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Breath & Shadow

Fall 2021 - Vol. 18, Issue 4

"Children of the Sixth Mass Extinction"

written by

Elizabeth Devine

When I was a child, I wished for a world without suffering. Or, if not that, then a world without humans.

I wasn’t forgiving or understanding of the complexities of my mentally developed but emotionally stunted species. Instead I felt a deep connection with the natural world around me. Maybe I was born a Buddhist, because even the thought of harming insects accidentally leaves me guilt-stricken and depressed.

I love to drive, but driving down a highway is excruciating. I count the bodies of deer, turtle, possum, raccoon, dogs, cats, and many others broken open on the side of the road, some fresh and splattered red and some just splintered bone with blackened flesh around it, in the process of fading to nothing. It’s a guarantee that I’ll see at least three before my drive has ended. The numbers aren’t good.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, we lose dozens of species a day. The fragmented land and danger from the roadways is only one minor cause, but it’s a daily reminder.

I grew up in the desert, in Arizona, where life has to cling and endure to survive, where you sometimes have to go searching to find much of it. Now I’m a skeletal re-articulator, which means I put bones that have been shattered beyond recognition back together and rebuild entire skeletons into displays for universities. The fragility and rare nature of life is obvious to me in ways it wasn’t before. Working with death makes certain rules of life inescapable.

The first rule is: it’s rare.

We look at death as an anomaly, but really, parts made of proteins, minerals, and water, moving, speaking, and radiating their own heat is the anomaly on a world made of death.

The second rule is: it’s fragile.

There are parts of the human skull that are near paper-thin. Some people can recover from astounding head trauma, but a rough bump in the wrong spot can kill.

When I brush the dust off the bones of ancient humans, I’m always baffled as to how we survive past infancy. How do the first few falls toddlers have not kill them, even with softer skulls because they’re not fully calcified?

The third rule is: our way of life is incompatible with the continuation of our species.

There’s a thing called eco-system services that a great deal of people know nothing about. It’s the benefits you get, the many means of life-support you never think about, that the eco-system you’ve co-evolved with provides you every day that can never be adequately replaced by artificial means. Ecosystem services—disease regulation, natural medicines, creation of oxygen and other necessary gasses, the filtering, cycling, and cleaning of water, and more—all depend on biodiversity and on each link for the entirety to not collapse. And we’re losing those links. We’re currently experiencing the sixth mass-extinction, and it’s the product of human greed and apathy.

I don’t know if losing human beings would save the many species that supported us, but I do know that losing our apathy would be a good start.

Until that day I will continue to stop for armadillos, foxes, skunk, or deer, at least the ones with all their flesh still attached. When I can’t tell if their chests are rising and falling, I’ll get out to check. Under the bright, crisp light of a nearly-full moon, I’ll look into blank eyes, just starting to cloud, and notice blood that escaped from nostrils, already dried and brown.

And each time, life will leave me, too.

Just like the last time, I’ll shuffle back to my car, sit in the driver’s seat, and slam the door shut. I’ll reach to turn the key in the ignition, but my hand will slump down. The other will cling to the steering wheel. I’ll look at the still beautiful body, a completely unique flame that will never reignite, then look up at the gray pits and cliffs of the moon and burst into tears: slow and hitched at first, then great gulping sobs.

My generation grew up being told by every movie, show, and science program that we were the ones who would save the world. Instead, we’re caught in the cogs of the same machine as everyone else, slowly and not-so-slowly watching everything we were raised to love die.

This essay appeared previously in The Chestatee Review of The University of North Georgia.

Elizabeth Devine is a full-time student and part-time skeletal re-articulator. She navigates society through the lenses of several disabilities, including PTSD, ADHD, and being somewhere on the autistic spectrum, which makes her feel so much that she is entirely emotionally stunted. Her only weakness in life is every human being on the planet.

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