Endlings and the Melancholy Beauty of Extinction

What cannot be replicated must die

Photo by Juliette Félix on Unsplash

A tree grows in a farmer’s field

Where I grew up in England, it was the spreading branches of oaks that towered like sentinels over otherwise cleared fields, the last remnants of forests cleared by invading Normans. But this is Western Canada, and even the trees are different. Here, it’s the deep-scored and fragrant Western Red Cedar, still standing ten centuries after the forest was cleared around it.

There’s an inherent pathos to anything that’s the last of its kind. A similar kind of nostalgia to the one that suffuses the early twentieth century writing I love. The sun setting forever on a vanished world. That melancholy glow that sweetens the flavor of everything. The astringent tannins that add depth to your wine.

In the endless forest surrounding these fields, there are plenty more cedars like this one. I watch them vanish one truckload after another, dragged down from the mountains and hauled across the world to be turned into wall studs or garden mulch or toilet paper.

The death of something that’s lived so long seems sad to us, but that’s the way things are organized. More correctly, it’s the way they grew. An intricate web of use and abuse that none of us can break free from. All we can do is ignore it. Accept it. Tacitly endorse it.

They call it an endling

The last remaining member of its species. It’s a perfect word, concocted for the purpose by an individual instead of growing out of the fecund rot of common usage. Coined in 1996, it was originally intended to refer to the last of a familial line. But it’s come to mean something sadder and grander than that. The word even chimes sadly, a tinny little tinkle like an unneeded key being tossed carelessly away.

It’s a perfect late-twentieth century word. We’re living in the throes of a mass extinction, and it’s our fault. We’re killing things faster than we can name them.

Above the lonely cedar in its fallow field, huge flocks of birds take to the sky at sunset like calligraphic brushstrokes, telling a story of degradation and loss. There used to be more. Far more. Next year there’ll be less.

Martha was an endling. When Europeans first came to North America, passenger pigeons filled the sky in flocks so abundant they blocked out the sun. Martha the pigeon died in 1914 in the Cincinnati zoo, no doubt unaware she was taking her lineage with her.

Benjamin the Tasmanian Tiger lived recently enough that there is jerky footage of him pacing in his cage. His death in 1936 was the end of his species, his genus, and the entire family to which he belonged.

Najin and her daughter Fatu are the end of the line for the northern white rhino. And the 10,000 dollar reward researchers offered to anyone who could find a suitable mate for Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island giant tortoise, wasn’t enough. George died at the end of a long life, childless and the last of his kind.

Depressed?

Me too. Species are dying off at an alarming rate, and we usually only hear about charismatic ones. A recent study estimated at least 543 species of land-based vertebrates went extinct in the twentieth century. It takes years of hindsight to declare a species extinct. But researchers estimate as many species have vanished in the first two decades of the century as in all of the last.

Species arise, and species die off. That’s how the world works. And we grew out of this world. Our teeth as sharp as anything else’s. Our hearts just as selfish and wild.

My vegetarianism doesn’t absolve me. Plants talk to each other in a language we don’t speak. They whisper and sing and scream when we pull them from the ground. No life is innocent. Everything lives by eating something else. Because life is never really created. It’s only recycled. The life you take in from the plants and animals you consume is only borrowed. You’ll give it all back in the end.

We are stumbling toward catastrophe. Overpopulation and overconsumption is tearing down the world around us. This is not a defense of that.

This is just to say that we ought to mitigate what harm we can. We ought to change our behaviors to lessen the load our existence creates on the world.

But to exist at all is to be a killer. That’s the only way there is to live.

We are all endlings

We keep grouping ourselves into ever-shifting tribes, trying to define our self based on who we are against. That’s how we thrived in a brutal world.

Yet we are all a minority of one. A swirling cosmic storm of genetics and experience, hidden scars and half-healed wounds, and the rarity makes us precious.

You don’t care about the dollar store garbage stamped out of a factory mold in a batch of a hundred thousand identical units. You care about the hand-carved jewel and the wood with the knots in it. Scarcity is what makes a thing valuable, and gold costs more than iron. What you are will not happen again.

In one sense, I’m the last of my line. The youngest male to carry the name of this particular branch of the family. My brother’s daughter has her mother’s surname. My sister’s boys have their father’s. I have some cousins I’ve never met in Australia, all of them female, none of them, as far as I know, anywhere near having kids. When this generation passes, there may not be anyone left to carry on the Frawley name. Not from this branch of the family shrub, anyway.

A friend of mine once told me he was glad he had a son. Though his parents are now separated, the boy carries his father’s name. Some tricky Polish moniker with more consonants than people on this side of the Atlantic are comfortable with. But when I asked him why it mattered, he struggled to explain it. Another emotional response, reaching out for something permanent in the constant storm of existence. His name meant something to him. I won’t say mine means nothing to me. But I don’t feel bad at my childless state.

Ultimately, it’s not really my name anyway. There is no W in the language of my ancestors. My name is a compromise, a way to spell an Irish word with the Roman alphabet. I don’t speak a word of Irish, and my father only knows a handful of phrases. Languages are living things too. And all living things contain within them a seed of extinction.

I don’t feel any need for my name or my life to go on and on. Around a hundred and fifty thousand people die every day, each one of them representing an entire private world winking out of existence. We don’t cry over that any more than we do over extinguished stars we can no longer see, burning out their massive hearts after billions of brilliant years. That’s just the way it is.

But the endlings still haunt us

The incomparable loneliness of being the last of your kind. The reverse of the prototype that never made it into production. The final model before the assembly line went silent. Too weird to live, according to the Hunter S Thompson quote a friend had tattooed across his feet, and too rare to die.

But small, filthy, un-winged

You will soon be crouching

Alone, with some dim racial notion

Of being the last, but none of how much

Your unnoticed going will mean

In his poem For the Last Wolverine, James L Dickey finds a kind of triumph in the notion of extinction. Because this is what we face. All of us individually, if not as a species. There are more humans than there have ever been, but there’ll never be another one of you.

You’ll share your name and even your face with strangers, and the endless centuries will throw up a billion variations on the same exquisite theme. Not quite the same, though. Never the same. Have you ever heard anything more divine?

Extinction isn’t what it used to be

Martha the last passenger pigeon passed too long ago for us to do anything about it. But Lonesome George’s genome was sequenced, though mostly so we humans could get clues on how to live longer.

In 2000, the Pyrenean Ibex became extinct when its endling, Celia, was found dead in the mountains under a fallen tree. The ibex became the first species to return from extinction when a female clone of Celia was born. For approximately seven minutes, this damp and trembling miracle wheezed its way across the floor of the lab.

Then it collapsed and died. Nature’s edicts, for now, are final. Even when it’s our fault that a species is wiped from the earth. Life allows no mulligans.

You’re the last of your kind, just as I am. The rare and precious thing that won’t come around again. The lone tree standing in the farmer’s field, immune to weather and harvests and the erratic price of corn.

When a creature vanishes forever from the earth, it’s sad. But that’s what makes us beautiful. That at any moment, we can vanish forever and never be repeated.

Give me that, the unrepeatable and doomed, the last wolverine and the single tree that used to be a forest. Rather that than a million endlessly replicable, repeatable, redundant units.

© Ryan Frawley 2021.

All proceeds from this article will be donated to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers.

Novelist. Essayist. Former entomologist. Now a full-time writer exploring travel, art, philosophy, psychology, and science. www.ryanfrawley.com

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