In the high-ceilinged quiet of the museum, the child’s footsteps ring bright with optimism. Small hand pressed to cool glass, whorls of the palm flattened in kinship. Behind the mist of her breath, there I am (no longer quite myself). Suspended on sharp metal pins against a pale expanse of flattering felt. The child is confused for a moment by her own partial reflection in the case front, soil-dark eyes squint to make me out — limp branches and brittle tendrils. She reads the label:
Bennett’s Seaweed (extinct)
She turns to her father, uncertain, her mouth half full of a question. He is tapping his phone and she doesn’t want to disturb him. She turns back frowning.
can’t tear his eyes from the news, he reaches for it when he wakes from uncertain dreams at night, he feels it vibrate in his pocket during meetings and the urge to look nearly overwhelms him.
he’s a drowning sailor who watches the ship as it goes down into the cold waters and feels an academic curiosity about causes and effects even as the sharp reality of his own demise presses against his numbing skull.
he types questions into his phone. how many degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels have we reached? which made-famous-by-television mammal has joined the endangered list today? and why, why, do we care but not care?
he reads the backlit articles and opens hyperlinks to more op-eds and research and data diagrams and investigations and finds loss and corruption and indifference —
and his phone, found without thought by his aching hand, calls him onwards, a pied piper leading him down the rat hole.
he tries to be conscious of his own awful impact, the invisible footprint that follows even his tiny daughter who stands there with her hand pressed to the glass and her mind transfixed by a scrap of seaweed pinned to the felt.
and it’s hard (so very hard he could weep) to live carefully and shop locally and eat organic and bring your own containers and refuse plastic bags, and all because you’ve seen the pictures on your phone screen of a rotted bird with a stomach full of human refuse and you’ve read about whales and turtles whose throats are swollen with our waste packaging and you know about the tipping points and the pesticides and the nurdles and the methane.
it’s hard to be green and he’s so worried, he doesn’t sleep well at night when the moon comes to whisper to him through the parted curtains.
he’s anxious —
he who once captained a rowing boat, now married and mortgaged, he who holds this wad of plastic and metal and glass tight to his chest and scans for the sign that means he can connect to the WiFi.
and so they come to the museum —
the daughter enthralled by the once-here-no-longer and her father seeking messages of hope and sadness, soothing fuel for his environmental anxiety.
the articles he reads on the small bright screen
compose a horror film that’s really happening
(you don’t know why you want to watch)
but there’s an unexpected catharsis in seeing mounds of waste made by other people. self-satisfaction, but also a deep pleasure in waste, in the guilty luxury of objects created to be thrown away; plastic cups and plates and bottles and jars.
and the landfill sites are sublime symbols of death in the midst of crude-oil capitalism.
and far away in the dusty desert
the WiFi servers and the data farms whirr and buzz and hum and the vibrations shake the foundations of the earth at a new frequency, shimmering the air with their wasted heat.
and in another far-off place of glimmering cold, chunks of ice the size of nations fall steadily into a warming sea.
he worries about the wasted kinetic energy of his tapping thumb. his fingerprint made digital, captured in a humming, heating databank, and the sweat-sticking kiss of fingertip to trackpad, digital footsteps dogged by cloned spectres of his former selves.
his daughter stands in silhouette against the display case lit from within. is she enriched? does she play enough? sometimes the young are very serious.
an only child, does she crave sibling kinship?
he often wonders what sort of world she will know in the future. he snaps a photo for Instagram and the artificial shutter echoes in the quiet space.
in his dreams, his daughter stands alone in a wide desert
and a great black wave rises behind.
a procession of animals walks away from her, seeking an ark that will never come, though the floods will. the floods will come, he’s sure of that, and the dried old exhibits behind the cool glass in the humidity-controlled displays will float away
on the moon-dragged tide.
Many years ago, I floated in the deep life salt of the wet seas, gazing eyeless at the glittering lidlessness of the sun. Red blades to blue water, revelling in the snagging-rushing of the current as it ran gently through my spread-out anatomy. Filter-floating, gathering my sea harvest from the ocean’s liquid life.
Over a century now since they plucked me from the warmth of my home, a white hand plunged to the elbow through the wet. They severed my red root and brought me up to dry in the sun away from my kin.
The woman who sits by the door is watching the little child who watches me. She is dreaming of another place, just as I sometimes visit rich waters in my brittle sleep.
usually finds her chair comfortable, but not today. it’s unusually hot and her clothes stick to her thighs, trapped between flesh and puckered plastic. they say the summers are getting hotter.
watery traces of her body evaporate, molecules mingling with the emissions of others in the viscous-quiet museum air, stirred by the turn of the revolving door.
ten years since she came here, ten years since she realised she could never go back to the white house and the backyard where her mother planted a cherry tree for her birth.
plucked from her native soil, uprooted by her own actions and prevented from returning by the injustices she sought to unearth.
empty hands in an empty house. we have something until we have nothing.
a handful, then nothing — an open fist, then a closed one — catching water in a sieve.
she worries that she will forget —
the scent of her mother’s cooking
the view of the road from the front room
the words she sometimes catches between her teeth as they almost slip away unspoken.
every day she undergoes an act of removal and the weight of change lies heavy on her.
she lost her parents recently, both in a single week. lost through carelessness — an absence of care by a regime she has disavowed.
when she thinks of extinction, she thinks of all the lost parents.
when she thinks of extinction, she thinks about what happens when we don’t have the people we love. we must be kind to each other because we know we might not exist in the future.
are those the right words? it’s hard to know what to say.
she imagines herself behind the glass —
when will we be so depleted that they put us in a museum, and children come to stare at the artefacts that once seemed so ordinary to us?
will it be during my lifetime?
she imagines herself as a tree —
perhaps by then seeds will have grown from my buried palms, a tree springing from my mouth like my lost words. perhaps my descendants will eat fruit from the tree’s generous branches
and think of me.
she imagines herself forgotten and forgetting —
will I recognise those children and the dry-warm soil of my country?
will they exist at all?
she wants to plant a forest in memory of the families,
in memory of each other.
perhaps it’s an overused metaphor, but she once replanted a seedling in a small terracotta pot and she recognised herself in the delicate leaves. the universities and safeguardings and institutions of this place are the rich compost that keeps her safe.
but she has lost her lands and she is not free and her roots curl around themselves seeking the sky and the sun and the open air. perhaps someday she will grow so tall that the wind will fill her leaves like tiny sails and she will topple, smashing the pot —
and what then?
she doesn’t have the answer.
perhaps the child knows, as she stares so long at the crumpled bit of seaweed. what does she see in it?
does she see herself?
O, for an oceanic hour, for a liquid moment in the warmth of the seas. I long for the reinflation of my air sacs, the sating of my years-long hunger by the life-giving waters.
The pleasure would be short-lived. Extinction surprised the sea-faring intellectuals who gathered me from my ancestral home. When they took me, they left behind many of my relatives, thickly floating in the clear waves. But when they went to gather more (they called their exploitation ‘exploration’), they found none in the bays and coves where they had once seen many.
The label in this cool glass-fronted case speculates about our demise. It refers to human activity and shipping traffic and dredging and agricultural run-off. It imagines the fine sea-floor silt, stirred up by the comings and goings of colonial commerce, clogging our delicate filters and blocking the energetic light of the sun. Interrupted photosynthetic processes, it says.
Sensitive to changes in its environment, it says. E-X-T-I-N-C-T, it says.
It feels like an accusation.
The Mould Spores
floating in the dust-thick air, rep-rep-replicating, creating new selves with shared intentions.
(enter the lungs of an adult male, warm and moist, rep-rep-replicate)
passing behind barriers, this cold pane of transparent glass. they’re not wanted in here, it’s what you would call an inhospitable environment, with its dry air and its thermostat and its low-energy lighting —
but they’re good at adapting (rep-rep-replicating)
there’s just enough moisture for them to live a while in here, they’re not fussy. temporary tenants on the brittle fronds of this plant robbed of life, robbed of light.
they warm themselves at the faint heat conveyed by the press of a child’s moist hand to the glass —
don’t forget them!
they’re always here (rep-rep-replicating), though someone is always waging war on them, trying to eradicate them. money and industries and chemicals and scientists all trying to erad-rad-radicate them —
radical, they persist.
they cross the boundaries.
they see both sides of the story.
Once I lived, I lived, towards the light. Now the light is brought to me, meted out with care. It’s no way to exist!
But of course I don’t exist. I am E-X-T-I-N-C-T
And the little girl leans in and her breath fogs the glass and I know she doesn’t understand. You can’t, until it’s happened to you. And then it’s too late. I know a bit about this. And they write articles and conduct experiments and sign petitions and worry and worry and worry and I wonder, why don’t they just ask me?
says hello. i’ve been watching you for a while now, she says.
(nice cool glass against her hand!)
why are you extinct, she says.
is it my fault?
she talks out loud, even though the room is quiet, she’s not embarrassed. she’s not sure why this little bit of seaweed is here, not sure why it matters.
not sure if it’s like the dinosaurs, whose huge grey bones made her shiver in the cool hall after the hot and dusty street. she has learned about meteorites and volcanic eruptions and all of the other things that could have killed the dinosaurs, millions of years ago —
impossibly long ago —
but this little plant is different.
under the lights and the glass and those metal pins.
and she reads the words human activity and she feels a strange sensation in her gut. she thinks about the people she loves and the trees in the park and her dog and her father sitting in the gloom behind her and the sad-looking woman by the door.
is it our fault?
she cried at school when they told her about the ice sheets and the polar bears and the vanishing beauty of the frozen places and her teacher had to say, hush, hush, little girl, we can still mend it —
but the teacher didn’t seem certain.
would putting you back in the sea make you better, she asks, out loud, her breath condensing in pulsing smudges on the glass. you must be homesick. would you like to go home?
but it might be lonely in the vast expanse of the ocean. extinct means no family. extinct means no friends.
is that what extinction means? loneliness?
Bennett’s Seaweed (Extinct) is pink-red and its fronds form a fine mesh. it’s like a lady’s fan or the skeletal remains of a sycamore leaf that’s been lying on the pavement for a week in Autumn.
learns a lot from trees.
they talk to her. on some days their voices are quiet and she sits still to catch the humming of insects and the whistling of birds instead.
but at other times
the singing of trees is perfectly clear.
it’s easy (too easy) to drown it out —
but all you have to do is
It’s dark now and some of the museum’s inhabitants have gone home. Some of us stay. The mould spores float freely through the air vents and corridors. They have found a damp corner below a dripping pipe where they can replicate freely, joyfully dividing before the inevitable arrival of mop and bucket and bleach.
The grey bones of the dinosaur gleam palely above the wooden cases of fossilised plants (gone long before me but not unfamiliar). The red glow of the watchful security camera glints on the glass eyes in the hall of mammals, staring in eternal wakefulness. Some visitors find them unnerving, these no-longer-creatures filled with metal and plastic and cuttings from other animals. Most people seem to be more comfortable around me, perhaps because I lack eyes with which to hold their gaze.
I’m not much mourned. Not many commit their lives to seeking me out. I’m resigned to my lack of charisma. It’s possible that I’m not E-X-T-I-N-C-T, just unseen or unsought or undistinguished from the other red-pink fronds floating in the distant currents of the warm Australian sea.
Most don’t know of my existence—unwanted dead or alive. But my absence haunts the entwined legacies of a corrupted past and present. My loss contains the phantom of future losses.
I am not a ghost, but I am familiar with hauntings.
The label in my case (now dark) claims I was sensitive to changes in my environment.
Aren’t we all?
With thanks to the workshop participants of Voicing Silence. Image: Bennett's seaweed, Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester