Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Songs for Extinct Species: An Interview with Randy Laist

As promised, here is the interview with Randy Laist, who last year began a project to raise awareness about recently extinct species by composing and recording songs about them Youtube. The series begins with “A is for Auroch, but it won't embed properly here so you'll have to follow the link, and we featured "B is for Baiji" in a previous post, so we'll let "C is for Caspian Tiger" introduce the series:

1. According to the other videos on your channel, most of your time is spent teaching and researching literature. How is it that on April 28 of 2011 you began a 26-video “alphabetical roll-call of victims of the ongoing Holocene extinction event”?

RL: One of my research interests as a literary critic is the manner in which cultural texts have depicted the relationship between human beings and nature and, in particular, how postmodern novelists have chronicled the implosion of this relationship as human beings increasingly come to understand themselves as natural creatures, even as the “natural” world becomes increasingly artificial.  Both sides of this equation are poignantly illustrated by the Holocene extinction event, the decline in biodiversity over the last 10,000 years that attended the spread of homo sapiens across the globe and which has been compared to the other five or six major extinction events that have occurred throughout earth’s history.  So I had had a kind of professional interest in the topic for some time, and then one morning, my wife and I were eating breakfast at a local diner and, somehow, the conversation turned to aurochs.  The phrase “A is for Auroch” popped into my head and, with it, a whole idea for a children’s ABC book of recently extinct animals.  As it turned out, 30 seconds on Amazon was enough to reveal that such a book already existed.  The concept had never been rendered, however, in the form of a series of acoustic punk-folk-emo YouTube songlets, so the idea evolved in that direction.

2. The style in your songs is often fast and upbeat. It’s strange to hear an upbeat song about an extinct species – was that a conscious decision?

RL: It took me a few songs to find the right tone for the project.  “A is for Auroch” is bouncy because my original thought was that the songs would be for children.  Then “B is for Baiji” turns elegiac, a mood which, as your question suggests, seems a logical choice for songs about such a tragic subject.  But the more I learned more about how specific animals went extinct, the more inadequate the tragic mode sounded.  For one thing, animals are a joyful subject.  Their variety, their strangeness, and their personalities are an enduring source of delight for human beings, and even extinct animals can’t help charming us with their unique qualities.  I wanted to celebrate the existence of these animals rather than simply to mourn their loss.  But also, there is something deeply comic – something Homer Simpson-esque – about how obliviously human beings keep doing the same oafish thing in superficially different ways over the course of their 10,000 year history.  Ultimately, I think it is more constructive to conceive of the Holocene extinction event as a comedy of errors rather than as a tragedy of fate.     

3. You have some terrific artwork in your videos, for example in “L is for Lesser Bilby”, “S is for Steller’s Sea Cow” and “T is for Thylacine”, among others – where did you find some of these great depictions?

RL: I imported all the artwork for the videos from Google image search.  Similarly, I did the majority my factual research about these extinct species on the internet.  These days, I think “Nature” is something that exists just as much in cyberspace as in earth-space.  This is indisputably true when it comes to extinct animals, which do not exist anywhere except in the repository of human memory and scientific evidence, a conceptual territory that is increasingly homologous to the internet.  I think of myself as a kind of cyber-naturalist.

4. I think the angriest song, which is also sung with urgency, is “P is for Passenger Pigeon”. Why did that one trigger more anger than the others?

RL: I agree that this song is more vitriolic than most of the other songs, particularly in the second verse, which indicates that human extinction would be a sign of cosmic justice.  The extinction of the Passenger Pigeon is uniquely meaningful because of how recently it occurred, how “close to home” it hits as something that happened in my own home region of the Northeast United States, and how visible were the effects of the extinction – clouds of birds which darkened the sky in the middle of the nineteenth century dwindled down to a single bird who died in the first year of World War I.  The story of the Passenger Pigeons strikes me as one of the great horror stories of American history.

5. As you researched these stories, was there something that surprised you?

RL: The most important discovery I carried away from this project was how much human beings in all times and places have in common with one another.  There is a common idea in the Western mentality that non-Western people and people from the pre-industrial past are more ecologically sensitive than we are.  This is a racist stereotype, and it is contradicted by the entirety of the global prehistoric record, which clearly demonstrates that all human beings are bound together by their thoughtless disregard for sustainability.  To me there is something inspiring about this fact.  It means that the oil company executive and the aboriginal tribesman share a very fundamental way of relating to the non-human world.  Conceivably, the universality of our collective guilt in this regard could provide the grounds for a less self-destructive program of species-wide collaboration in the future. 

6. Most species in your list seem to have gone extinct from carelessness and overexploitation, but it seems the Falkland Islands wolf was exterminated by settlers. Is that true? And do you know of other species that were intentionally exterminated?

RL: Again, I have to predicate this by saying that all of my expertise in this regard comes from the internet, but according to the Wikipedia, the Caspian Tiger was also intentionally extirpated by the Soviets, as explained in the song “C is for Caspian Tiger.”  In the vast majority of cases, however, human-caused extinction is the result of bumbling idiocy rather than active intent.  Pleistocene people were probably aghast and confused at the disappearance of the large mammals the hunting of whom provided the basis for their entire way of life.  They probably begged the gods to send back the mammoths, feeling their loss much more deeply than any armchair preservationist ever felt the loss of the latest endangered species of the month.  One of the best things that can be said about the environmental misbehavior of human beings in all times and places prior to about 1975 is, They just didn’t know any better.  Fortunately, this excuse is not longer tenable. 

7. How did the Koala Lemur (strange-looking creature!) and the Rhinodrilus Fafner (good of you to bring attention to these lowly earthworms) become extinct?

RL: The Koala Lemur is one of the only extinct animals whose name begins with K, but fortunately, he happens to be very charismatic.  According to Wikipedia, there is a lot of controversy about what he looked like, and whether (as explained in the song), he might have been the mythical Tretretretre of Malagasy lore.  What does not seem to be in dispute is that, like so many other animals, he went extinct as a result of deforestation resulting from the slash-and-burn agricultural practices of the original settlers of Madagascar, humans who came to the island more than 2,000 years before capitalist loggers, but whose environmental impact was extremely similar. 

There are a lot of interesting extinct animals whose name begins with R, but I was getting to the end of the alphabet and I realized that I hadn’t done any songs about invertebrates, which was extremely subphylum-ist of me.  Of course, the vast majority of biomass on the planet consists of creatures other than birds or mammals, but these creatures, including plants, appear so alien that they present a kind of barrier to the mammalian imagination.  According to Wikipedia, the giant earthworm Rhinodrilus Fafner disappeared from its Brazilian habitat for reasons which are unclear, but presumably related to habitat degradation.  Hopefully, the song will encourage some aspiring young oligochaetologist to get to the bottom of this mystery.      

8. In “Y is for Why” you write, “Maybe we could try to be the kind of animal that redefines the borderlines of what is possible.” Certainly we’re a creative species, but do you have reasons for optimism that we’ll solve this biodiversity crisis?

RL: As I mention in the song, it is entirely possible that human beings will simply obey their caveman programming and fulfill what some have said is their ecological destiny, to be to the Cenozoic Era what cyanobacteria were to the Proterozoic Eon, the unwitting authors of a planetary catastrophe.  On the other hand, if there’s anything we learn from nature, it’s that evolution will try anything once.  There is no mode of life that is so outlandish, so horrific, or so surprising that nature will not give it a trial run.  Given this flair for variation, it does not strike me as unreasonable to imagine that maybe nature could actually conjure up a species that was capable of understanding its ecological situation and incorporating this understanding into its behavior.  That human beings could be this species does strain credulity, but so does the fact that human beings have evolved the capacity for language.  No chimpanzee would ever think it possible.  Likewise, no gray wolf would ever think that he shared an ancestor with a poodle, but when nature and human beings work together, they have an amazing capacity for transforming each other.  Furthermore, as Darwin was surprised to conclude, there is no aspect of biological existence that is not prone to mutation.  There are no sacred forms, morphologically or behaviorally.  Life is defined by its plasticity.  It’s not just that human beings can change.  All they can do is change.  Over the previous generation, the general state of global ecological awareness has made enormous strides, so I would argue that despair is premature.

9. Despair is premature -- I like that. 

You end with Z is for Zoology and an admonition for us to study animals because “Zoology is cool,” that ultimately it teaches us about ourselves. Watching your videos it seems we’ve repeated the same mistakes with different species at different times on different continents with the same outcome. What do you think it will take for us to see this folly and that indeed, zoology is cool?

RL: As I say in the song, “The most important lesson we can learn from zoology / Is that being an animal is a very cool thing to be.”  Ever since we extincted the other humanoid species that shared the planet with us in paleolithic days, human beings have been in the weird, lonely situation of not having a lot of other animals that look like us still alive on the planet.  With our bare skin, our upright gait, and our peculiar kind of consciousness, we seem to have been dropped here from outer space.  Maybe this is why human cultures have always found it easy to conceptualize human beings as exiled from nature, at war with the rest of the world, or as sojourning tourists just passing through the earth on their way to some invisible netherworld that is their real home.  I really believe that if human beings practiced thinking about themselves as primates, as mammals, as animals, as organisms, and as semi-permeable motile ecosystems, not only would they be more apt to act with ecological sensitivity, but they would also have more fun, meaning that they would not get carried away with metaphysical delusions, they would be more likely to avail themselves of the unique kinds of pleasures that are available to primates, mammals, animals, organisms, and ecosystems, and they would participate fully in the community of earthly life forms that constitute their true family.    

10. That’s a pretty good summation. Is there anything you’d like to add about your series? Favorites?

RL: Looking back on these videos, it is easy to see that what chiefly inspired and sustained me throughout this marathon of song-writing was the idea of rediscovering these animals and telling the stories of what happened to them.  Whenever I talk to anyone about the project, it is easy to pique their interest with the story of how the Japanese Sea Lions were pushed over the brink of extinction by Korean soldiers who used the Sea Lions for target practice, or of how the Huia was hunted to death because its tail feathers were a fashionable decoration for Jazz Age women’s hats.  These narratives are fascinating partly because of what they reveal about human depravity, but even more so because people love stories about animals.  Even hunting animals to extinction for their meat, their tusks, their hides, or just for fun has always been a way of loving them, as if the human race were in the situation of Lennie, the simpleton from Of Mice and Men who can’t stroke a puppy without killing it.  Our instinctive love for animals is one of the noblest things about human beings as a species, and if we can learn to love them in less thoughtless ways, we might actually be able to make a go of this whole abstract consciousness thing. 

11. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

RL: I really appreciate this opportunity to be a part of the site --  blogs like Eco-Now will certainly be instrumental in raising our awareness of how to love animals better.


Randy Laist is professor of English at Goodwin College in Connecticut.  He is the author of Technology and Postmodern Subjectivity in Don DeLillo's Novels and the editor of the forthcoming Plants and Literature: Essays in Critical Plant Studies.  He has also published numerous articles on literature, popular culture, new media, and pedagogy. 

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