I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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The parents wake their children before dawn, dragging them out of their beds in the dark to the bus stop at the end of the block, where they get onto the clean bus that runs on who knows what. The clean bus drives them to the preserve an hour west so they can watch the great egrets follow a man dressed up like an egret in the rain. The man, a volunteer, is there to assist, or try to assist, in the birds’ migration, which now needs to be adjusted due to weather changes and man-made barriers along their route: the wind turbines and antenna towers, in particular. The birds have not wanted to leave as long as it remains this warm. Nobody thought it would stay this warm the entire winter.
This is a field trip for Nan’s school, a mandatory enrichment session, and both of Nan’s mothers have come along as chaperones. Dana stands on the observatory platform bored out of her mind: the rarity of an animal does not necessarily make that animal interesting to everybody. Lindsay, a conservation scientist, pages through a birding guide, the twenty-seventh edition, issued last year and already out of date. The rain pauses, the clouds clear, the sun barrels over the horizon. Nan stares at the egrets, unable to tell which is the man in costume.
Another day. The wildlife alarm starts flashing red at the elementary school, and Nan’s teacher urges her class out of the building while passing out camouflage covers and animal-identification cards. Today’s card features a picture of a tiny turtle whose neck is splotched with orange markings. The students tiptoe to the field, swiveling their heads. “I see it!” exclaims a classmate of Nan’s. “Good,” purrs the teacher. “I see it, too,” breathes another girl. The teacher is about to offer praise to this child as well, but a boy interrupts her: “You didn’t see anything, you stupid girls!” The boy is a troublemaker. “Those turtles aren’t real. The real turtles are dead. They’re all dead.” The children halt their forward movement; they stand stiff and uncomfortable underneath their camouflage covers. “Who in the world told you that?” asks the teacher. “The turtles are dead,” the boy says. One girl begins sniffling. The teacher shushes her.
The boy is correct: bog turtles have indeed gone extinct in the last month, unbeknownst to the teacher, who has refused to become obsessed with the dismal extinction feeds, as she is trying to maintain an optimistic spirit for her students’ sake. The troublemaker is sent inside, where, as punishment for undermining today’s lesson, he will spend the afternoon studying a wind-up turtle in a terrarium. Outside, Nan points somewhere to the east. “I see the bog turtle, too! There!” She is lying, just as the other girls lied. Though lie is probably not the correct verb. The actual sighting matters less than the belief in the sighting: if we believe an animal can be seen, it can’t really be gone. “Such good girls,” murmurs the teacher. The class advances using careful, nature-exploring steps that impart minimal damage to the soil. They hesitate at a marshy field, where brown ticks cling to the ends of the sharp grasses like little bombs. The children are afraid. Their teacher reminds them several times that they are wearing repellent and their pants are tucked tightly into their socks, so they have nothing to fear.
The white-tailed deer have overtaken Nan’s neighborhood. An “infestation” of deer, her neighbors call it. A dangerous infestation. June, a girl in Nan’s class, gets knocked down by a charging deer on her way to school, her head hitting the sidewalk. She has to ride in an ambulance to the city hospital. Soon after, on a tour of the neighborhood’s historic architecture, a middle-aged woman gets trampled by a different deer — or maybe it was the same deer; how does one tell? — fracturing her shin and ankle bones. Surgery is required. Then there is little Ada: her mother finds a deer tick sucking blood in the child’s armpit. That particular tick carries the Powassan virus. Within a week Ada falls ill and can no longer attend school. Ada’s mother does not have health insurance; she cannot afford to take her daughter to a specialist. She blames Congress; she blames the Department of Environmental Conservation; she blames the deer. It is explained to Ada’s mother that ticks — not deer — carry the Powassan virus. “I think it’s called a deer tick for a reason, you fuckers,” says Ada’s mother. Nan likes the deer. She likes how they study her with their wet, animal eyes. One deer with a hurt leg limps through the neighborhood in the mornings, engorged ticks clinging to both of its ears. Nan touches this deer in her yard, though she keeps that a secret.
Nan and her mothers attend that month’s neighborhood-association meeting, where the first topic of discussion is branding for the historic district, and the second topic of discussion is the white-tailed deer. “It is unnatural to have so many deer surrounding our homes,” says Mrs. Adonis into the microphone. The deer are more like rodents now, and Mrs. Adonis would much prefer to observe, for example, a rare blue butterfly. “We must act forcefully, and we must act now!” she says. There are nods of agreement and applause. The next woman at the podium is dressed in a severe black frock inappropriate for the unusually warm spring weather. Nobody knows who this woman is, but she looks like trouble. She is trouble, accusing the crowd of an unwillingness to value the animal life right in front of them. Her voice edged with anxiety and judgment, she says, “You people want only to see what’s not there, or what used to be there, but you know what? Something is there. Something is always there.” It is determined that she isn’t from the neighborhood — most likely she belongs to a fringe preservationist group — and she is asked to leave. The meeting continues. June’s mother speaks emotionally into the microphone, followed by Ada’s mother, who is crying as she talks, so it is difficult to understand her exact words, but the gist of her message is clear. After a brief discussion among the officers, it is decided that residents can do what they want to the deer, within reason and within the constraints of obvious legality. In the morning the twisted bodies of deer appear on the neighborhood soccer fields. Somebody drags the dead deer to the side of the fields so the kids can practice soccer; somebody else calls the city to pick up the carcasses. The city takes its time. The neighborhood smells if the wind blows the wrong way.
The Sumatran orangutan is declared extinct on the news feeds one morning that spring, the final female having died in captivity overnight at the Cleveland Zoo. Nan’s teacher spends the lunch hour crying in the staff room, then announces to the class that it is time for another extinction ceremony. “Now, where is my extinction helper?” she asks the room. The children look down at their desks. Extinction helper is the worst job a student can get, worse than floor sweeper or table washer. The teacher’s eyes settle upon Nan. She motions for Nan to stand. “Run. Run now,” a girl whispers across the aisle. Behind the teacher on the whiteboard is a list of the endangered animals and plants the students have needed to worry about since the beginning of the school year. The list covers most of the board. “This is not the entire list, not by far,” the teacher has previously explained to her students. “I don’t want to help today,” Nan tells her teacher. She remains seated, her fingernails scratching at her desk. “Don’t be a baby,” the teacher says. Nan has begun to have nightmares in which she is walking among piles of dead animals. “I’m not a baby. You’re the baby,” says Nan. Last night it was toads, thousands of dead toads — or were they frogs? The teacher inhales sharply and charges down the aisle, her shoes clacking against the tile floor. She grabs Nan’s arm and yanks the girl to the front of the room. The teacher’s hands begin to shake. The next day she is gone, replaced by a substitute.
South of the city, on the side of the interstate, looms a billboard that causes Nan to cover her eyes with her hands. On the billboard is a girl surrounded by a mass of living creatures — sea turtles, snails, eagles, mussels, salamanders, cetaceans, sturgeons, mountain gorillas — all of them contorted in various stages of suffering: what will YOU save today? the billboard asks in blazing orange letters. This girl and these animals tower over a bridge that is expected to collapse soon unless federal funding comes through. The funding isn’t going to come through. This makes advertising here dirt cheap for environmental campaigns. Several animals featured in the ad, including two species of whales, are already extinct, despite the fundraising efforts of Nan and her classmates, the candy sales and the bake sales. When Nan covers her eyes, her mother Lindsay says, “Open your goddamn eyes.”
Mrs. Adonis, who lives to the right of Nan in the yellow house, hires a laborer to dig a hole in her yard, because she and her husband are too old to be digging holes. Once the laborer has dug the hole to a depth of two feet, Mrs. Adonis instructs him to turn the hole into a pond, which he does by lining the hole with a waterproof material, then filling it with water from the hose. It is not a fancy pond, nor is it meant to be. The next day Mrs. Adonis struggles to carry a bucket to the pond. The bucket is filled with water, and in the water are dozens of wriggling goldfish, the cheap orange variety. She sets the bucket down five times on her way through the yard. Each time she sets down the bucket, water sloshes onto the grass. When she reaches the pond, she tips the bucket over and pours the goldfish in. She drags a lawn chair from the garage and sits and waits. The waiting is peaceful until Lindsay storms into the yard — there is no fence, not yet — and accuses Mrs. Adonis of attempting to lure a great blue heron, a critically endangered bird. Stories about the illegal construction of baiting ponds have been all over the news feeds. “I want to see these birds before they’re gone,” says Mrs. Adonis. “I don’t think that’s criminal, wanting to see a bird.” Lindsay says that it is, in fact, a crime. She recommends Mrs. Adonis watch a video instead from the Virtual Ark. There is excellent heron footage on the Ark, very realistic. “Go away,” says Mrs. Adonis, turning back to her pond. When Lindsay does not go away, when she actually takes several giant steps closer, Mrs. Adonis scoops a goldfish from the water and throws it into Lindsay’s face.
The great blue heron doesn’t come that day or the next. Shortly thereafter, the goldfish in Mrs. Adonis’s pond die due to unnaturally high ammonia levels in the water. Mrs. Adonis nets the dead fish and tosses them into Lindsay and Dana’s garden. The following day she carries another bucket filled with live goldfish to the pond and sits down to wait.
Nan feels like she is surrounded by animals all the time because she watches them on her screen. The animals, who no longer exist in the wild, prowl or pace or sit or sleep or flutter in their sterile cages while cameras broadcast a live feed online. Realistic murals decorate the cages’ back walls, depicting each creature’s unique habitat, which no longer exists in the world. Men in starched uniforms hold guns and guard the cages containing the more popular animals, such as gorillas. The lowland-gorilla feed is very popular because the baby gorilla gives people hope. On the gorillas’ feed they are often sleeping. They sleep like people do: on their sides, arms tucked under their heads. The baby gorilla sleeps nestled against its mother. Nan watches the rise of their chests, hears the gorillas breathing. It is the same as being there, she thinks. Lindsay explains that, no, it is not the same as being there, no matter how good the sound quality. After school, after checking on the gorillas, Nan watches the feed for the ornate hawk-eagle. Its wings have been clipped. The bird tilts its head and blinks its golden eyes once, twice.
June, the girl with the poorly healed scar on her forehead from the deer incident, attends a wilderness encounter in the Catskills. To afford the encounter, June’s parents take out a black-market loan using a family collection of antique quartz watches as collateral. They do not want their only child to be at a disadvantage, and it has been proven in multiple studies that children without face-to-face access to wild animals, or once-wild animals, often have diminished spirits, depressive leanings, and lower math scores. June’s particular encounter involves chimpanzees, who are extinct in the wild but survive in various enclosures and zoos and places such as this. Specifically, the encounter involves June sitting on a boulder in a field and rubbing her forehead against a chimpanzee’s forehead, receiving a hug from that chimpanzee, then gazing deeply into the chimp’s eyes while the animal gazes back. June returns to school changed. This new version of June walks through the hallways differently. She speaks differently. She knows the answers to questions she hadn’t known the answers to previously. Her first day back, she brings in her encounter’s souvenir-video file, which the substitute teacher projects onto the wall. The class must watch the entire video three times before lunch.
That evening Nan asks her mothers if she can someday attend a wilderness encounter. Dana asks where the money for such an encounter would come from. “Would it come from the sky?” she asks. Lindsay says it isn’t the money that matters. “Those encounters are pure human fantasy,” she says, “and they are a big part of the problem. They are the fucking problem.” “Whoa, language,” says Dana. “The idea that we can communicate with them?” says Lindsay. “That they would want to understand or care about us, or care to look at us? That because an animal glanced in our direction, they must care? That because we were looking at them, we were understood? That’s —”
Lindsay is trying to save the blue butterflies, which are dying because their habitat has shrunk or altogether vanished. What Lindsay and her team must do is convince private landowners to protect and expand the butterfly’s habitat — not an easy task, but also not impossible. The insecticides used on the invasive gypsy moth are killing the butterflies as well. So Lindsay and her team must stop the private landowners, plus the nearby communities, from using such insecticides. And the wild lupine, which the butterflies depend upon, is dying from leaf rust. So they also need to get rid of the leaf rust using . . . what — a fungicide? And Asian lady beetles are eating the butterfly larvae, so they need to get rid of the Asian lady beetles with . . . what — an insecticide?
At least people care about the declining blue-butterfly population. How could they not care: these particular butterflies are powder-blue gems, little innocents with wings, delightful creatures, especially when compared with the region’s other endangered species, which include an ugly butterfly resembling a shrunken gray alien; a mayfly; and a fern; plus some mussels that Lindsay has given up on already. Nobody will ever care about the mussels. The people who care specifically about the blue butterflies put up blue-butterfly posters in the city bus shelters. Nan has to walk past such posters on her way to school. They wear save the butterfly T-shirts, pin blue-butterfly buttons to their collars, publish a picture book, and form a nonprofit. Such public concern makes Lindsay wonder if it may be possible to save the species after all.
For her eleventh birthday Nan asks her mothers for a set of Scarlet Phantoms, the fantastical animal figurines with adjustable appendages. Lindsay calls such toys an “avoidance.” She calls it “sticking one’s head in the sand.” This is exactly why Nan desires such toys. The basic set includes an animal with fourteen adorable eyes embedded in its arms and another with multiple removable hearts that really beat. No sad narrative surrounds any of the Phantoms: they have never existed; therefore, they can never go extinct. On her birthday Nan does not get what she wants. Instead Dana gives Nan a bucket of snow shipped from the northern territories. Lindsay’s present is eleven stuffed animals, each modeled to scale after a lost species, the tag around the neck explaining pertinent details of its habitat’s destruction and/or the failed attempts at its captive breeding. Nan calls the animals ugly. “There is no such thing as an ugly animal, Nan,” reminds Lindsay. “Then why is the slug so ugly?” asks Nan. “It’s not,” says Lindsay. The stuffed slug leaves a residue on Nan’s hand when she touches it. “Each of these creatures was a revelation,” says Lindsay. Nan shoves the stuffed animals under her bed.
The children take a field trip to the Frozen Petting Zoo, where they stare at dozens of vials in freezer boxes. Each vial contains the cells of an endangered or extinct animal suspended in a frozen liquid. The glass vials in the boxes are labeled with a numeric code, and, below the code, the species name is written in black ink. “So the animals we think are gone — they’re not really gone,” the substitute explains to her class, tapping her polished fingernails against the reflective white door of the freezer where the samples are kept. “They’re just in here.” The tour guide says that isn’t exactly true. “You know what I mean,” says the teacher. The students are allowed to hold vials in their hands as long as they are careful, wear protective gloves, and stand on the rubber mats so the vials won’t break if dropped. Nan wants to hold a polar bear, but the tour guide isn’t bringing out the cells of the polar bear today, so Nan has to hold an Asian sun bear instead. They can hold each vial for twenty seconds. Nan thinks she can feel the animal’s heartbeat through the glass. She thinks she can feel the bear’s breath gathering wetly against her gloved skin. This is not a unique reaction. One boy, the troublemaker, holds a vial labeled przewalski’s horse. He pretends to return the vial to the sample box, but instead he slips it into his lunch bag. Nan sees but doesn’t tell. The tour guide is distracted by the sound of glass breaking in the rear of the lab. “Interns,” she mutters, and she collects the vials, returns them to the boxes, and pulls a lever to seal the freezer door. She ushers the group into the hallway, where they wait for security to escort them back above-ground.
“What are you going to do with it?” Nan whispers. “Do with what?” asks the boy who stole the vial. “I saw you,” Nan says. “I’m going to swallow it,” he says. His eyes are wide and a little disturbing. “Why?” Nan asks. “I want a horse inside of me,” he says.
The Biobank Corporation is developing a cloning procedure slowly and with spectacular mistakes. The extinct animals selected for species revival die in utero or live for only a minute, or a breath, though a few make it longer: a few minutes, a few breaths. All failed versions are disposed of properly, according to voluntary international guidelines. “Nature makes mistakes all the time. We aren’t better than nature yet,” says the Biobank spokeswoman, “but we’re going to get there.” More mistakes. Some new versions cannot eat. Some look like chimeras, half animal, half . . . what? These creatures are also disposed of properly. And so on and so forth, everybody working very hard and believing in their work until one day four African leopard surrogates give birth to four healthy baby Amur leopards, a species that has been lost for years. The new leopards look like leopards, they are leopards, and the scientists finally get some sleep; they sleep soundly for days. At six months the cubs are transported under armed guard to a secure park enclosure in central Minnesota, as that climate somewhat resembles the leopards’ original habitat. Most people cannot afford the admission tickets. A cheaper (though not cheap) option is the Amur-leopard feed. Dana dips into their savings to purchase a month of household access. At breakfast Nan and her two mothers hunch over their screens; they watch the resurrected leopards swagger across the leftover patches of spring snow, pink tongues flicking in the morning light.
It is neither easy nor cheap to save a species. The resources required to attempt to save Lindsay’s blue butterfly could provide 21,913,580 dehydrated meal packs (rice, soy, veggies, and twenty-three vitamins and minerals) for the Middle Eastern climate refugees. People have begun to point this out. In fact, people are outside Lindsay’s lab, shouting, “We are not anti-environment. We are pro-human!” Security guards must escort the scientists, including Lindsay, along the pebble path and into the building, shielding the employees as best they can from the bottles and shoes the protesters throw.
On the morning of the fourth day of protests, before Lindsay can reach the entrance’s double doors, a woman leaps in front of the guards, rears back her head, and spits, the saliva hitting the collar of Lindsay’s coat, where it glistens on the synthetic fabric. Two of the guards usher Lindsay inside while the other guards pin the protester to the ground. In the restroom Lindsay uses warm water and antibacterial soap to clean herself up as best she can. She would like to cry for a variety of reasons. All day, through the closed windows of her lab, she hears people chanting. The protest is officially over by evening, and the protesters trudge home, leaving behind their signs and detritus, their shit and urine smell and candy wrappers. The security guards and the scientists leave, too. That night someone breaks into Lindsay’s lab and steals most of the butterflies.
Lindsay introduces a sample of the remaining lab-hatched butterflies into the sand plains northeast of the city. It is as if the butterflies don’t want to live. It is as if they cannot recognize the value of their tiny lives. They won’t breed in captivity anymore. They won’t breed in the open fields. They are flashes of silvery-blue flicks. They are gone. The three ring-tailed lemurs in the San Diego Zoo lie down and refuse to get up. They won’t eat, won’t open their mouths. The lemur live feed is discontinued. In Austin a captive red-cockaded woodpecker destroys every one of its eggs while somewhere in the Midwest a big-pocket gopher tears apart then eats its critically endangered young. Scientists wonder if the continuation of a species need not always be a priority for that species.
Dana dreams of a flock of pigeons a mile wide blocking out the sun. Lindsay dreams of doorways covered by feathers. Nan doesn’t dream. The windows are open, and in the morning a breeze moves through the house. Dana wakes first. She hears hammering and thinks Mrs. Adonis is constructing her privacy fence. She’d teased Mrs. Adonis only the day before, asking if she was keeping secrets, and the old woman had said yes, aren’t we all. But Mrs. Adonis is not awake yet, and her yard is deserted. The hammering grows louder and more urgent. Dana grabs her screen and checks the news feeds: Other people in other towns are hearing the noise as well. No one knows what it is.
Nan gets up and looks outside her bedroom window. Instead of her familiar neighborhood she sees vines winding down the street, creeping across lawns and driveways and up the sides of houses; green mold spreading rapidly along the roofs and chimneys; swollen branches cracking windows; roots breaking the ground open. The maples and elms and black walnuts and giant hogweed and knotweed and periwinkle and honeysuckle are claiming, or reclaiming, their territory. There is not an animal in sight.