On Extinction by Tim Ingold

‘Poetry can repair no loss,’ John Berger writes, ‘but it defies the space which separates.’ This year, The Clearing has commissioned seven writers to mark the Remembrance Day of Lost Species. These pieces are not eulogies. Although they respond to the grief and disorientation of our times, they are also songs of hope and memory, commitment and renewal. They mark the immensity of current and past losses, but defiantly —by bridging the ‘space which separates.’ Our fourth is a poem by Tim Ingold.


Extinction is for others, not for us. We’ll never know
What words turned out to be our last, what steps we took
Into the abyss. For who will say of humans:
‘Remember them? They went extinct’,
As now we say of woolly mammoths or Neanderthals?


Will historians among the animals
Write letters on the shifting sands, or in the roots of trees,
To say that there were people once, before they disappeared?
Will there be canine fossil-hunters who,
Discovering a tooth or the fragment of a skull,
Will bark the discovery of another hominin?
Or will the mole turn silent archaeologist
To dig up its remains?


Will raucous seagulls, preferring cities to the sea,
Cry over the loss of their inhabitants,
Or just take up inside the ruins?
Will the worm regret the passing of the farmer,
Or fish long for the angler’s hook and line?
No doubt they’ll carry on without us
As once they did before we came.
They’re really quite indifferent.


But in a world that still has elephants,
Why should mammoths be extinct?
Or Neanderthals, in a world that still has humans?
Could not elephants be the mammoths of today, and humans the Neanderthals?
‘No no, we say’, we say, ‘mammoths are not elephants,
and Neanderthals are not the same as us.
They were another race of humankind,
Wiped out by our superior ancestors!’


That’s also what the white men said,
On wiping out the people of Tasmania.
‘They’re just another race’, they said, ‘and we’re superior!’
But they came back, the people:
‘You are us’, they said, ‘and we’re still here.
We’re all mixed up, you see, there are no races’.
Was it any different in the Palaeolithic?


For here’s the question: if all of life is all mixed up,
Then nothing goes extinct, lest all does.
There’s no extinction, then, without distinction.
This story of extinction is one that we alone are wont to tell.
A story of a world divided, each species for itself,
Competing with the rest for limited resources.
For one to go, and another to survive,
They must be set apart.


Yet we who tell this tale have turned our backs upon the world
And classified its contents as if they were for us alone,
Not we for them. We’ve made of nature a museum,
In which is set out every species of the earth.
Far from caring for it, though, as good curators would,
We’ve rampaged through the galleries, spreading mayhem,
And squandered most of our collection.


These kinds, however, that we’re about to lose…
Has not the life departed from them first?
Are they not already, in a sense, extinguished?
It seems we’ve dealt a double death, first by cutting down each beating heart,
Each flying, walking, swimming, growing thing,
Into the static exemplar of a category; second, then,
By terminating its line. That line is not of life but of descent,
Along which nothing grows. It’s not a movement but a chain,
Each link the devolution of a form, as if it could be parted from its growth.
Yet form apart from growth is death; in life there’s but a process of formation.


How can you extinguish what’s been put to death?
There must be something to put out,
Light, life, love, hope, a flame, a fire.
It has to burn, to have a movement to it,
A swelling or concrescence.
But species, heading for extinction, no longer have their lives to live.
They’re nothing but their genes, a treasure trove of heritable information,
Biodiversity. We’re losing it, we say. But the life’s already lost.
It went with the partition of the world.



TIM INGOLD is a British anthropologist whose work concerns technology and history, biology and evolution, and the human relationship with the natural world. He is the author of numerous books, including Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (2011), Lines: A Brief History (2007), and The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (2000).


The essays in this series were supported by the Centre for Environmental Humanities at the University of Bristol. You can find out more about their work here. 

1 Comment

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

ellen r rosnerreply
December 8, 2018 at 11:12 am

Re: “And classified its contents as if they were for us alone, Not we for them.”
Raoul Frances’ words about Linnaeus: “Wherever he went the laughing brook died, the glory of the flowers withered, the grace and joy of the meadows was transformed into withered corpses whose crushed and discolored bodies were described in a thousand minute Latin terms… When the work was over we stood disenchanted and estranged from nature.”

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