Existential themes: Extinction-Three essays

Rani Marx
Rani Marx
Mar 30 · 10 min read
Decorative lanterns on the lake in Phayao, Thailand (Rani Marx, 2018)

I remain profoundly affected by two unrelated experiences, one first-hand, the other only via reading:

Seeing gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and DeToqueville’s account of the deportation/relocation of American Indians.

The two simmer in the most unpleasant and disturbing fashion deep within me, an unwelcome presence that refuses to leave, something akin to an intestinal worm, but firmly lodged in my head. As the feelings and images related to these two incidents percolate and reverberate unpleasantly, I wonder whether they are related.

Perhaps they address a similar issue: as the pace of environmental destruction runs amok and civil wars sprout like weeds after the winter rains, is my reaction to the senseless loss, the lack of respect and harmony in the world?

In November we went to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The place was wondrous, with large enclosures that seemed barely contained and enabled us to observe animals quite close-up. I did not experience the kind of despondency and extreme sadness I often feel at zoos, where everything about the place is wrong and I chafe at the ignorance and pure stupidity of the visiting public. All of that came to an abrupt end when I came upon the gorilla enclosure: wide and small relative to their size and numbers, open and facing the public without any screening or privacy. The minute I saw them I was struck almost violently, as if I’d been punched or electrocuted: I saw humans. There was no mistaking it. I was in utter shock. My brain told me: they are us, we are them. It was as if we were exhibiting captured prisoners of war. The adults looked out at us, unwavering and intensely, and seemed to silently reflect back to us the genocide we have wrought. It made little difference that a few youngsters clambered about. The alpha male surveyed all of his troop and the visitors. The other adults stared straight out, like the black and white portraits of people who have suffered immeasurably, caught in the agony of their lives. The smell was overwhelming. The sheer unethical, even heinous nature of putting the gorillas on display in such confines was unshakeable. It continues to bother me so many weeks and months later and subsequently made an appearance in my dream:

Our family was in the car looking for the road through the Safari Park. The surroundings were tall dry grassy fields. A dirt track veered off to the right; it seemed to be the way to go though I wasn’t entirely sure. Just then, at a slight distance I saw perhaps ten gorillas, all fully erect, some still and others walking slowly. They were all adults, all quite large, and looked identical. From their movements I saw they were conversing. I was struck with sudden fear and felt we were in danger. I told the family they could look over in the direction of the gorillas but were not to make eye contact under any circumstances, as this would be interpreted as a sign of aggression. I fervently hoped the gorillas would not notice us and that they would move on without incident. I was terrified.

James Wood, commenting on the classic 1835 French text by Alexis de Tocqueville about his travels in the United States, relates* that De Tocqueville “…witnessed an event that provoked some of the most moving lines in . A group of Choctaw Indians, with drums and dogs, emerged from the wood, led by a federal agent who, in accordance with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, was charged with transferring them to Indian Territory, in what is today Oklahoma. The agent stopped and arranged onward passage with a steamboat captain. Tocqueville confessed in a letter that he had witnessed ‘the expulsion — one might say the dissolution — of the last remnants of one of the most celebrated and ancient American nations’.” De Tocqueville wrote:

“In this great throng no sobs or cries were heard; they were silent. Their misfortunes were long-standing, and they felt them to be irremediable. All of the Indians were all in the vessel that was going to carry them, but the dogs still remained on the bank. When the creatures understood at last that they were going to be left behind forever, they burst all together into a terrible howl, and plunging into the icy Mississippi, they swam after their masters.”

Somehow the silence, the fatefulness of that silence, the silence of the gorillas contemplating us, the silence of the Choctaw, punctuated by the dogs’ sudden realization of their fate and that of their masters instills in me an extreme sense of futility, foreboding, and an unbearable despondency. We destroy all that we have and in the process, all that we are.

As I try to digest these events, I reflect on our recent trip to northern Thailand where a striking contradiction is at play. A deep and uplifting kindness buoys daily life along. On every block is at least one Buddhist temple: chanting emanates from within, great reverence is shown toward the monks, and it seems everyone has incredibly detailed information regarding the extent of the good deeds of specific abbots, monks, and saints, easily recited as if quoting statistics on major league baseball players. The parade of gifts and food and labor for the temples by ordinary citizens is endless. People are extraordinarily polite, respectful, upbeat, and generous. There is no hustle, no hassle, no begging, and no one is homeless or destitute. The temples and the state provide. Anyone can live at and be fed by any temple for any length of time provided you participate by doing your share of the work. Your conduct in this life determines your reincarnation in the next. Thus, the stray dogs and cats can all be found hanging around the temples where they are fed, or at restaurants or homes where people make sure they are cared for.

Thus, it is no small surprise that this reverence does not extend toward wildlife, women’s rights, or free speech. There is an ominous stillness in the skies and in the forests, with scarce a bird or insect or larger animal. Women remain oppressed by and large in a still male-dominated society that tolerates men drinking to excess and visiting prostitutes. The military is a strong arm and corruption in both the military and government are rife. dictates that nothing negative may be expressed about the monarchy; consequences are grave. One evening in Chiang Mai at a busy night market, we were eating our street food among the festive crowds when I heard some music being broadcast over loudspeakers and noticed that suddenly all noise had ceased. People turned into statues and stood at attention as the national anthem was played; no one took a bite, no child fussed, all commerce ceased.

* New Yorker May 17, 2010 Tocqueville in America, The grand journey, retraced and reimagined. Pp 102–109 by James Wood on de Tocqueville’s Démocratie en Amérique (On Democracy in America).

I have been reading obituaries from the New York Times, selected and curated by my husband. Many of them are already more than twenty years old, but remain intriguing. The life stories rarely follow a smooth trajectory, they zig and zag due to serendipity, luck, or world events and often take a surprising path. I am struck by how significant the life was, how great the impact on the world, like a meteor that leaves a visible indentation millions of years later. I think to my own childhood and young adulthood with all the altruism that the sixties and seventies brought, the hope and fervor, the conviction that we could shift the tide 180 degrees. When I was eight, I was certain that writing a letter to Nixon, pleading with him to stop the war in Vietnam, could change his mind. I was completely deflated and uncomprehending when some lowly assistant sent a form letter and a copy of Nixon’s inaugural address with sections about the Vietnam War highlighted. Nevertheless, still now, I hold onto some tattered remnants of the conceit that I too could be a household name, could alter the lives of millions for the better.

I seesaw between inspiration and despair. The obituaries leave me with a deep sense of emptiness and sorrow. I have discovered someone miraculous that is no longer living. I’m not quite certain why their mortality has such a profound influence on my sentiments. Why do I care so much whether they are still alive? I have a preposterous fantasy that, were they still living I might write to them, or meet them, or work with them. I am, to this day, eternally seeking mentors. I worry that their legacy will fade, and, of course wonder what mine will be. Somehow, their living presence is hopeful, buoys the world, and sweetens what seems a mammoth human stew of misdeeds and misfortune.

To the northeast of Chiang Mai in Ngao, our guesthouse owner (she called herself “Pam” to make it easy for foreigners) regaled me with her love of Thailand, of the nearby temple, of the temple’s abbot and his countless and great deeds for the local people. She shared with me her plans to help the townsfolk even more than she already does as an attorney. Pam is radiant and almost tearfully joyous when she describes how she will donate her body to science when she dies and give all of her money to provide educational scholarships to poor children in the village. She is so enthusiastic that I imagine her ready to jump up and embrace death right then and there. I am stunned by her giddiness.

The gloominess and fear, the trepidation that is omnipresent at home regarding the unpredictability of life and the imminence of death was barely palpable in Thailand. The temples are ubiquitous, over-the-top celebrations. The endless stream of people bringing food and offerings, sweeping, gardening, and cooking, transfixed me. Pam told me about the land she and her neighbors purchased to donate to the temple, what an honor it is to clean the bathrooms, how happy she is when she can donate food to the monks. Even the stray dogs and cats are cared for; they mill about the temple grounds, like tenants with rent control. Life is honored, reincarnation even more so.

Although I subscribe to no religion, reincarnation makes sense to me. It seems perfectly obvious that we live on in myriad ways. Whether we are cremated or buried or consumed by vultures, we will fertilize or feed other life forms, living on indefinitely. I like to think of the aquatic life that has thrived on my mother’s ashes and the particles of my father that have made their way into our small pomegranate tree. Our genetic contribution also endures: life’s insults and stresses resonate in the shadows of what gets passed down to successive generations and, like an unwelcome and unexpected visitor, participates in how our lives play out. One of my graduate school professors unlocked the genetic secret of how he and his sister, raised in the same contented and comfortable family, could have such vastly different outlooks and experiences, why she committed suicide and he is an optimist.

I wondered how such a tsunami of giving, sanctity, and honoring life could co-exist with the profound silence of the woods and jungles in northern Thailand. So few birds and insects flitted and called and crawled, so few creatures revealed themselves. Up in the mountains of Chiang Dao, ringed in by limestone cliffs, verdant foliage and massive thickets of bamboo, where each of the few remaining teak trees are tagged and preserved, we chanced upon a British expat with a massive lens on his camera. He had retired to the mountains of northern Thailand to take up photography. After several years, he was heartbroken, having found nothing to photograph because, he said, the name of every creature in Thai was simply “delicious” (pronounced “Arroi” in Thai). Whatever moved was caught, trapped, or shot. My heart dropped into my stomach. I could not make peace between the reverence and the void. I heard the silence and despaired.

Several days ago when the cold and rains stopped, I went for a walk. The sun was weak, like a sick person tottering to their feet after being bedridden. A monarch butterfly appeared, flapping as if in a heavy suspension. Every time I took a step the butterfly remained a few paces ahead, alighting on a plant or fluttering nearby. I was enthralled and felt as if I’d been invited to a dance. Was it the orange jacket I was wearing? My delight turned to concern: the monarch surely would not survive the imminent return of winter. I can’t recall seeing monarchs in January before. But then, I can’t remember my daffodils and freesias blooming at this time of year either. A few days ago I harvested a handful of cherry tomatoes from some straggly vines; Thanksgiving used to mark the last of the tomato crop. I’ve gradually given away my warmest sweaters and coats because I rarely if ever use them. California is burning year round now, not just in late summer and early autumn. After weeks of orange-tinged air and an acrid smell that seeped in despite locked windows and doors, I stood in a long snaking line to buy masks so we could venture safely outside.

I grew up with Disney nature films providing a hint of danger overlaid with a heavy blanket of fuzzy and familiar reassurance. We worshipped people and movements, institutions and accomplishments. Walter Cronkite told us the truth, and despite atrocities, calamities, and assassinations, his comforting tone said everything would be all right. Bill Cosby was like our favorite uncle. John and Robert Kennedy were god-like politicians. The Cultural Revolution in China had achieved miraculous health and productivity. Switzerland was the epitome of neutrality and goodness. The moon landing was nothing short of miraculous. Political dishonesty would be rooted out and exposed, like Watergate. Our history of racism was being undone. We could and would oversee the safety of our schools, our drugs, our food, our cities, and our natural world. We welcomed, assisted, and protected the poor, the abused, the needy. But nothing is as it seemed then: a perfect apple hiding a rotten core.

So much has been laid bare, unseated. It is the age of revelations. Nothing sacred remains. The icons from my youth have toppled. I would give anything to be enveloped in the familiar cocoon of my past. We are left naked in body and soul, holding hands around a long-extinguished campfire in an eerie post-apocalyptic dawn.

Monarch chrysallis in my garden (Rani Marx, 2015)

It’s About Time

Lifetime (a)musings from a Berkeley native

Rani Marx

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Rani Marx

It’s About Time

Lifetime (a)musings from a Berkeley native