Friday, 10 July 2009

Of Elephant Birds and the Eremozoic Era

During the festival, every possible venue in Grahamstown is taken over. Today we visited the Albany Science Museum, which hosted a number of art exhibitions. Much of the museum's original content was still there, though, and I'm not sure there weren't at least as many people examining the Foucault pendulum and the ecology displays as there were admiring the art.

The photography exhibition that had inspired our visit made a curious meeting point between the artistic and the scientific. It was called Plant Portraits: on the cusp of the eremozoic era. In the centre of the room were a number of printed pages. At first I thought they were museum exhibits that hadn't been moved, but it finally dawned on me that they were actually part of the photographic exhibition, explaining the eremozoic era: the age of loneliness, a term coined by E. O. Wilson to describe the time after the predicted fast-approaching, or perhaps already-occurring, sixth mass extinction. The exhibition carried the message that we need to change our ways or be caught in this unappealing era.

Later, I came across a life-size statue of the elephant bird. The statue was almost necessarily a fossil reconstruction, because the elephant bird is extinct and has been for hundreds of years. It must have been a magnificent creature, standing at about twice my height; it is not difficult to see the tragedy in its extinction (especially when its statue is harmlessly inanimate) and by extension, the tragedy in many other extinctions. It served as an unintentional reinforcement of the exhibition's message, but it also served to frustrate me.

The elephant bird's extinction may have been caused by humans, but it's not certain that it was. It's likely that humans caused the extinction. It's also likely that humans caused the extinction of the woolly mammoth, though. That was before we'd even developed complex technology like farming, though. That was during the idyllic stage in which man was at harmony with nature.

Except that, uh, we were exterminating other species already. It doesn't seem very idyllic or harmonious. It frustrates me, because people seem to feel that we can solve the earth's problems by living with less technology, or living more like people did thousands of years back.

Back then, we were wiping out species. Now, we're wiping out species. Nothing seems to change. There's nothing to go back to, unless we go all the way back to Eden. We can't do that; if there is a humane way to be human, it's in the future not the past. Even so it seems rather futile - must we value animals above the homeless? Should we take it a step further and value the AIDS virus above its victims?

I can't seriously suggest that anyone should or would do that, but it is where my frustration leads me. I see a problem, but I don't see the solution; what is popularly suggested to be the solution turns out to be unhelpful. I am left empty-handed.


  1. Hello Charli

    Remember the Eremozoic?... Here a summary of exhibition and sobering texts.

    Dez Weeks

  2. Hi Dez!

    Thanks for the link and the info. It's definitely something to think about.