Most readers will be able to picture, with some degree of accuracy, a dodo. These flightless birds disappeared from existence sometime shortly after 1660, and are known now only through paintings, sculptures, and displays of their preserved remains. Popularised by various cultural cameos, they now serve as a shorthand for extinction: “dead as the dodo” being one commonly-used aphorism.
But the death of the dodo is just one in thousands. Can you picture a Glaucous Macaw, a Tecopa Pupfish, or a Hawaiian Rail? Probably not… but that’s because you’ve yet to read Daniel Hudon’s Brief Eulogies For Lost Animals, a collection of touching, minutely-observed elegies to species which have been wiped clean from the face of the earth.
The book is comprised of one hundred short pieces of creative nonfiction, each one dedicated to a different extinct animal. The entries are organised according to region, beginning with “Lost Animals Of North America” and ending with “Lost Animals Of The Indian Ocean”. There’s also an appendix which groups the featured species by taxonomic classification, and a second one that supplies a series of interesting notes, along with sources for further background reading.
Does that description make Brief Eulogies For Lost Animals sound somewhat like an encyclopaedia? It’s not. Hudon askes, in the introduction, whether the stories of extinct animals are being told – and concludes that in many cases (high-profile extinctions like the dodo and the passenger pigeon aside) they are not. The book is an attempt to redress that, and it is very much the story of the creatures memorialised here that is the focus, rather than their taxonomic classification, their measurements, their biological facts.
The real power of these vignettes, then, is to render these animals real. A monstrous extinction rate is an easy thing to ignore when you can convince yourself that the thousand species lost last year were probably mostly insects, and probably mostly quite dull anyway. To be faced with a hundred short, vital, often beautiful narratives of the lost creatures, on the other hand, makes their absence a much more difficult thing to shake.
This is all the more the case because of the sheer poetry of Hudon’s writing. Entries range in tone from the dejectedly factual to the keeningly poetic. Quotes are mixed with statistics, vivid descriptions with history. Startling observations await on every page. We are treated to visions of groups of Caribbean Monk Seals basking on atolls “like old men, feeling the warm breeze on their whiskers”, or Huais “flying and leaping in succession to some favorite feeding place far away to the silent depths of the forest.”
The pieces compiled in Brief Eulogies For Lost Animals leave you with a real appreciation of the sheer variety and vibrancy of what has been lost. There’s a bittersweet tang to the beautiful prose and arresting descriptions. As the introduction says, these animals exist only as recordings now. Each and every one is exactly as dead as the dodo, and they’re not coming back.