Kiskadee: Inscriptions of Extinction

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By Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Welcome to Kiskadee, a yellow-breasted, black-masked, ruffling and squawking celebration of nonhuman vitalities. In this column, you’ll find true stories of nonhuman beings living extraordinary lives, defying human comprehension, and inspiring masterpieces.

The chemical compounds’ skeletal formulae seem not drawn in but smudged in like unrectified errors. It’s like when someone writes WASH ME on a stranger’s dirty windshield with a finger, pointing out the unwashed thing and whoever let the filth accumulate. But Erica Gajewski’s drawing, Mercury, Water, PCB, DDT, isn’t a windshield. Considering my admiration for cetaceans, which I shared with you last month, this drawing wrings my heart. It’s a beluga whale living in Quebec’s Saint Lawrence estuary, where the eponymous river drags pollutants from the Great Lakes to the sea. The whale prepares to dive as if to flee, their spine is arching, their tail on its way up to wave the sky away, head down, eyes on the depths. Belugas are supposed to be white, white as the ice and snow that conceal them from predators in their sub-Arctic homes. This one’s all over grey and sooty. 

Smudged into the soot are diagrams showing the molecular structures of mercury, DDT, and PCBs. DDT is an insecticide. PCBs are synthetic chemicals used in the manufacture of electrical equipment. All three chemicals are poisonous. All are found in dangerous concentrations in belugas. So toxic are the Saint Lawrence belugas that their corpses are officially designated toxic waste. This horrifying designation makes it sound as though whales themselves are a waste, at best a by-product. But whales contribute far more to global ecosystems than the species whose massive factories pump poisons into oceans.

PCB manufacturing was banned in North America in 1977 but, like DDT and mercury, PCBs can’t dissolve efficiently in water; and so these substances persist to this day in contaminating aquatic animals. 

Now, those who dumped the chemicals in the water couldn’t not have known that, for example, DDT, which was invented to kill animals, is toxic to animals. DDT and PCBs attack belugas’ immune systems and encourage cancers. Adult females are most vulnerable. So are their mammary glands. And so consider the horror of this: belugas are dying slowly of toxins which they can neither fight nor treat nor understand and which they pass on to their children. Through no fault of their own, mother belugas contaminate their babies with toxic milk. Because of human ravenousness for mass-production and consumption, because of our indifference to the consequences for others, belugas are forced to poison their children through their own infected bodies; and the pollutants etch themselves into the whales at the most fundamental levels of their physical existence. In Gajewski’s drawing, the toxins’ skeletal symbols aren’t merely superimposed; the poisons are as if scored in—indelible errors—not just on the surface of the beluga’s skin but deep in their cellular structures and prehistories. 

The fine point of Gajewski’s graphite pencil expresses this unwanted inscription better than a paintbrush could, for a pencil is an instrument of writing as well as drawing. Our species has a history of writing down what we mustn’t forget. Gajewski’s drawing is written testimony, a written record of what was done to the belugas. She renders the poisons in the arcane, diagrammatic alphabet of science, which we’re taught to revere and never question. In the reductive, distancing language of chemistry, Gajewski bears witness to humans’ intimate invasion of belugas’ bodies.

She’s drawn the whale at actual size: an adult about ten feet long. The paper is eleven feet wide, nine feet tall. The drawing is not abstract. No detail is sacrificed. Gajewski doesn’t reduce the beluga’s enigmatic body to a “scale model” that a human could take in at a glance. She doesn’t shrink the whale to fit a screen, page, or frame. She refuses to downplay the magnitude or the beauty of the life we’re poisoning. To draw such a huge animal in such grand detail with such a small, fine instrument; this is love at work. Gajewski’s long, meticulous act of drawing a single poisoned beluga was a long, relentless moment of doing honor to that whale in the best way the artist knows: with her own hands and vivacity bearing witness to that nameless one’s vivacity and beauty—and to the whale’s poisonous history, struggle, and future. 

In her artist’s statement, Gajewski says: “It is each animal as an individual that I want people to see and to remember.” 

She told me that one day in Georgia, USA, she found a bird on the ground. The little one seemed stunned. She or he let Gajewski pick them up. Gajewski thought the tiny aviator might’ve mistaken a window for open sky and suffered an in-flight collision. The bird rested on her hand for a moment, a small moment which left a deep impression. The artist went and drew that bird nine times. She didn’t know what sort of bird it was. A familiar sort. What mattered to her wasn’t how it might be categorized but the fact that the bird lived. 

However commonplace they are now, ordinary species like this bird can’t be taken for granted. According to some statistics and the title of Gajewski’s nine-paneled drawing, some nonhuman species succumb to extinction Every Twenty Minutes thanks to some anthropogenic ecological disaster. Humans don’t even know how many species exist, we have no measure of the planet’s biodiversity, yet we’re destroying it at the speed of a quick commute. Gajewski tried to make the vanishing of others a felt experience for her viewers, to make the loss of this bird’s species—the fact that there will come a day when nobody will look at such a bird ever again—a personal loss for every visitor. She does this by presenting us with the bird’s image again and again, as if giving it to us to keep, as if to remember forever, while at the same time quietly redacting that same image. 

Nine times over, not in a passing glance but in a painstaking act of detailed drawing, Gajewski inscribed this bird on her memory, inscribed its memory on paper, grasped at it with her graphite pencil as a writer grasps at a life-changing feeling and struggles to convey its importance in laborious words. But a bird can’t be grasped. Not when it is living. And not when its species is dying out. Every passing moment, every panel in Gajewski’s drawing is a loss. We can look at the panels from left to right and top to bottom just as we’d read the diary of a bygone day. The bird is at its most present, with sturdy, detailed plumage, in the top left panel. In the next panel to the right, the tail feathers are half gone. 

The next drawing to the right has almost no tail. In the next row down, as we look from left to right, the bird’s wings gradually disappear. The legs and head fade out of the bottom row until all that’s left in the final panel, the bottom right, is a broken outline of no bird in particular, just an incomplete, uncertain memory of birdness. Gajewski’s careful drawing and redrawing, inscribing and reinscribing, copying and recopying only to lose the bird more and more is a depiction of an unsteadying moment: a moment which the artist suffers as she depicts it. The artist puts herself through it, makes herself live it, by drawing it: this long moment of loss; this protracted vanishing in which this bird and others like it slowly cease to exist as phenomena, becoming cracked and hazy memories. Every time we glance at an ordinary bird, we’re one glance closer to never seeing such a bird again; and that long anguish, like progressive blindness, like progressive nervous degeneration—that’s how Gajewski wants us to experience the fact of impending extinctions. Extinction isn’t a statistic, not even for those of us who (for now) remain alive. Extinction is a vast, tormenting moment of degeneration and loss in which all of us are living.

Gajewski says she uses no chemical fixatives on her drawings. And graphite fades more quickly than paint or photographic materials. Pencil drawings have a look of fragility, too. Just looking at the top left bird’s feathery plumage makes you think of what would happen if a teardrop or heavy hand fell on the paper. You’d make a smudge. You’d endanger the image that the drawing hopes to preserve. And this speaks to Gajewski’s point: biodiversity is being wiped out with little apparent effort or malignant intent on humans’ part. The problem is our zealous efforts to preserve ourselves and our own images yield by-products, prejudices, and errors that are harmful to others but purposely overlooked. We don’t want to see how easy extinction is. Extinction as a meteor from far away is one thing. But extinction happening softly under our noses by our own doing? It’s hard not to dismiss it as incredible. Gajewski’s delicate drawings demonstrate how easily vanishing happens through negligence or denial; when the complexities, fragilities, and skeletal structures of things are left out or unconsidered. 

Bermudian author Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s award-winning books include the fiction chapbook Awabi (Digging, 2019); the nonfiction chapbook Artificial Wilderness (Selcouth, 2020); the essay collection Listen, we all bleed (New Rivers, 2021); and the internationally acclaimed novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House, 2019), which was a top finalist for American Book Fest’s Best Book Award for Fiction, an Eyelands Book Award finalist, a Permafrost Book Prize finalist, a Conium Review Book Prize semifinalist, and a PEN Open Book Award nominee. She is also the author of the collection Animals Across Discipline, Time and Space (McMaster Museum of Art, 2020). She holds a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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