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Waiting for the Macaws: And Other Stories from the Age of Extinctions

by Terry Glavin

To Gary Snyder, “we are all indigenous to this planet, this garden we are being called on … to reinhabit in good spirit.” For Edward O. Wilson, “nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” It is well understood: home is more than just a place to hang your hat. So author and conservationist Terry Glavin, in the shadow of Wilson and Snyder, understands what’s at stake when he writes about “the great unraveling of the living world” – a phrase at once apt, memorable, sad, and true. The new age of extinctions, the irrevocable loss of the diversity of living things in our world, our home, is happening now. The fallout will be unfathomable.

Waiting for the Macaws is a kaleidoscope of decline. So much is being lost. Within each chapter are huge, sudden shifts in geography and torrents of places, names, and numbers. The pace is calculated but frantic, as if Glavin can’t keep up. When the facts of the great unravelling are so many and so overwhelming, the prose breaks down and becomes more a list: this species gone, this one obliterated, this one a phantom.

The book has no centre beyond the cause of the problem: us. Somehow, in subtle and persistent ways, humans have caused all this, beginning with the Green Revolution and the exploration of the New World (with the attendant spread of disease and invasive species), and leading to a sort of general running amok. It has come to the point, Glavin argues, that we’re even destroying our own work: literally thousands and thousands of species of apples and corn, goats and cows are facing extinction. Human languages and cultures not lucky enough to fall within the modern socio-economic zeitgeist are following suit.

Despite the encyclopedic task Glavin has taken on, Waiting for the Macaws remains coherent and even has a few bright corners. Now and then, the book lingers long enough in a particular place to feature engaging little histories about, say, Kew Gardens in London, or the great Amur River in eastern Russia. Like the best writer/conservationists, Glavin chooses the affective and aesthetic over the purely scientific, and relies on well-chosen anecdotal evidence. Witness the story of the once-majestic sea bird, the great auk: “The auk’s doom came on June 3, 1844. That morning, Keil Ketilsson, John Brandsson, and Sigurdur Islefsson set out … for the rocky, volcanic islet of Eldey.… Eldey had once been thick with auks in the summer breeding season, but all that was left on that day was a nesting pair. The fishermen killed them. One egg lay on a lava slab. It broke at Keil Ketilsson’s feet, and that was the last of the great auk.”

The story’s point is to leave the reader with no doubt that something horrible has happened: the theme is a death that has been a long time coming, with something more than just the great auk at stake. We are destroying the place where we live and ourselves in it. These things cannot be undone. There is no place like home. – Andrew Kett, a reviewer in Toronto.