Speaking for the Trees

Imagine a world of collapsing biodiversity and dwindling forests, a world in which nature is ceaselessly exploited for profit, growth and consumption, a world in which life remains liveable for some but undeniably impoverished for others. There are people here who speak for the trees, for the animals. But they do not have the power, yet, to put things right.

This may read like a description of our world. Or perhaps it looks towards a not-too-distant future of profound climatic change. It is actually the premise of Dr Seuss’ The Lorax (1971), a colourful story about a colourless apocalypse in which hope for a better future holds out against the grim present of ecological loss.

Those who first read The Lorax in the 1970s—parents, teachers, children and owners of US logging companies, angry at Dr Seuss’ unflinching condemnation of deforestation—would have done so in the early days of what we today call environmental awareness. Yet even in these fledgling years, the seriousness and moral weight of the story’s final image must surely have hit home: the last seed, an emblem for the entire renewal of nature, is gifted to a young child.

A child’s drawing of the Lorax

Reading The Lorax today, almost half a century after its first publication, is a more vertiginous experience. Not only has its warning of a wasted world gone largely unaddressed, but its apocalyptic imagination has been confirmed by the environmental crisis we now face. Sure, humming-fish and brown bar-ba-loots do not exist. Bluefin tuna and polar bears do, although perhaps not for much longer.

To encounter The Lorax today is to encounter the Sixth Mass Extinction Event. Extinction, at least in a technical and precise sense, is a word that implies a naturally-occurring process of evolutionary life. Without extinction, the tree of life would not branch off into new organisms and speciations. Looked at from this perspective alone, the entire history of life on Earth appears as a series of mass extinctions followed by new flourishings and developments of life. Some species perish for others to thrive.

Although the Earth has already experienced five great die-offs in the past half-billion years, in which the background rate of extinction dramatically rises at an equally dramatic speed, these five extinctions were all natural, or at least incidental.

What separates today’s Sixth Mass Extinction Event from these previous die-offs is that it is an unnatural, or further, social extinction. It is an outcome not of acidifying sea water and habitat loss alone, as before, but a long chain of human decisions and actions that culminate in acidification and habitat loss.

Humanity’s impact on biodiversity rivals these previous natural disasters that pummelled and choked the Earth’s long-gone populations of animals and plant life. The naturalist E. O. Wilson worries that, if business as usual continues, up to half of the planet’s flora and fauna will be officially classified as extinct by the end of this century. This is why ecologists like Gerardo Ceballos refer to the Sixth Extinction as a form of ‘biological annihilation’. The impact of the past few centuries of capitalist colonialism is comparable to an asteroid smashing into the planet’s surface.

Texts like The Lorax do not just illuminate, contextualise or mirror the global biodiversity crisis. They also throw up difficult but important questions regarding the role of art, storytelling and creativity in a time of ecological catastrophe, and the function of extinction within artistic forms and practices. To rephrase Theodor Adorno’s much-misunderstood formulation: is it barbaric to write poetry during a mass extinction? Or does the unfolding of mass extinction render poetry even more imperative?

These questions may well be irresolvable, yet they must nevertheless be asked and thought through, if only to fix our attention on what’s at stake for artistic practice and creative expression in a warming world. ‘Art can’t stop the climate crisis, cure a virus or raise the dead’, Olivia Laing writes. What it can do, she argues, is serve as an antidote to times of chaos: ‘It can be a route to clarity, and it can be a force of resistance and repair, providing new registers, new languages in which to think’.1

Throughout the Spring of 2020 a group of artists, museum and heritage practitioners, academic researchers, home-schooling families, refugees, asylum seekers and many more participants met every week to explore the new registers, languages and feelings given rise to by the Sixth Extinction. These workshops, hosted digitally by artist-in-residence Laurence Payot and led by selected writers, animators, dancers and musicians, are part of Thinking Through Extinction, which explores how the current global mass extinction event is communicated by and encountered in public spaces.

Our approach all along has been to think critically about how extinction is represented in the museum space, and to ask how an increasing awareness of global biodiversity loss is transforming curatorial techniques. If in the past museums presented extinct organisms as mere curiosities, today these animals and plants tend to stand as mournful witnesses to humanity’s global impacts. Grieving for these animals is vital. Yet what other—perhaps more joyful, more artful—modes of engagement might also motivate public feeling about human-made extinction?

With the public aspect of this project being so foundational, the closure of museums due to COVID-19 proved a difficult moment for our team. Yet by creating a supportive digital environment for playful inter-generational thinking on extinction, Payot’s workshops temporarily overcame the isolation of a nationwide lockdown. In one session, workshop leader and poet Scott Farlow reached for The Lorax. Hearing the story again in this context, read out to captivated home-schooled children and their parents, it became all the more powerful. Everyone was separated by webcams, but just for a moment we were all in the same room, sharing this story together.

Payot’s practice is participatory and collaborative, a method of creative expression deliberately set against the trappings of individualism that damage both the art world and the wider environment. From four weeks of workshops, Payot—along with fellow collaborators Stacey Atkinson, Scott Farlow, Jon Hughes and Laura Spark—have created a multimodal holographic installation that gives voice to the silent extinctions that continue in the background.

Art alone cannot save creatures from extinction. It can, however, offer its own form of rewilding. In Payot’s workshops, people are encouraged to sing whale songs, write poems about turtles and mimic the movements of plants. By embarking on these weekly imaginative engagements with nature, participants found themselves more attuned to the dawn chorus and more conscious of their own responsibility to the planet. As one participant put it, the workshops ‘became my weekly escape—a chance to spend two hours fully absorbed in writing poetry or creating animations’. Yes, the workshops were about a grave topic, but ‘rather than feeling depressed, I left each week feeling slightly more hopeful about the future’.

If nothing else, art is a gift, a reward for patience and attention. Simone Weil called attention ‘the rarest and purest form of generosity’.2 Walter Benjamin described it as ‘the natural prayer of the soul’.3 Making and experiencing artworks is, then, the giving of time and concentration. Mass extinction is almost impossible to experience directly. To think it through, we need to grant it time, give it attention.

The two pieces of writing included in this publication foreground the importance of time, concentration and language, especially the act of writing itself, in coming to terms with extinction. Anna Souter’s short story hops from one narrative perspective to another, and from one species to another, in order to capture a single moment within a museum. By giving voice to a child, their father, the museum invigilator, a sliver of seaweed and a mould spore, Souter expresses the museum experience from various multispecies perspectives. In doing so she pictures the museum as a space of encounters, and missed encounters, between different beings. Her imagined testimonies can provoke deep reflection on how our environmental degradation in the present relates to colonial expansion in the past.

Daisy Hildyard’s contribution also focuses on encounters and missed encounters between human and vegetal life, dwelling especially on sightings of the ghost orchid that have continued even after the flower was officially declared extinct. While Souter looks to the short story form, Hildyard makes use of the essay. Her lightly entangled meditations—on the perseverance of the ghost orchid, the transforming uses of the word ‘flourishing’, and the obsolescence of the horse-drawn plough—paint an image of extinction as a haunting which follows our actions and, ultimately, disabuses us of a desire for mastery.

  1. Olivia Laing, ‘Feeling overwhelmed? How art can help in an emergency’, The Guardian, 21 March 2020 
  2. Simone Weil, ‘Letter to Joë Bousquet, 13 April 1942’. Cited in Simone Pétrement, Simone Weil: A Life, trans. by Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Pantheon, 1976), p.462 
  3. Walter Benjamin, ‘Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of his Death’, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 2, Part 2, 1931–1934, ed. by Michael Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005), p.810 

Image: Drawing of the Lorax by workshop participant