I know a lot of you are really upset about the Notre Dame fire in Paris, and I’m really sad too. To see something so beautiful and so carefully constructed be damaged by forces out of your control is very painful. As a scientist who studies species that are going extinct right now, this is a feeling I grapple with more often than I’d like. The irreplaceable work of art that I worship is nature, and to watch it senselessly crumble to the ground every day hurts my heart. I highly respect your feelings about what happened today, and I hope the parallel I described can help you better understand how many of the people who have devoted their lives to conservation feel quite often. We know you get tired of us shouting about species going extinct, and we’re sorry for the broken record, but we’re surrounded by burning cathedrals built across millennia.
How do you feel?
I felt the same exact way. This week has been terrible–on Saturday, a tornado tore through the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site [link], which is an archeological site in east Texas where a Native American tribe had once lived. The historic site was also home to a newly-built (2015) museum, and Saturday was Caddo Culture Day, a festival celebrating the native heritage of the area. As the storm approached, the 100 or so attendees took shelter in the museum, which the tornado hit, tearing off the roof and collapsing in the walls [link]. This isn’t in the news article I linked to, but because of the storm, it took first responders two hours to arrive. Two of the event volunteers were Master Naturalists, one of whom was a practicing medical doctor, the other was trained in wilderness first-aid, and despite their own serious injuries, they tended to the care of others until the helicopters could arrive.
Thing is, we can rebuild museums. We can rebuild the Notre Dame’s spire. We can look at photos of the original. The stone structure remains. Not all of the interior of the cathedral was destroyed. The holy relics were saved.
We can’t rebuild species. We can’t run in and save them after we’ve culled the species diversity down past a certain point. There are species we don’t even know ever existed that we have already pushed to extinction, and we will never know how important they were. There are species we didn’t discover until they were already extinct. There are species, right now, that we know are facing extinction, but we can’t get the government to agree, and they refuse to ban the pesticides that are killing them, and we just have to sit back and watch them all die.
I heard Alex Wild say that being an entomologist right now is like being an art historian in a world where a museum burns to the ground every week.
Well, what happens when the museums start burning every week, too? What kind of world is that? The worst part, I know there are plenty of people who don’t care about either.
April 15, 2019