Until recently, botanists could not agree as to whether the ghost orchid truly exists. It is a slim translucent plant with a hollow bonelike stem and that strange meatiness that orchids have, as though it was designed to look obscene but something glitched or mutated during the creation process. The flower is a fleshy hand with tentacles at the wrists and a huge tongue lolling out of its centre. The greater part of the ghost orchid is believed to exist underground—it spreads rhizomatically through deep leaf litter, only rarely poking through the surface to flower. It produces one set of infinitesimal seeds per decade. These seeds are too small to be noticed, consumed, or spread by birds. And yet the ghost orchid breaks cover only in isolated, out-of-the-way places, always at some distance to its last sighting. It is said to live in deep shade and to feed as a parasite on mycorrhizal fungi, which is why it does not need to photosynthesize. This gives it a strange translucence, which makes it look spooky.
Only a handful of humans say that they have seen the ghost orchid and their stories do not always add up. In the 1920s a botanist named Eleanor Vachell was sent by the British Museum to Oxfordshire, where a young girl was reported to have discovered a live specimen. When Vachell and a small party of botanists took a map to the site, there was nothing there.
Vachell went back into town and located the house of the young girl. Inside, in a vase on the girl’s mother’s table, there stood one slight, pale flowering stem. The girl refused to part with it. Vachell begged her, explaining the importance of the finding, but the girl wouldn’t have it. She took the botanists back to the wood to show them the original plant, but when they all arrived at the exact spot on which she had seen the flower, the flower had vanished.
Vachell returned the following day and searched the ground, tenderly brushing her fingertips through beechmast and leaf mould. On her knees, close enough to smell the scent which rose when she disturbed the soil, she felt rootlets and the stump of a stem—the fragile foundations of a flower. Since then, every decade or so, somebody has seen, or claims to have seen, this slender, semi-transparent wraith, standing pale in the deep shade somewhere in the unfrequented parts of England and Wales. The ghost orchid was classified extinct in the UK in 2005.
What happens when something elusive becomes extinct? The ghost orchid is now, and has always been, invisible to me and you. It is a stretch to think about its disappearance, given the way it has hardly ever truly appeared. And yet it is there, if pictures, websites, archives, or botanists are to be believed.
Thinking about the ghost orchid, I returned to some of the writings that I love about nonhuman lives. I wanted to see more of those lives that are invisible to me—lives which extend beyond my understanding. Instead, I found that the writings I loved, in novels, philosophy, or in science books, were mostly about relationships. A woman’s relationship with the dog she trains with, a man’s relationship with his cat’s gaze, a man’s relationship with a small wood, a child’s relationship with a kestrel. These writings told me or reminded me that I look at nonhuman species for their strange companionship, for their difference, for their otherness, for the returned gaze.
The ghost orchid confounds all these good, sound reasons. It does not gaze at me and I can’t gaze at it. I can’t even find it. It isn’t growing in my local wood, it isn’t on dried, pressed, humidity-controlled display at any nearby museum. Its doubtful existence resides in a place and timeframe from which humans are effectively alienated: its emergent qualities are those that render it unseeable, like a ghost in daylight. In extinction, it has been drawn into a crisis that has been caused by humans, but it eludes even the most fundamental forms of human interaction—seeing it, naming it, knowing that it exists.
Perhaps perversely, the ghost orchid’s resistance to exhibition is what makes it haunting. Imagining extinction is making absence visible and this is what ghosts do—they make the absent dead appear, in a space between life and death. It’s a space of possibility. Thinking about the ghost flower made me alert to what I cannot see. And being alert to things I can’t relate to is urgent. It is increasingly pressingly obvious that human worlds depend, for their very existence, on the operation of microscopic creatures, or of huge and complex spreading networks of interactions. We can’t see these things with the naked eye and we do not immediately relate to them. I wonder about extinctions outside the loss of charismatic relationships—extinction beyond human consciousness—unexhibitable extinction, in the places where it doesn’t touch a relationship or a self. It would have to start with alternative histories.
The word ‘flourishing’ has recently been used by theorists such as Chris Cuomo and Donna Haraway as a verb for thinking about how species might enable one another to thrive. There are many ways to flourish; we might think about flourishing-with or flourishing awkwardly, emergent flourishing, or multispecies flourishing, but the diverse forms of flourishing all involve, in this iteration, the fulfilled expression of life forces.
There was a time when the word flourishing had a narrower and applied meaning. John Evelyn’s 1664 compendium on trees, Sylva Sylvarum, describes plants in terms of their ‘Places of growth, time of flourishing, and their Medicinal virtues’. When Evelyn writes ‘time of flourishing’, he is referring to the time of flowering or blossoming: he is using a botanist’s term. To flourish previously meant to flower. There is ghost botany inside this word each time it is used in its newer theoretical iteration. Human flourishing, as a concept—as something I can picture in my mind—comes through the phenomenon of trees blossoming. This picture can only emerge in a real world in which all human bodies are fatally dependent on the flowering of plants. The lost meaning is a description of this missed connection.
I recently heard a story which considers the implications of this kind of loss. It was a joke about a Yorkshireman who leaves for a holiday but never arrives. While he is on the train to the airport, he reads a notice: ‘Please do not use the toilet while the train is in the station’. At the next stop the Yorkshireman is discovered inside the cubicle, and is thrown off the train. Somehow, nonetheless, he makes it to the airport. He passes through customs and boarding. Then, when the plane is in the air, he unbuckles his seat belt and leaps up, races to the emergency door, forces it open, and is pulled out. Above the door there is a sign: ‘Do not open while the plane is in flight’.
The word ‘while’, in some parts of Northern England, means ‘until’. ‘While’ comes from a word- root meaning a period of rest, a period of time. The word evolved in different directions to describe a period of time, both in the sense of ‘during’, and in the sense of ‘until’. Historically, both meanings were in use in the South of England as well as the North—the meaning is not especially Northern in any profound way, other than the fact that it is only in the North that it has survived (barely).
The Yorkshireman’s fate is the fate of a person whose words no longer have purchase. Globally, many languages have been decimated by colonial and supremacist powers. The body of historical evidence for this is overwhelming and still mounting, attested across official archives and personal testimonies. It shows how the systematic crushing of indigenous or marginalised languages has been endemic to and inseparable from killing people in many places around the world (if not, perhaps, in Yorkshire). The purposeful eradication of a language and its attendant lifeways is sometimes called linguicide, or language genocide. As is often the case with jokes, this one cuts closer to reality than may at first appear.
There are many recent word preservation projects which store or restore lost words, words which bear traces of the ways in which their speakers related to a living landscape. Crizzle, for example, refers to the freezing of water, and pismire is the old name for an ant which refers to the ammoniac smell of its nest. It is easy to see what is lost when words like this disappear: the liveliness and flavour of a language which has a close relationship with the environment it describes and creates. When a local language is destroyed, the habits that go with it will reshape the landscape in literal ways.
I wonder, though, what might be gained when a word goes extinct. A teenager in the North of England today might speak or think with hyper-local idiom from a particular neighbourhood in Baltimore, Glasgow, Abuja, or Seoul; dismissing globalised linguistic cultures as bland has become politicised by those nostalgic for the imagined innocence of a homogenous culture. Nonetheless the losses are real. What is difficult, I think, is to hold both losses and gains together—to see the violence of language loss while resisting the urge to naturalise lost dialect as lost purity. Perhaps they are two routes to the same destination. The lament for lost dialects merges with laments for monocultures. Similarly (and more obviously) the deliberate eradication of indigenous languages is racialised violence that speaks for itself. Extinct words, then, expose how lives and lifeways are extinguished because they, the words, are a part of those extinctions.
It is useful to be haunted by dead words, then, not because those words help me to explain and understand ‘the world’ of humans, but because the words themselves are little bits of worlds. A word becomes physically involved with its surroundings, and is an agent, because it is a used index of relationships within those surroundings. It is the environment, spelled out in letters—a frame for, and a means of approaching, that environment—but it is also a literal environment. It is active within an ecosystem of which it is a part, like a physical technology.
The horse-drawn plough looks alien to my eyes; it’s shaped like a wishbone, the length of a car. It could be the backbone of some ancient giant animal but clearly it’s made of heavy, smooth, rusted iron. Chips in the pale blue gloss reveal generations of overpainting—in a previous life it was green and before that red. Where it dips to the ground there are two heavy forms that look like internal organs—symmetrical, round and blunt edged. These are the blades. There are two small wheels that work but don’t match.
This instrument is not something you see in fields around modern Britain, though in other parts of the world farmers still plough on foot, whether for financial, ecological or religious reasons, or because the land they are working resists large machinery. These days in Britain you might come across an old plough in a provincial museum, or on a roundabout, used as a stand for growing flowers. You can buy them on eBay (Condition: Used) as garden ornaments.
What changed when the horse-drawn plough went into retirement and mechanised agriculture took off? A long, affectionate and violent working tie between a person and two animals was cut, and the end of this relationship marked itself on human bodies. Ploughmen had fewer blisters and more time on their hands. The likelihood of breaking a bone or bruising while ploughing fell, and the possibility of being crushed or trampled to death by your ox or your horse was always present while the end of the horse-drawn plough. There were new and different dangers for rural workers. Today, a farmer’s machines are more likely to kill the farmer than the farm animals are (perhaps because the farmer, and not the animal, is in control).
The change of tool also changed the way the farmer looked at the world. From inside a tractor’s high cabin you can see for miles around but you can’t see the ground passing below your feet. More broadly, the mechanised plough affected wider populations, the shift in technology altering the scope of language and imagination. The largest and most visible constellation in the sky has many names—a butcher’s cleaver, a big dipper, a great bear, a saucepan, a wagon, a boat, a shrimp and a ladle—but it no longer looks like a plough.
When the tractor engine starts up the aural landscape vanishes altogether. If nearby birds can’t hear one another’s mating calls while the tractor is roaring up and down the field, they need to remake their arrangements or die out. The advent of the two-foot-wide tractor tyre was not good news for ground-nesting birds. Domestic animal bodies, moreover, were affected in different ways. Animals bred to plough were phased out and, as the scale of agriculture grew, the volume of bodies raised for meat increased.
The new technology, then, extended through human bodies and perspectives, into the habits of wild animals and the form of domestic livestock. It travelled, too, out into the surrounding landscape. Grass grew back over the desire path the horses used to trace on the ground when they cut across the verge. The muddy part of the ford where the oxen stood on hot days, filled and clarified. Tracks to and from the fields, and the shape of the margin at the edge of the field that marked out a turning circle, were repatterned. And more ploughs, ploughing at increasing speed, exhaust pipes going, ploughed their way across counties, countries, continents, landmasses, across the surface of the globe. The Earth’s atmosphere changed in ways that were at first untraceable.
I imagine all obsolete technologies gather together somewhere, in a cosmic version of the cupboard that needs clearing out. The laundry mangle, the floppy disc, the scythe, Blu-ray, the handloom, the cassette, the flint axe and a thousand software operating systems. I suppose this is more or less literal for many of these objects, though the cupboards at mass scale are landfill sites. Many genealogies, even those of the longest and most distinguished tool families, are complicit in the global extinction crisis; a chainsaw is only a great- grandchild of the stone axe.
There is something both annihilating and funny about a redundant machine, as though it exists, or doesn’t exist, purely to make a mockery of human effort. And yet, of course, machines have physical and emotional power. Tamagotchis, nuclear bombs. Perhaps this is why humans often develop attachments to their personal machines—a half-serious sense of sadness when retiring a long-used laptop or sending a thirty-year-old car to the scrap- yard. All machines are prosthetics. My machine is a part of me when we need one another to perform. This is why a system which assumes that accelerated consumption will allow you to flourish, in fact forecloses your flourishing. If planned obsolescence is designed into your technology then it is also designed into your way of life.
Would it, then, be a good idea to return to the horse-drawn plough? Probably not. Some farmers plough with animals because they can’t afford a tractor, or as a way of minimising their carbon emissions, and these are good reasons, but it would be naïve to fetishise old technology for its own sake. If the human-horse working relationship belongs to arcadia, it is also a history of exploitation within a system of extraction. The machine literally exhausted the bodies of rural working people and animals. And, more obviously, when we are thinking about extinction, there is a clear difference between the starving of an orangutan baby and the obsolescence of Windows 1992. What I find when I think about extinct technology is not nostalgia for mix-tapes or the smell of shire-horse tack, or at least not only that. Looking carefully at a single obsolete technology brings into view something else, something critical about anthropogenic mass extinction: the fact that each loss has local effects which ramify across scales—into fields, inside birds’ nests and the palms of human hands, into the microscopic composition of the soil biome and dispersing through the air around the globe.
Ecosystems are intraconnected and interconnected and those connections are specific and often unpredictable. The changes revealed, as though in the negative, when a particular tool is removed from the working world, compels an emergent or systemic understanding of extinction. This is an understanding which is vaguely understood, out there, but it can be difficult to make it appear before human eyes because the scales exceed our horizons. If the extinct word, as we have seen, takes place physically as well as conceptually, then its extinction is not fully separable from that of its environment. The useless tool makes this more apparent in the way it shapes bodies and land- scapes and changes the composition of air. Words, tools and ghost flowers all feature in the extinction crisis without ever having been granted the status of privileged and uncontested being that is known as life. Extinction, here, is not so much about the loss of individual life—something I might mourn and get over—so much as an exponential acceleration, a haemorrhage from a larger body (a culture, an environment, a world) which can’t be wholly seen or understood by humans. The ghost orchid makes this apparent.
In 2009, four years after the ghost orchid was classified extinct in the UK, a single flowering stem was verified in Herefordshire, 5cm high. The plant is evasive to the extreme; it hadn’t been identified by a single human being for four years. Its several elusive qualities are layered into one another: it exists mostly underground; it flowers rarely; it is small, fragile; and almost see-through; and it inhabits the shade. You could call it a secrecy artist. Nonetheless, it is real. To see a ghost is to see absence incandescent; the ghost orchid’s existence makes visible the fact that there is much that lives beyond the considerable reach of human perception. It concentrates that mysteriousness which is a defining quality of the beyond-human world, and its value, too, lies beyond my explanations. I can’t identify it, I can only be haunted by it. The ghost orchid is valuable not for its relationships with humans (though they exist), not for what it can tell us about ourselves (though it has things to tell us about human desire), not for the experience of being seen (though it knows where we live and keeps away), not for the sense of guilt or responsibility that a human may feel towards it (though humans are responsible for its habitat degradation), not because it is worth so much to a botanist on her hands and knees, nor, even, because it is one component of a small and interconnected habitat in which all lives depend on one another for their flourishing in every direction.
Its value lies beyond human perception, in each literal and unseen emergence in a specific place: glade, tree, leafmould, mycorrhizal fungi, rootlets, stalk, bud, flowering.