How do we unite around an invisible challenge that is everywhere and nowhere at once? If modern warmongering teaches us anything, it’s that civilisation’s forward march still relies heavily on its myths. While the ways we wage war have become ever more subtle and technological, its ideological cover continues to be heavily steeped in symbolism suggesting acts of heroism too noble or perhaps powerful to be described in words, to provide nationalism’s content and the apotheosis of its values. Its survival even amidst the dry, bureaucratic spectacle that national remembrance days has become is testament to how seamlessly this myth links up with the present and its material conditions, bringing forth a kind of military realism along the lines of socialist realism and magical realism.
Where does our reality leave room for a mythology of climate change with which we can face its challenges? Myth used to be the form of storytelling that would allow us to project our present struggles endlessly into the past. Now it seems that we invoke it during moments of anxiety, as a form of covering up our civilisation’s transgressions or shortcomings that don’t make for cosy conversation. Myth is projected into the cycle of an endlessly recurring present where we must keep making the same mistakes over and over again, albeit in a more refined fashion. What climate change demands is a mythic time that instead extends into the future.
This week, the Bramble Cay melomym was found by Australian scientists to have become extinct. This land-based rodent appears an unlikely victim of the decay of the Great Barrier Reef, although the fact that it was the only mammal species endemic to the region suggests that its existence was rather precarious. The canary in the coalmine, so to speak. We have by now created conditions which no longer allow species like the Bramble Cay melomym to survive on Earth.
Current trend suggests that we will continue to push nature to the point where the fate of various species will follow suit, including large swathes of our own. Let us then, talk of its place in myth. Let us talk of its extinction.
The Cherokee incorporated religious rituals into their hunting traditions. Hunters would abstain from sexual intercourse four days prior to and four days after a hunt. This was a form of purification to please the spirits. The two great gods of hunting were fire and water. Before a hunting expedition, a hunter would go dip in a pool of water at sundown while singing an ancient chant. He would fast the next day and, again at sundown, dip in water while chanting. On this second night, he would cook a meal, eat, and then spread the ashes from the fire across his chest. On the third morning, after pleasing the fire and water gods, the hunters would begin their hunt. During the hunt, Cherokee hunters would pray to the wind, rivers and mountains for success. After killing an animal, Cherokee hunters would ask the gods’ forgiveness for taking the animal’s life. If a deer is killed, they would throw the tongue and some of its meat into the fire as a sacrifice.
The first part of my ritual is easy; it’s what our parents told us a long time ago, the please and thank you rule. I say thank you—very quietly, under my breath really—to the mountain I’m on and to the animal. Then I set about cleaning the animal. It’s often too far from a road or trail to drag, so I quarter it for packing out. I like to leave the meat on the bone for aging—hams and shoulders—but I make sure the carcass that remains—head, vertebrae, ribs—is positioned on its side, with each part as it was, back in the brief assembly of life. I place each foreleg and shin in its appropriate pairing, so that the animal is positioned as if in midflight, reminding me of the great Edward Hoagland line about a leopard poised to jump as if in “an extra-emphatic leap into the hereafter.”
This was taken from a blog post about venison hunting, evidently inspired by Native American rituals.
If we were to fully recognise our role in the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomym, then perhaps we could stretch out our ideology to its most honest version, and recognise the sacrificial dimension of its passing. Simply by continuing to live as we do within this system, we choose to accept its costs as necessary to it. So why not at least say thanks? Of course, the extinction of a species is of a different magnitude to the death of an individual animal, but it’s worth asking- what would a ritualisation of the destruction of the Bramble Cay melomym look like? Who will recognise its sacrifice, and that which we will throw into the fire? How will we prepare it for an extra-emphatic leap into the hereafter?
Such a ritual would stretch out the temporality of death into the past. Remembrance day myths have shown us that much. However, the ritualisation of extinction would have to take into account the fact that it is happening everywhere and all the time now and into the future, as a result of climate change. The bones are not only in watery graves but also in the creatures that never came to be. I don’t know how to generate a myth out of such attempts; as a lone writer if that. But I wonder where the renewal of our ecology lies, if renewal is the flipside of death.