I am making my way for the second time through Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. This isn’t a book I would ever have chosen to read, but it’s the January pick for my book group, and so. As much as I was sorry to see this book win the group’s vote, I’m so glad it did. This is a stunning, well-written book that needs reading and heeding. I suspect it will get much more of the first than the second.
When my mentee, Sophia, and I had our pair session this week, I told her about the book, told her I hadn’t wanted to read it because I knew it would depress the mess out of me and be really frustrating. We talked about the history of mass extinctions and the sad fact that humans are causing this current die-off. And we talked about animals that have been lost …
And then this question happened:
“Mammoths are still alive, right?”
It froze me for a second because it wouldn’t have occurred to me that anyone would imagine that we still had Mammoths running around somewhere on earth. But it was a sincere question. So I put on my serious face and answered: “No honey, not for … um … thousands of years.”
This was the wrong answer, of course. She was so unhappy! We went online for verification of my “thousands of years” and talked about how cool it would be if Mammoths were still around (but would it be cool?). And then:
“What about Saber-tooth Tigers? They’re still around, right?”
Sophia is young, it’s true, but I’m still surprised. Aren’t these extinctions well-enough known to be the fauna equivalent of canon?
I broke the news about the tigers, feeling more and more sorry for bringing up Kolbert’s book with every second. Sophia was really hit by this information, and I was so unprepared for our conversation, I didn’t do a good job of helping her through it. This isn’t covered in the mentor’s handbook!
We talk more. I talked about some of the animals Kolbert highlights in her book, particularly the Great Auk, whose story really broke my heart. We looked at pictures of a bunch of extinct animals and talked about when they lived and what caused their extinctions … and about the fact that the cause was so often humans. We took a look at the Saber-tooths for nostalgia’s sake … and that’s when it all became clear:
“Because, you know, Ice Age is my favorite movie. I guess I just thought they must all still be here.”
Because … oh.
Sophia has seen this movie many (MANY) times. And I totally get having a favorite show really change how you see the world. I have a hard time remembering that George Washington wasn’t a big, handsome Black man who sings like Christopher Jackson. (No, really.) But I’m still thrown by this. Maybe I’m thrown because I wonder what gets covered in earth science classes? Maybe. I think it’s more wonder at the beauty and sweetness that is Sophia’s ability to believe in living Mammoths and Saber-tooth Tigers. And sadness that I crushed them, that I’m suddenly the villain who made them all extinct with one casual response.
Sigh. Well, I am human, after all. And we’re all definitely the villains in Kolbert’s book, villains of the unsightly drama that’s been playing out for decades but moving faster and faster in recent years. The Sixth Extinction should be required reading. Yes, to make sure you know that we no longer have Mastodons and Mammoths (not related to each other, by the way!), but also to understand the loss of the Great Auks, and now Panamanian Golden Frogs. But, more importantly, I’d hope this book could force us to come to terms with the destruction we’re wreaking across the globe. Yes. In a perfect world.
But, if we lived in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have pushed the earth to this point, would we?