I seem to dwell quite a lot on the idea of going extinct.
Right now, I’m hoping a lot of you are saying, “Wow! Me too.” But I’m not fooling myself. I may be taking this journey alone.
Actually, I go beyond thinking about it, I have “extinction” decorating my living room. Hanging prominently on my living room wall is this vintage photograph taken by Edward Curtis. For those who aren’t familiar with the name, Edward Curtis was a late nineteenth century photographer, whom the U.S. government commissioned to take pictures of Indians across the country, before they and their way of life was obliterated by unstoppable progress and, you know, the U.S. government. I guess the government thought dispatching a photographer was the least they could do:
“We’re wiping you out. But first, we’re taking your pictures.”
The photograph on our living wall is called The Vanishing Race. In shows a band of Indians, riding single-file into what appears to be a low-hanging cloud. The way Curtis staged it, the Indians seem to be riding into extinction before our very eyes. It’s as if Curtis said,
“Okay, we’re taking the ‘extinction’ picture now. Ride into that cloud. Trust me, it’ll rip their hearts out.”
Curtis was right. Aside from sparking feelings of retroactive culpability, the picture works on you in deep and unexpected ways. Suddenly, not only are you thinking about the Indians’ extinction, you’re also thinking about your own.
I mean if you think about it, each of us, in our own time, will eventually be going extinct. You may think I’m using the wrong word. We have “dying” to describe that situation. I just don’t think the word fits. A car battery dies; but you clamp on some jumper cables, and back it comes. Not with us. Yes, there’s that “Clear!” thing they do on hospital shows, but most of us – unlike car batteries – when we “go”, we’re gone. I’m suggesting here that rather than saying about a person, “He died”, we say, instead, “He went extinct.” It feels loftier, doesn’t it?
“My Dad went extinct yesterday.”
It sounds like something big happened. And, if you’re the “extinctee”, it was huge.
I know we generally think of “going extinct” in the context of an entire species, but I looked “extinct” up in the dictionary, and it merely says “no longer existing.” When you’re dead, you’re “no longer existing”, so why can’t it be said that you went extinct?
I just thought of something. A whole species doesn’t go extinct on the same day; they drop off a few at a time. It just occurred to me that that’s exactly what we’re doing. Is it possible that we’re going extinct right now and we don’t even know it? Maybe we’re on the way out as I’m writing this, and we haven’t the slightest clue. It’s possible, isn’t it?
Think about the dinosaurs. Do you think dinosaurs knew they were going extinct? Or did extinction catch them totally by surprise? Were there signs of extinction all around them, but they were too caught up in their everyday lives to notice?
What was it like for dinosaurs as they were heading out the door? Is there anything we can learn from them? Let’s take an imaginary look, imaginary looks being the only looks available, since no one from back then is still around to tell us what actually took place.
Imagine dinosaurs, living their lives. Little by little, below the noticing level, like the frog in the pot where the water temperature is raised so gradually, he never senses the danger and is ultimately boiled – subliminal extinction is taking place before their blissfully unnoticing eyes. Is that how it was for the dinosaurs?
One day, the traffic isn’t as bad. And, as often occurs, the dinosaurs draw an erroneous conclusion.
“Must be the gas prices.”
After years of waiting, you can now get tickets to hit shows.
“Dinosaurs must be losing interest in live theater.”
There are suddenly openings at exclusive dinosaur private schools.
“’Home schooling’ is on the rise.”
Signals everywhere. None of them heeded. Life has been proceeding smoothly for so long, it’s unimaginable it could be coming to an end. It’s inconceivable - total extinction. Like the “doh-doh” bird. Or the four-camera situation comedy.
I can imagine dinosaurs being extremely arrogant. They’re thinking:
“Extinction is for other species, the ones that aren’t “the fittest.” That’s how it works, isn’t it? And come on. Who’s fitter than a dinosaur?”
No wonder they never saw it coming.
But come it did. A gradual winnowing process, eventually reaching close to home. Dinosaurs aren’t returning your calls. You think it’s you. It’s not. It’s extinction. More and more people out at work. A serious flu epidemic? You should be so lucky. Extinction is on its way.
And then it’s here. One day, you return from a long, business trip.
“Honey, I’m home.”
You walk into the kitchen. Nobody. Down in the laundry room? Not there. Gardening in the back yard? Uh-uh. Finally, you find a note, taped to the refrigerator door:
“Dinner’s in the oven. Gone extinct.”
You’re stunned and confused.
“What’s going on?!”
You go outside to clear your head. You look around the neighborhood. Newspapers are piled up on every porch.
No answer. It’s quiet. Deadly quiet.
Finally, it hits home. It’s happening. Your species is going extinct. One dinosaur at a time. Somebody has to be the last to go. It turns out, it’s you.
You’re understandably upset.
“Wait a second. We’re going, and the snail is sticking around? No frickin’ way! Spiders get to stay too? Even the hairy ones? What about those weird-looking creatures that walk around on two feet? Nobody likes them! Aw, man. If they’re staying and we have to go, I mean, it’s just totally unfair!”
Okay. You know you’re going extinct. Others have already gone, your turn is coming up. What do you do? Do you run? Can you run away from extinction? Who knows? It’s better than standing around, isn’t it? Maybe it’s just more tiring. And maybe “tiring” speeds extinction up. But what are you going to do? Take a nap? You might never wake up.
Exactly how is extinction going to happen? Little by little, or do you just go “poof”? There’s no one to ask, you’re the last of the dinosaurs. No books on the subject, and even if there were, there may not be time to read them.
Time. So terribly wasted. How many precious hours thrown away watching Dancing with the Dinos? How many lost hours watching “crucial” ball games that now seem so utterly meaningless? And those diets! And the gym! Trying to stay fit. Not fit enough, it turns out. Maybe “fit” has nothing to do with survival. Even the fit dinosaurs are gone.
Do you leave a note? For who? Nobody cares about dinosaurs. Spielberg, maybe, but he won’t be around for ages.
A tear starts to fall. A little self-pity. Stop it! You’re a dinosaur. You were the Beast That Walked the Earth, scaring the world, with those heavy steps. Trees shook! And you’re crying? Get it together! Go out like the terror-inducing species you are, I mean, were. Show them how a magnificent specimen goes extinct.
It wasn’t so bad, all in all. You went to a lot of places; there was nothing there, but you went. You picked other species up off the ground, and threw them a mile. That was fun. Leaf eating wasn’t the greatest, but hey, it kept down your cholesterol.
“A lot of good that did me.”
You sigh a deep dinosaur sigh. You’ve made your peace, your bitterness, set aside. The time has come. There’s nothing left to do.
You sit down on the curb and you wait to go extinct.