The Naturalist's Lament

Originally published in exhibition catalog Spirit in the Land,

Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University


In the summer of 2007, I touched a glacier older than the written word. At least seven thousand years ago, in an area of the globe we now call Montana, the Grinnell Glacier wrapped its glorious chill across hundreds of acres of mountain ranges. It is a wonder to behold, the embodiment of geologic processes tipping into the human domains of poetry, awe, and empathy—it is impossible not to feel something for this timeworn behemoth. Compressing over time, the gentle impacts of innumerable snowflakes accumulated in mass, metamorphosing into ice as hard as stone and carrying the power to sculpt the Earth into new configurations. Give anything enough time, it seemed to be saying, and unforeseen transformation is possible; we can change our ways.

I stood on this ancient ice with Dan Fagre, a research ecologist with the United States Geological Survey. As I would later learn, Dan is also known as a "glaciologist," the only disciplinary category that can provoke some envy from my beloved title of "artist." It is a term reflective of the rise of modern science and its perpetual sequestering of knowledge into more specialized fields of study. But, as I would soon realize, to be a glaciologist today is to be something much older—older than science, the written word, or art. To be a glaciologist today is to be a mourner.

I listened to Dan with great interest, eager to understand the science of glacial formations and their impacts on geological features, freshwater supply, and the plant and animal life enabled through their cyclical behavior. But this is glacial science with a once reasonable assumption: glaciers will continue to exist for millennia. As I asked more questions, as he showed me the stunning retreat of this glacier's mass over a century of photographs, it was apparent Dan carried other observations, too. Dan, I would argue, is part of something entirely new on Earth: an ever-growing category of scientists who, mid-career, must enfold the staggering loss and possible extinction of their chosen subject into their science.

As a concept, "extinction" was only first scientifically embraced in the nineteenth century. It seemed unlikely that entire lifeforms could simply vanish; or, to the religious-minded, that God would make such "mistakes." But with accumulating fossil evidence, Darwin's radical theory of evolution, and a growing sense of the actual age of the planet, the idea that lifeforms, through natural processes, could meet a dead-end slowly took hold. (1) But whatever the mechanisms, extinction was not a process anyone expected to see in real-time. With time, though, humanity could not ignore its role in a once inconceivably abstract process, creating a profound new category of moral consequence: human-induced extinction.

Let's be clear about what this means. This new category of scientists is not like paleontologists, for example—scientists who have chosen to research extinct lifeforms of the distant past. If fossil-hunters have a sense of melancholy about this loss of life, it is removed from the moral morass of human behavior—this loss happened long ago. But Dan, and hundreds of ornithologists, entomologists, botanists, ichthyologists, dendrologists, and more, are witnessing, in real-time, the threshold of life as it currently exists to life as it once was. And it is a process instigated, in growing ways, by the actions of fellow humans. How does one comprehend and articulate such grief and sorrow? How can one make sense of irrational behavior that risks the annihilation of one's species and the planet? Through logic and measurement, can science alone ever adequately voice what should also be a trial of our souls? Can ever more scientifically precise and worrisome environmental studies induce a reformulation of planetary stewardship and moral action? Science is essential, yes, but can it do it all?

If ever there was a call to arms for the sciences and humanities to find their way back to each other, then surely it was here on this melting cathedral of nature. Here we stood, an artist and a scientist, our footing unstable, but our grasp and shared heartbreak now fusing data and poetry into action. The naturalist's lament is the artist's lament: we must mourn with purpose. We must honestly look into an existential abyss of our making but not as an exercise in futility and hopelessness. We must look so that we might rekindle our love of all life, inventing new scientifically informed narratives and artworks about our obligation to life's continued survival.

1. Paul Semonin, American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity (New York: NYU Press, 2000).