They have come back for one last visit.
White Ballinrule. Mascarene Parrot. Great Auk. Broom-Faced Potoroo. The Faukland Island Dog. St. Lucy's Giant Rice Rat. Mauritius Dodo. Passenger Pigeon. Steller's Sea Cow.
One hundred and three extinct creatures make their appearance in A Gap in Nature. They have been given a last reprieve from their terrible destiny by author Tim Flannery and by illustrator Peter Schouten. These one hundred and three creatures are the unlucky ones who met Flannery's criteria for inclusion in A Gap in Nature;namely, that they are true representative species of mammals, birds, or reptiles on whom there is sufficient historical documentation confirming both their basic characteristics (for illustration purposes) and their subsequent disappearance from the face of the planet.
The superlative term `masterpiece” is overused in critical reviews. But here, in consideration of this stunning work of visual and verbal genius, `masterpiece” is an understatement.
Author Flannery's bittersweet yet always compelling narrative and artist Schouten's hauntingly beautiful portraiture combine to transcend the otherwise soul-shattering experience of depicting the world's forever lost and largely forgotten creatures. Together, they have created, paradoxically enough, a triumphant drama whose actors are the lost animals, themselves: the extinct return as splendid ghosts that hold you fast with their striking poses, gorgeous coloring and glittering eyes.
Oh, their eyes! Peter Schouten has perfectly captured their eyes! How can we ever escape that liquid, shimmering reproach and fierce integrity that burns within those animal eyes? In my sleep, I still see the eyes of the Faulkland Island Dog—an extremely handsome dog who, according to Flannery's research, was known for swimming out beyond the surf to greet arriving sailors . . . who would invariably return the dog's friendly curiosity by promptly killing and eating him.
The most famous extinct animal, the Dodo, graces the books cover, if `grace” can ever be applied to a Dodo. Author Flannery describes the unsettling effect of Schouten's illustrated Dodo as if he were `looking at the creature for the first time.” I agree with Flannery. I, too, experienced the same feelings of awe while looking at a creature portrayed so vividly.
Schouten's Dodo—and, for that matter, all of his illustrated creatures—evoked in me paradoxical feelings of strangeness and familiarity. I was overwhelmed by a poignant longing for these creatures' continued presence, and by an even more poignant realization of my ignorance and helplessness towards their disappearance.
With the arrival of Schouten's Dodo, gone at last were the crude caricatures of this bird that littered encyclopedias and schoolbooks; illustrations drawn, no doubt, by credulous adventurers who were wholly crazed from syphilis, scurvy or sea-tainted rum. Other Dodo illustrators in the past, driven by Darwinian hindsight and possibly by Freudian projection, always seem to etch upon these birds a foolish ineffectualness and fatal complacency that begs for a cartoon text balloon or thought cloud issuing forth from the plump fowl, e.g.,
`Duh, oh-oh! Here come the dogs and sailors! I just can't compete. I'm fucked!”
Schouten's Dodo, on the other hand, is a strikingly odd yet attractive creature, with rather sumptuous curves and mesmerizing eyes (Flannery quotes 16th century explorers who compared the Dodo's eyes to `small diamonds”). More importantly, Schouten's Dodo does not look particularly dim-witted, nor does it look ashamed of itself. And why should it? It did nothing wrong. The Dodo was perfect for what it needed to do.
The Dodo's fate, like many of the island species across the globe, was determined by the arrival of men who carried guns and were infected by desperate greed. As Flannery explains, extinction over the vastness of evolutionary time is inevitable, but mass extinctions occurring in short epochs which are driven by perceived economic need is criminal. Flannery warns, based upon geological and archeological findings, that in the long run, too rapid of extinction rates often destabilize entire ecosystems.
`Survival of the Fittest” is always, at best, a relative term, and at worst, one wholly devoid of any real moral or long-term value judgments. Indeed, the relative worth of a certain fat, flightless, deaf, loudmouthed asshole—whose sole means of survival is to screech his lies non-stop on AM radio—comes to mind. Will his contribution to the welfare of this planet ever exceed that of the Dodo?
In many respects, A Gap in Nature is like the family photo album that we've all wanted to look at, but never knew where first to look for it. Flannery and Schouten capture that not-too distant lost world, a world of rats as big as bears and turtles as big as VW Bugs; of immeasurable flocks of passenger pigeons, descending from the sky with the roar and windblast of modern helicopters, blotting out the noonday sun, their shit falling like a fertile blizzard upon the land—birds that were killed by the tens of thousands per day for sport. All gone—but they live again in this gorgeous yet ultimately heartbreaking book.
© Copyright 2002 by KNS Maré