Monday, November 8, 2010

Two More Views on Nostalgia and Extinction

Perhaps no extinct species inspires more lore than the lowly dodo.  This model at the Field Museum is not nearly as creative as other specimen I have seen at other museums, for, unlike the more recently deceased species we really don't have too many accurate depictions of this bird.

While "mounts" of this animal exist, they are truly composite beasts no more real than a jackalope, skvader, or fur bearing trout. Often these models are made of pigeon feathers and other bird refuse to recreate what we believe the bird once looked like when alive. Only a few mummified remains of soft tissue exist, a head and a foot, have been used to create our image of this bird.

Here the actual feathers are skipped altogether; a sculpted figure replaces any "realness" that the dodo could have had. And like all contemporary representations of this animal, we are left with a lifeless, plastic decoy. Our attempt to memorialize a missing animal has created a pink-lawn-flamingo-effect, replacing lost nature with mass produceable objects. Instant nostalgia.

To contrast the lost past, when something once thought extinct returns, the world is often shocked. Especially when the animal that returns is as alien as this ancient fish. The ancient coelacanth is one such species once only thought to exist in the fossil record. However, when discovered off the coast of Indonesia and later off of Madagascar, it changed the view of the zoological world. 

In an age of loss, a new question of "What might we have overlooked?" began to creep back into collective thought. More recently, the ivory-billed woodpecker captivated public interest as it was seemingly rediscovered in the pine forests of Arkansas. Yet once again it has vanished.

Do these glimmers prompt nostalgia or do they halt the imagination? No classic stories are created with the coelacanth as a character of whimsy wearing a monocle and walking around with a cane. Granted it is hard for a fish to walk with a cane, but that is beside the point. But perhaps nostalgia is a fickle entity, taking the comical and awkward and making it accessible. The dodo, a comical bird; the flamingo a pink creature that must feed upside-down. If we can't make it cute, we can't make it memorable.
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