Posts Tagged With: roosevelt

Looking prehistoric: observations on rhinos and extinction

Is the rhinoceros a relic of the past? (Petroglyph in Namibia).

As rhinos grow increasingly threatened—in the wild and in museum halls—they become a symbol of all animals suffering possible extinction. But rhinos have long had such an image. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, those who encountered rhinoceroses, saw them as prehistoric relics, and expressed a sense of inevitability to their extinction. Even as late as 1980, science writer Edward Ricciuti wrote: “The rhino is a zoological museum piece, a holdover from times long past, a loner that is unadaptable and rather stupid.”

People perceived the rhinoceros as unfit to survive in the modern era. “Like men of the old stone age,” wrote naturalist-hunter Herbert Lang in 1920, “with but few implements for defense or attack compared with the multitude of destructive weapons in our times, the rhinoceros seems to lag ages behind in the development of its various senses.” The rhinoceros’ inability to adapt to human technology, Lang wrote, leaves it “hopelessly doomed by modern firearms.” What now seems a tragic irony—hunters shooting an animal they recognized they were implicit in endangering—to them looked not like irony, but the inevitability of a thing called “progress.”

After killing his share of rhinoceroses, President-adventurer Theodore Roosevelt paused to observe one at rest. “Look at him,” reflected his son, Kermit, “standing there in the middle of the African plain, deep in prehistoric thought.” The elder Roosevelt agreed: “Indeed the rhinoceros does seem like a survival from the elder world that has vanished; he was in place in the Pliocene, he would not have been out of place in the Miocene, but nowadays he can only exist at all in regions that have lagged behind, while the rest of the world, for good or for evil, has gone forward.”

This sense of melancholy over a species whose numbers were indeed declining continues to exist today. While some activist groups employ more optimistic rhetoric, insisting endangered species can be saved, others look at species “on the brink” as having an inevitable end.

Are we already mourning the extinction of the Javan rhinoceros?

After the turn of the last century, wildlife biologists and educators at the Wildlife Conservation Society sat to discuss their future projects and funding needs. As they discussed their progress in saving species and habitats, they found themselves forced to admit that despite their best efforts, some species continued to struggle for survival. With tears in their eyes, leading conservationists, whose lifework is to save species, agreed that the Javan rhino population was beyond repair. Viewing its extinction as inevitable, they cut funding for its conservation.

Imagining scientists growing emotional about extinction conjures a strange mixture of humility and ego. They admit humans caused habitat loss or over-hunting, and that subsequent human efforts to undo that damage failed. Along with these contradictions of human agency, goes an essential feeling of loss.

The idea of extinction arouses something fundamental in human nature. We mourn loss. But when it comes to species extinction, what are we mourning? Is it the lives of the individual animals themselves? The suffering of a population? Or, is it an aesthetic of a nature we have always known?

This is part of an ongoing series, Understanding Extinction, with research supported by the Animals & Society Institute Fellowship.

[Portions here excerpted from my book, Rhinoceros (Reaktion 2008).]

Categories: Animals | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Mississippi River is out of joint”: fusing floods and poetry

There is no such thing as an ideal river in Nature,

But the Mississippi River is out of joint.

Still image from The River shows a familiar scene.

As the Mississippi River flows well beyond its usual course, I cannot help but think of the poetry of Pare Lorentz’s documentary film, The River (1938). When I first saw the film, I was mesmerized by its hypnotic narration. Today, I find the poignancy of its images remarkable. Rushing muddy water, houses half-covered in stagnant ponds, dogs on the roofs of homes, and refugees in small boats drifting along what were once dry streets are all images I’ve seen in recent newscasts about the 2011 flooding of the same river.

Pare Lorentz was a film critic when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt hired him to oversee government films. After his portrayal of the Dust Bowl, The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), the Farm Security Administration commissioned a film that would highlight the improvements to the Mississippi River and its valley since the devastating 1927 flood after which they created a series of locks and dams, levees and spillways, and harnessed the power of the river to bring electricity to impoverished rural areas.

With this pragmatic mission, Lorentz instead made poetry:

Pare Lorentz' 1938 film, The River.

From as far East as New York,

Down from the turkey ridges of the Alleghenies

Down from Minnesota, twenty five hundred miles,

The Mississippi River runs to the Gulf

The Mississippi River is a central environmental feature of the North American continent. Lorentz, inspired by a spiderweb-like map of the river and its tributaries, identifies every droplet of water that flows into its course:

The map that inspired Lorentz.

Down the Rock, the Illinois, and the Kankakee

The Allegheny, the Monongahela, Kanawha, and Muskingum;

Down the Miami, the Wabash, the Licking and the Green

The Cumberland, the Kentucky, and the Tennessee;

Down the Ouachita, the Wichita, the Red, and Yazoo.

Lorentz’s lyrical listing of ordinary rivers and streams rolls off the  tongue and builds a momentum akin to flowing water itself. Clips of such powerful white water that Lorentz filmed during the 1936 flood accompany the narration increasing in speed as they reach the main artery of the Mississippi.

Combining the environmental history of the Mississippi with its cultural past, The River captivates viewers through its juxtaposition of fact and emotion. Lorentz portrays the depletion of resources, the coming of steam power, and factory production with a mixture of patriotic pride and regret. Agriculture and deforestation depleted the valley’s topsoil and it washed easily away with the river. Harnessing its power for electricity made the river “work.” Even as Lorentz praises that mission, he mourns the continuing consequences of human activities along the river’s natural course:

1903 and 1907.

1913 and 1922.

1927.

1936.

1937!


We built a hundred cities and a

thousand towns –

But at what a cost!


  • Watch the full thirty minute film, The River, on the Internet Archive.
  • Read Lorentz’s Pulitzer Prize nominated script of The River at UVA’s American Studies Crossroads.
Categories: Nature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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