Mass Extinctions Followed by Life

Field Museum's Evolving Planet exhibit

On our recent visit to Chicago, Julia and I visited the museums I remembered from my childhood: Science and Industry, the Art Institute, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum. I loved what I remembered and marveled at what was new. One of the new things is the certainty, in all the science museums, that the planet faces a grave threat from human-caused climate change. I wondered how all those deniers—and those claiming to deny—visit these museums without feeling ashamed of themselves. Has politics made them so dumb or so paranoid that they think there’s a vast scientific conspiracy afoot?

I was particularly enthralled with “The Evolving Planet” exhibit in the Field Museum where one walks through the history of the earth, revisiting each of life’s six mass extinctions along the way. The sixth is the one that our own species is currently visiting upon many of the other species. Part of the cause is climate change, and there is also habitat destruction and plain old direct killing.

The only consoling news was that life has always found a way to bounce back. When the dinosaurs went down, the mammals came into their own. The fish, meanwhile, have been evolving dramatically for eons, one form replacing another as the temperatures of the oceans changed, and I was blown away by all the diversity and wondrous beauty we saw in the aquarium.

I thought of a Richard Shelton poem that I like. It calls for us to step beyond self and pain and see ourselves as part of something bigger. We think that our death is just about us and try to frame it in our own terms, but our mortality highlights the grand collective enterprise that we are part of. Encountering death, listening to its whisper, can remind us how precious and beautiful life is.

In our current case, death is not whispering but shouting. (The Field Museum has a counter, which reaches double figures, informing us how many species have gone extinct since we got up that morning.) Will this help us appreciate the beauty that is all around us? Unlike previous mass extinctions, this one we have some say in. Poems like Shelton’s remind us that the continuing fight to save the earth in its current form is worth it.


has no sense of honor. I challenged him
to battle, win or lose; but when I went
to meet him, he did not appear. Later
I heard his tiny voice whispering in my ear

You carried me to the battlefield
and brought me safely back again.
I have been with you always. I am here.

He followed me like a ghost. I had been told
ghosts could not cross running water, so I went
to the river and swam. When I came out
on the other shore. I saw a dragonfly
above me on the willow branch. Its wings
were fragile and transparent as an angel’s.
Again I heard the tiny voice. It said

Thank you for taking me across the water
on your shoulder. Rest on the riverbank.
I will watch over you. Sleep. I will be near.

I slept and dreamed I was the river’s
lover; and when I woke, a mist was rising
on the water. The moon came up and everything
was silver. It was more beautiful
than in my dream. I heard the voice again,
this time a murmur, a low wind in the trees.

Someday I will release you from your dreams
of self and pain, and make you part
of all things beautiful. You will  be useful
to the earth. Now you call me “Death”
but you will learn my other name
is “Life.” We are the same.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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