Aurochs and Auks: Essays on Mortality and Extinction, by John Burnside, Little Toller, 128 pp, £14, ISBN: 978-1908213891
How a person conceives of their own death, and what should become of their remains, is a strong indicator of how they see their place in the world. The use of embalming and sturdy, lead-lined coffins could be interpreted as a denial of our perishable nature, perhaps even our mortality, and certainly differentiates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. By contrast, Australian eco-philosopher Val Plumwood, one of very few people to have survived a crocodile’s deathroll, described afterwards what it felt like to be identified simply as food, and how the experience changed her perception of the familiar master/monster narrative of human/animal relations. Her gory near-death experience was “a humbling and cautionary tale about our relationship with the earth, about the need to acknowledge our own animality and ecological vulnerability”.
This egalitarian sense of common being has been examined by Barbara Ehrenreich in an essay on Palaeolithic art, from observation of which she concludes that, unlike contemporary humans, our ancestors recognised their position in the food chain: “They knew that they were meat, and they also seemed to know that they knew they were meat – meat that could think.” It is a concept with which Eastern societies have traditionally been more comfortable than Western, the most obvious example being the case of Tibetan sky burials, but recent years have seen an increased demand for natural burial practices, for example the rise in popularity of biodegradable coffins and natural burial grounds. It is also a topic towards which poets of an ecological bent may turn. Scotland’s current Makar Kathleen Jamie, whose work has been described as being situated between Presbyterianism and the Tao, has a poem called “Sky Burial”, which is romantic in its portrayal of transcendence of the corporeal self (it ends “The wind unravels me winter birds will arrive”), but even this doesn’t approach the visceral honesty of her fellow Scot John Burnside, who in his collection All One Breath (Cape, 2014) has a poem called “Instructions for a Sky Burial”, a poem which describes the poet’s various encounters with carrion, then segues into plans for the disposal of his own body:
So when that day arrives
when I shall die,
carry me out of the house, unwashed and naked,
and leave me in the open, where the crows
can find me,
dogs, if there are dogs ‑ there will be rats,
but let them eat their fill, so what they leave
can blend into the soil
Some moisture will be lost
to heat and wind
but something more will live again
as fodder: meadow-grass
and daisies, rue
and hawthorn, all the living knots
of larvae in the scattering of flesh
and bone, birds gathering the hair
to line their nests, the last ant
busy about the mouth while something
inexact and perfect forms itself
around the last faint wisp
of vein, or tendon: something like a song,
but taking shape, implacably itself,
new breath and vision, gathered from the quiet.
The collection from which this poem is drawn begins with an epigraph from Ecclesiastes, “for that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they all have one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast”, and ends with the poem “Choir”, the last lines of which are “back then it seemed / that, like as not, most everything runs on / as choir: all one; the living and the dead: / first catch, then canon; fugal; all one breath.”
As a poet, novelist and memoirist known for his interest in Deep Green philosophy, anarchism and the Dao, this motif of interconnection and continuity with the animal world has been evident in Burnside’s work for decades. Even long-held beliefs are put to the test in extremis, and when Burnside came close to death, albeit in less dramatic circumstances than Plumwood, his long-standing sense of interconnection deepened across the aeons. Gravely ill with Covid and deemed ineligible or unsuitable for potentially life-saving measures, the experience connected him
in some manner to the vitally endangered, but not extinct, life of a pagan past that has been thoroughly and wilfully clouded by the religion in which, as an impressionable child, I was raised to credit superstitions that struck me, even then, as far more irrational than anything my several churches have consigned to the dustbin of history.
Near death experiences are heavily researched phenomena, frequently interpreted as proof of life after death or the existence of a soul, or at the very least associated with a re-evaluation of one’s place in the world. The hallucinatory phase of Burnside’s illness proved to be the conduit to an encounter with the natural sublime, and he awoke with an enhanced sense of “la vie commune”, a term for which he gives the explanation that
because all life is predicated on a symbiotic continuum, all individual lives are governed by a common destiny – a natural fact that we must learn, not just to recognise, but to set at the heart of our ethics, our politics, and our day-to-day lives, if we are to avoid a human extinction.
He emerged from his brush with death feeling, put simply, blessed, yet grieving “for every extinction, past, present and future”. There is both humility and clarity in his declaration that
I like this planet. I like animals, birds in particular. I like gingkoes, and geckos and I particularly like giraffes. I like ferns of every kind, fire-bellied toads and flamingos. I can think of few things as beautiful as the songs of the Western Meadowlark. I would very much like for these things to continue.
His new, post-Covid, book, Aurochs and Auks: Essays on Mortality and Extinction, published by the admirable Little Toller press, is a collection of four essays – or meditations – on the themes of extinction, grief, nostalgia and how the human interconnects with the totality of existence. The book is published in the run-up to COP26, possibly the last chance for global leaders to pull the earth back from the brink of catastrophic climate change and biodiversity collapse; at the time of writing this review there is staunch resistance from both agricultural and industrial quarters to any measures which will affect short-term financial security. The prospect of rational thought being able to comprehend, never mind tackle, the enormity of the crisis seems slim; by contrast, in this short volume, Burnside manages to encompass all of the pressing concerns of our time, angling the prism to give an alternative perspective on the plight that humanity has got itself into. Instead of the binary of the human and non-human worlds, he proposes a split between modes of perception: the Dreamtime of once-upon-a-time and what he refers to with heavy sarcasm as The Real World:
In the land of once upon a time, however, a pre-industrial, pre-Anthropocene wildness persists, in stark, green contrast to an occupied planet where human beings and their livestock account for 96 per cent of all living mammals – and it is in this land of once upon a time that the wild bulls of Europe, the aurochs, wandered freely through forest clearings and wetlands for millennia, before they were hunted down, displaced by agricultural enclosure and domesticated into extinction.
In this land of once-upon-a-time, it would seem inevitable that humans would act decisively to prevent further despoliation of the earth, further species loss, and more pressing threats to our continued existence, but in The Real World things are less straightforward:
What we seem unprepared to accept, however, are the real changes that must take place in order to end, or at least slow, the destruction – and every day, more species are lost while, with fateful irony, the world we have consistently refused to share with our wild neighbours grows more and more inimical to an increasingly perilous human enterprise.
Burnside has spoken about how he enjoyed reading the King James Bible as a child, and it remains a rich source for his poetic imagination. He metaphorically attributes the division he sees in human perception and behaviour back to Cain and Abel – the slain Abel representing the old, nomadic way of life, while the children of Cain are cast as developers: “creators of enclosures and fixed abodes, they unrelentingly wield the plough, never spare the rod, and, with the passing of the ages, address themselves to the godlike task of domesticating all wild things, including their own imaginations”. It is this developer mindset that must be won over or overturned, in a last desperate attempt to pull us back from the brink of our own extinction.
In teasing out what are almost ineffable concepts, Burnside grounds his argument using two concrete examples of species which were driven to extinction: the titular aurochs and great auks. The former were celebrated by the Palaeolithic people, bred out of existence by the sons of Cain, and romanticised by everyone from the Greeks and Romans to the Nazis; the latter were hunted to extinction through a mixture of “greed, necessity, folly and superstition […] though in practical terms, the Great Auk was simply hunted to death because it was fairly easy to catch”. From these examples, Burnside expands into a wider meditation on different types of extinction:
Our concept of extinction should also include the devastating effects of development and enclosure on languages and regional dialects, philosophical or ritual traditions and cultural diversity. Also – though this may seem fanciful to some ‑ we have to recognise the fact that time and space themselves are at risk. Finally […] our inner spaces are being placed in jeopardy, as the providers of social media colonise and denature what used to be called the life of the mind for advertising revenues or political gain.
One of the most deeply-felt extinctions, he suggests, is that of the genius loci – the sense of place ‑ which has been annihilated in us as places themselves are obliterated by unthinking and relentless development. Is the under-recognised grief for this sense of place, the near-unbearable nostalgia of inhabiting a place devoid of association or history as it is eroded beneath our feet the source of much contemporary malaise? Burnside suggests that such loss “gives rise to a hidden suspicion of lack, and so to a grief that we cannot expiate or even express”. Dubliners dismayed by the wide-scale destruction of cultural spaces might agree. Our grief for place, he argues, “expresses itself by proxy, usually through a public event like the death of a pop star, or a highly-publicised catastrophe”. The outpouring of grief for the late Brendan Kennelly is frequently accompanied by the lament that Dublin won’t be the same without him – possibly a more manageable and focused type of grief than the realisation that Dublin hasn’t been the same for thirty years and is devouring its own culture like a modern-day Erisychton, and that we are a people denatured.
Where is the hope in this, one might well ask? Perhaps in a recognition of the distinction between melancholia and mourning, “for it is through such a distinction that our individual experiences of grief for personal losses of place can be united with the individual griefs of others, transforming instances of melancholia – a condition that tends merely to repeat itself – into convivial rites of mourning that, by their very nature, offer shared experiences of closure and, if well conducted, active healing”.
Is this type of healing a possibility given our current models of thinking? Burnside’s oeuvre is regarded in some quarters as an attempt to overthrow the residual anthropocentrism that prevails in Western thought. It is reductive to assume that “the only mental faculty that we can trust is objective reasoning”, and more hopeful to have faith in Shelley’s dictum that the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Aurochs and Auks is an argument against rationalism, a cry to follow a sensation “too immediate to refute, even as it is too intractable to objective thinking to express in non-lyrical speech”. It is a manifesto for the possibility that poetic thinking alone can save us. The task has never been so pressing, given that this very anthropomorphism is what makes negotiations at COP26 such a challenge.
Burnside has said that “[f]or me, poetry is both the account of, and the map by which I navigate my path … and, as such, is an ecological discipline of the richest and subtlest kind”, and this essay collection is a paean to the wildness within.
Amanda Bell’s latest collection, Riptide, is published by Doire Press. www.clearasabellwritingservices.ie