left: Seven endangered species whose habitats were hard hit by the Australian wildfires: spiral sun-orchid, austral toadflax, magenta lilly pilly, glossy black-cockatoo, long-nosed potoroo, spectacled monarch, grey-headed flying-fox. (Illustration by Sterre Verbokkem)

It is often the case now that we do not know of an animal’s or insect’s or plant’s exis­tence — do not ever hear its name — until it is almost gone.

Birds can fly away in managed fires, but in large wildfires, they become disoriented by smoke and flames. They die, their lilting songs going with them.

When that species lives across the globe from where we live, this is, in one sense, not sur­pris­ing. And still, it’s strange that lan­guage trav­els this way, the names of things pop­u­lat­ing far­away tongues for the first time at the moment they are dis­ap­pear­ing. Such was the case this win­ter when I obtained a list pub­lished by the Aus­tralian Depart­ment of Envi­ron­ment and Ener­gy of vul­ner­a­ble, endan­gered and crit­i­cal­ly endan­gered species whose habi­tats have dimin­ished since the bush­fires began in July 2019. The fires had spread red on the maps, red on the aer­i­al news cam­eras, as I watched from afar in hor­ror in the midst of win­ter in the Unit­ed States, a win­ter that hadn’t yet made me shiv­er until I saw the sum­mer flames engulf­ing the Aus­tralian con­ti­nent, and the images of koalas and kan­ga­roos try­ing to escape the blazes.

I also want­ed to know the names of liv­ing beings that weren’t men­tioned on the news; I had nev­er heard of the more than 330 species that filled the list. The names alone — to say noth­ing of the lives of the things in their var­i­ous habi­tats — are a poem, the entire bulk of which would not fit here. I felt com­pelled to read them aloud:

spec­ta­cled monarch, magen­ta lil­ly pil­ly, spi­ral sun-orchid, aus­tral toad­flax, shrub­by hazel­wood, grey-head­ed fly­ing-fox, glossy black-cock­a­too, long-nosed potoroo, Wal­lum leek-orchid, Wol­lumbin dog­wood, Booroo­long frog, mar­ble daisy-bush, regent hon­eyeater, satin fly­catch­er, satin-top grass, vel­vet wat­tle, milky silk­pod, pale gold­en moth …

For 114 of the species, the report stat­ed, more than half their known habi­tat has been dam­aged by fire. As I said their names, I imag­ined the list not only as a poem but as a ros­ter, with few­er and few­er answer­ing here.”

It is not lost on me that almost all the names of the species are giv­en in Eng­lish, the lan­guage I write and speak in, and Australia’s dom­i­nant lan­guage. The inhab­i­tants of the con­ti­nent once spoke rough­ly 250 dif­fer­ent lan­guages with 800 dis­tinct dialects, Rhon­da Smith at the Aus­tralian Insti­tute of Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Islander Stud­ies tells me; now there are only 13. What names were these insects and plants and ani­mals called in the 800 dialects? And what liv­ing things were lost entire­ly along with the peo­ple who shared a habi­tat with them?

The sweep­ing flames seem to mir­ror the way one world­view — that of dom­i­na­tion and extrac­tion — has engulfed the globe, leav­ing behind cul­tur­al homo­gene­ity, what envi­ron­men­tal­ist Van­dana Shi­va calls mono­cul­ture of the mind.”

The mod­ern indus­tri­al and cap­i­tal­ist mind­set pits human cul­ture against nature, and the con­ser­va­tion move­ment, with dif­fer­ent inten­tions, has tend­ed to do the same. But a wave of anthro­po­log­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal schol­ar­ship since the 1990s has made it clear that cul­tur­al diver­si­ty and bio­log­i­cal diver­si­ty are inter­twined. One study, for exam­ple, shows 70% of the world’s lan­guages are found with­in the planet’s bio­di­ver­si­ty hotspots.” A pro­lif­er­a­tion of life goes hand in hand with a rich­ness of human lan­guage, sto­ry, song and oral his­to­ries, all of which serve as ves­sels in indige­nous cul­tures for the com­plex eco­log­i­cal knowl­edge need­ed for good land man­age­ment. That there is no word for nature” in indige­nous lan­guages the world over indi­cates the degree to which indige­nous peo­ple have seen their cul­tures as inter­wo­ven with their liv­ing habitats.

Though fire is the source of the destruc­tion in Aus­tralia, the tragedy has com­pelled indige­nous peo­ple across the con­ti­nent to share their cul­tur­al sto­ries about how fire has been used to nur­ture bio­di­ver­si­ty since before Euro­pean col­o­niza­tion, before indige­nous fires, songs and sto­ries began to be suppressed.

Our ances­tors man­aged this land­scape for mil­len­nia and fire was one of our [prin­ci­pal] man­age­ment tools,” writes Oliv­er Costel­lo, of the Bund­jalung peo­ple, in an arti­cle for The Guardians Indige­nousX series. Through col­o­niza­tion we have seen a rapid decline in our prac­tices and, equal­ly, a rapid decline in the val­ues asso­ci­at­ed with this coun­try,” Costel­lo writes. 

Con­trolled burn­ing removes veg­e­ta­tion that is more like­ly to wors­en wild­fires; it encour­ages new growth and avoids burn­ing the canopy. In tra­di­tion­al times, you would’ve been pun­ished for [burn­ing the canopy],” for­mer fire­fight­er and mem­ber of the Wirad­juri peo­ple, Den Bar­ber, tells Earth­er. If you’re burn­ing the canopy, you’re burn­ing not only the shade that the trees offer, but you’re burn­ing per­haps the seedbed. You’re burn­ing habi­tat. You’re burn­ing flow­ers. That’s where all the mag­ic is, where all the things that sus­tain us are.”

The canopy is where the birds sing, anoth­er lan­guage in itself. Birds can fly away in man­aged fires, but in large wild­fires, they become dis­ori­ent­ed by smoke and flames. They die, their lilt­ing songs going with them.

In his book Cul­tures of Habi­tat: On Nature, Cul­ture, and Sto­ry, eth­no­bi­ol­o­gist Gary Paul Nab­han writes of how the Warlpiri peo­ple of Australia’s Tana­mi Desert once hunt­ed an ani­mal they called mala, a mar­su­pi­al weigh­ing less than five pounds. “[The Warlpiri] did not eat them into extinc­tion,” writes Nab­han. They man­aged their habi­tat with con­trolled burn­ing. Nab­han quotes a nat­u­ral­ist who explained the burn­ing prac­tice to him:

Abo­rig­i­nal fire cre­at­ed a mix of old and new veg­e­ta­tion, and there­fore of shel­ter and food. … The mala’s well-being is very much gov­erned by the right kind of fire. The patch­i­ness of abo­rig­i­nal burn­ing leaves part of the veg­e­ta­tion untouched. Clumps of old spinifex pro­vide the mala with its shel­ter, from which it moves to new growth to feed on the seed heads and young leaves of forbs and grasses. 

But with col­o­niza­tion came the dis­con­nec­tion of Warlpiri from their land, fire sup­pres­sion and rab­bits — an intro­duced species that took over the habi­tat. When the mala began to dis­ap­pear, Nab­han writes, so did what is known as its Dream­ing tra­di­tion — the rit­u­als of songs and sto­ries per­formed for the mala were stopped. A ter­ri­ble silence. And then the mala were gone from the continent.

While fires raged uncon­trolled this past win­ter, sweep­ing at 60 miles per hour across the con­ti­nent, they once were lit with care­ful pre­ci­sion, small fires lick­ing at the lit­tle mounds of veg­e­ta­tion, kin­dled with knowl­edge of each unique habi­tat across the coun­try, where the 250 lan­guages and 800 dialects were used to speak of them. The insects, plants and ani­mals on my list are only the ones that have sur­vived col­o­niza­tion and the dis­rup­tion of their homes, as the 13 lan­guages have sur­vived the same.

And still, they sur­vive. Native voic­es are still speak­ing. Malarndirri McCarthy, sen­a­tor of Australia’s North­ern Ter­ri­to­ry, said in a speech respond­ing to the wild­fires that fire runs through all aspects of [First Nations] lives, our spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and the way we inter­act with the ecol­o­gy, and it has done so for many thou­sands of years. … It’s knowl­edge that we so want to share.” And many in the coun­try seem to be ready to receive it. Since 2007, Australia’s Indige­nous Ranger pro­gram has rec­og­nized the val­ue of tra­di­tion­al knowl­edge for con­ser­va­tion. More than 2,000 First Aus­tralians now man­age the country’s Indige­nous Pro­tect­ed Areas to pro­tect bio­di­ver­si­ty on more than 166 mil­lion acres of land and waters. These rangers are work­ing hard­er than ever to bring back tra­di­tion­al burning.

In a New York Times arti­cle, Alex­is Wright, pro­fes­sor of Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mel­bourne and mem­ber of the Waanyi nation, spoke with Mur­ran­doo Yan­ner, a Gan­galid­da leader who runs the Jigi­ja Indige­nous Fire Train­ing Pro­gram. If we can under­stand, learn from and imag­ine our place through the laws and sto­ries of our ances­tors … then we will have true knowl­edge on how to live, adapt and sur­vive in Aus­tralia, just as our ances­tors did,” Yan­ner said.

Yet, the ances­tors did not face cli­mate change and its increase of drought and fire.

In a Chero­kee sto­ry I have heard from the orig­i­nal inhab­i­tants of the place I am from — the Smoky Moun­tains, some of the world’s most diverse tem­per­ate forests, which saw unprece­dent­ed wild­fires blaz­ing the ridges in 2016 — the ani­mals decide to steal fire from a light­ningstruck sycamore tree because they are cold. When Känäne’skï Amai’yëhï, the Water Spi­der, final­ly gets it for them, they gath­er around it, grateful. 

That humans could wield fire and con­trol it made us unique and helped us sur­vive. The abil­i­ty to cook our food may be what made us intel­li­gent enough to drill into the earth for the fuel of ancient fos­silized forests. But when we lit fos­sil fuels on fire, our pop­u­la­tion sky­rock­et­ed and the world changed. Now it’s get­ting hot­ter each day, due to the warm­ing caused by the bil­lions of fires in our gas fur­naces, coal plants and com­bus­tion engines. All these fires have led to a world now suf­fer­ing from more uncon­trol­lable fire, wild fire. 

Con­scious­ness is kin to fire,” Christo­pher Camu­to writes in Anoth­er Coun­try: Jour­ney­ing Toward the Chero­kee Moun­tains, and I imag­ine the first sto­ries of our ori­gins told around the fire, flames leap­ing across the face of sto­ry­tellers and danc­ing at the edges of the night. Now we sit around a dif­fer­ent fire with a dif­fer­ent sto­ry on our lips — not of ori­gins but of the ends of so many things. We’re not cold any­more. The ani­mals once con­trived to steal fire to warm them­selves, but now they are run­ning from it. If fire is kin to con­scious­ness, then humankind is more con­scious than ever of the role we have played in this cat­a­stro­phe, of how much our sto­ries, whether of dom­i­na­tion and extrac­tion or of stew­ard­ship and care, matter.

If fire is kin to con­scious­ness, our imag­i­na­tions must be sparked greater than ever before, and faster, by these large blazes — in order that we might remem­ber how to wield fire con­scious­ly, so that our sto­ries, our names for ani­mals, insects and plants, might still be spo­ken. So that the lan­guages of all the liv­ing things might still be heard.

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