An Eloquent Remembrance: Book Review of ‘Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals’

EarthzineOriginal, Reviews

Book Jacket. Image Credit: Pen and Anvil Press

Hudon’s poetic collection of eulogies individualizes species that have vanished from the planet, seeking to fulfill the promise “gone but not forgotten.”

The extensive biodiversity resource the Encyclopedia of Life estimates that nearly 900 species have been lost from our planet since the year 1500. Author Daniel Hudon seeks to preserve some of those species from also being lost to memory in his book “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader.”
Hudon balances a background in science and creative arts: he has lectured in writing, as well as math and astronomy.  In his latest book, he taps into his creative powers to draw attention to what he sees as a biological and ethical crisis. He states in his introduction:

“[Extinction] is a crisis in human values, as our relatives on the tree of life are disappearing under our watch because of our actions.”

Through short tributes to just 100 of the species that vanished from across the globe, Hudon’s “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals” illustrates what vanishes when an extinction takes place.  

Brief Eulogies is a slim volume at just 137 pages — surprisingly slim when you consider the scope of loss it aims to convey. But Hudon does not seek to offer a comprehensive description of each species or even a complete overview of its natural history. Instead, each eulogy is a fleeting impression of what it might have been like to encounter one of these now absent living things: a hint of a song drawn from anecdotal accounts, a flash of what a bird’s colors may have looked like in motion, a short sentence pulled from the annals of memory when this species was alive.

Consequently, the book reads like a collection of poetry. Each eulogy is headed in bold with a title including the animal’s common name, with the scientific name in cursive below. Grouped by geographic region, the pieces are arranged alphabetically by common name. Some eulogies are as short as a single sentence, others run to a full page. Each offers nothing more or less than a short, elegant impression that taps into the emotional, rather than the purely intellectual, understanding of what has been lost.
The parallels with poetry are evident not just in the brevity of each description, but in Hudon’s writing style as well. He makes frequent, effective use of imagery and his word choice often plays with sound. For example, the cadence of Hudon’s description of the Caribbean Monk Seal is filled with the assonance of repetition of the letters c and s, mimicking the soundscape of water on a beach:

“The waves of the sea came and went and the conch shells cast upon the shore recorded their sighs.”
On other occasions, Hudon lays out his tribute in the format of a very short story, as in the case of the Ainsworth’s Salamander:
“After the Atlantic Ocean began to grow, long before the Tyrannosaurus rex came and went, before flowers ever began to bloom, the ancestor of the Ainsworth’s salamander lost its lungs and began to breathe through its skin.”

The Carribean monk seal; last confirmed sighting 1952. Image Credit: Wikipedia/Public Domain

The emphasis of the book is on the unique natures of each life form lost. By bringing to light the details about each species, Hudon hopes to help the public better understand the “enormity of what has happened and is happening within our grasp.”

Short and elegiac though the book is, the footnotes at the conclusion hint at the extensive research that must have gone into the selection of each species and the crafting of each eulogy.

The book is a bard’s answer to the quantitative or analytical approach to considering extinction, and with a similar goal to the bards: the desire is to share, for generations to come, the stories of figures who ought not to be forgotten.

This approach to considering extinction creates an impression of beauty and grief. Implicit throughout is a recognition of the role that humans have played in this mass loss. As a biologist, I was saddened but unfazed by the picture of extinction presented, but I am curious as to how someone less familiar with this scope of loss would receive the book. In some ways, it is tempting to focus primarily on the tragedy of loss, and sadly say, as Hudon does in his introduction of the Atitlán Grebe:

“This is a story that ends prematurely.”
There is, however, another way to view Hudon’s book illuminating the deprivations of extinction: works like this have the capacity to turn the narrative from the conclusion of a story to its culmination point. If enough people are touched by these eulogies and other introductions to the beauty of our planet’s imperiled biodiversity, then perhaps we can begin the shift toward greater awareness and protection of the species with whom we are lucky enough to still share this Earth.

Elise Mulder Osenga is the senior science writer for IEEE Earthzine. Her background includes an undergraduate degree in biology and a master’s in conservation biology. Follow her on Twitter @mountain_lark.