In times like these, lamentation is what we have for voicing sorrow. It’s what Wallace Stegner calls “the conscience speaking,” which I might amend to say that lamentation is the conscience struggling to speak. Groping hard to make sense of grief, it sometimes first resorts to stuttering facts:
From the early 1500s to the 1800s, almost 150 species including the dodo bird and large sloth lemur disappeared, wiped out by habitat destruction, pollution, and the natural causes that have kept this world in constant flux for billions of years.
200 years ago, the Falkland Island wolf vanished, as did the great auk and the big-eared hopping mouse.
By 2050, if the planet continues to warm at current rates, more than 10 percent of all species will likely cease to exist.
But a list of losses is not a lamentation. The conscience, if it speaks at all, more often wrestles to imagine a voice not ordered but invented, perhaps shaped by rhythm and song.
Think of Martha Graham’s masterpiece opening 90 years ago in New York City. In the dance, titled “Lamentation,” a single figure wrapped in a stretchy cloth squirms for four minutes on a bench, leaning left then right, reaching up, bending over, as if she cannot abide what’s twisting inside her, as if she’s trying futilely to writhe into relief. The dance is not meant to convey particular mourning for particular loss, but to embody archetypal grief itself.
Here’s how it feels, Graham seems to say: You do not walk away or deny or give up. You’re stuck on a bench, wrapped in a purple shroud that moves with every move you try to make, transforming every distorted thrash into a visible line, a traceable shape.
Or into hair-pulling, clothes-rending keening, as the women of Ur did. Some 4,000 years ago, their city in ruins, they wandered speechless, as if their tongues, too, had been stilled. The power belonged to others, along with the orchards and fields. All that had once made them mothers and wives, sisters and daughters had been destroyed. The grief that remained was charred beyond speech. They invented a new language, which screeched in their open mouths like small, rabid crows.
Almost 2,000 years later, Plato condemned such high-pitched keening. Let the disreputable wail, he declared, not the decent, the noble. He censored lamenters for the same reason he banned the poets. Both express shadowy feelings that distract from the idealized forms which Plato saw as ultimate truths; both prohibit platitudes, purities, tidy solutions that sabotage the need to ponder the unruly in our hearts.
Perhaps Plato feared that lamentation could provide no protection from the mess of who we are. Perhaps he was right. Lamentation demands, after all, that we feel this death and that death. But this wisdom, too: The “greatest poverty,” as Wallace Stevens says, “is not to live / In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire / Is too difficult to tell from despair.” You can have your grief, lamentation seems to say, so long as you yoke it to the dazzle and drudge of a daily life.
Gone in the last 100 years: the Tasmanian tiger, Toolache wallaby, desert bandicoot, and Yemen gazelle.
In the last 20: the Alaotra grebe, western black rhino, Yangtze River dolphin, Caribbean monk seal, black-footed honeycreeper, Pyrenean ibex, Spix’s macaw, golden toad.
Higher in the last 25 years: sea levels all over the world. Smaller: the West Antarctica Ice Sheet. Higher: acidity of ocean water. Lower: chances of avoiding catastrophe.
Lamentation displays. It doesn’t petition.
It doesn’t allow for bargaining. No I’ll grieve like this for 30 days if you will…
It doesn’t traffic in denial, forgiveness, explanations, hiding, or compensation, which, if it could judge, it would see as obscene.
It doesn’t tolerate magic or heart-felt appeals to mythological gods, false prophets, or any other quick-action, result-driven strategies that promise some kind of solution.
In the last 5 years: Formosan clouded leopard, Japanese river otter, Malagasy hippopotamus, Bermuda saw-whet owl.
No justifications allowed, no pay-offs, no talk of collateral damage.
And now, at the current pace: dozens of species a day.
Dear America, some of us here in the early 21st century are still pretending the world’s not fundamentally changing. Time, after all, is tricky and loss across slow time even trickier. Some of us try to adjust our diets, accommodate to shrinking beaches, invest in solar panels and in the idea that there’s no reason for alarm. Some of us make a different list:
The heat-aversive Hawaiian honeycreeper still has a little cool air left at the tops of the Kauai Mountains.
The South African quiver tree, more and more stunted, manages to keep producing seeds, though they’re starting to drift poleward.
Most Adelie penguins are learning at last how to keep their eggs out of the puddles left by melting ice.
Heat-stressed white lemuroid ringtail possums persevere, licking leaf moisture in the threatened cloud forests of Australia.
How do we lament what’s not finished dying?
Maybe what we need now is not merely an updated version of keening and wail, not just protest art and policy fights or publicly displayed extinction lists of the unambiguously gone. In these times of sped-up climate change, maybe what we also need is a new lamentation that choreographs the ritual even as it conjures up the grief for the still-here-for-now. Stay, it will insist, and mourn what’s not yet gone. Straddle the space between what you can bear and what you cannot until you know not only what’s on the verge of vanishing but the price you’ll eventually pay. That, it seems to me, is what a new lamentation might do: give form to what it simultaneously elicits. Shape language and image and dance from the raw heartache we’re not yet sure we even feel.
A new lamentation won’t be a path or a door. It won’t go anywhere or open up new vistas. Think of it, America, as a hopeful act of preservation, not of what’s on the verge of vanishing but of the shame that remains. Think of it as preserving our ability to grieve what we’re doing.
Barbara Hurd is the author of six books of nonfiction, including most recently Listening to the Savage: River Notes and Half-Heard Melodies (University of Georgia Press, 2016) and Tidal Rhythms (with photographer Stephen Strom; George F. Thompson Publishing, 2016). The recipient of a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship for Creative Nonfiction, winner of the Sierra Club’s National Nature Writing Award, four Pushcart Prizes, and five Maryland State Arts Council Awards, she teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.