This book is not an easy read. This is probably as it should be, given the subject material – the death of the individuals, species and the planet, and the near-death of the author. There are four essays. The first, Aurochs, Burnside tells the story of these mighty creatures and speculates about the extent to which empathy is possible across the divide of time, space and species. He explores ideas of the sublime in nature (drawing on, amongst other writings, Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows’). The second essay, ‘The hint half guessed, the gift half understood,’ looks at the ideas of extinction and of place, and takes an approach that verges on the philosophical. In contemporary society, are we humans headed for the ‘last extinction’ – the extinction of self?
The third essay, ‘Auks,’ is a heartbreaking account of the effect of humanity’s rapaciousness on the rest of the world, its species and habitats. The graphic accounts of casual cruelty and of the attitude that other living, sentient creatures are mere commodities for our use – attitudes which sadly persist even now – I found heavy going. But Burnside is laying down a challenge to his readers, and in making us face up to the horrors of the mass exterminations of seabirds and whales, for example, he may inspire at least some of us to rise to that challenge.
In the final essay, ‘Blossom: Ruins,’ Burnside muses on themes arising from his nearly dying from Covid-19: mortality, the afterlife (or the absence of it), and his altered perception of the world after his recovery. He seems, in this last essay, to have found a kind of peace – not a retraction of the deep ecology for which he is famous (and for which the first essay is a manifesto), but a profound sense of the persistence of life despite mortality and extinction.
- Aurochs and Auks: Essays on Mortality and Extinction by John Burnside is published by Little Toller (£14.00). To order a copy go to www.littletoller.co.uk
Lisa Tulfer is a freelance writer and translator. She writes articles (history and place writing) and poetry, and blogs at TheThreeHaresBlog.com. She is currently writing her first book, alongside translating a collection of Dutch language short stories into English.