Extinction – who cares?

September 19, 2020

To mark the publication on Monday of Framing Nature - conservation and culture, this long-read essay compiles edited excerpts on the subject of extinction and loss

At the end of May 2016 I reached 70° 43’N, at sea off Molvik Point in North Norway, having crossed Europe from the south, tracking the spring season as it made its own way north. I was writing as I went, and as I reached the most northerly point in my journeys, I was searching for some final inspiration, an idea for ending a book that had been taking shape over the previous four months. Before I turned back south, I visited a place that goes by the Sámi name of Jiepmaluokta, Bay of Seals, near the small town of Alta. There, I found my answer:

There is a great, hump-backed rock lying stranded in front of me.  Its back was scarred over thousands of years by glacial scraping, then soothed at the water’s edge when the ice retreated, reducing its wounds to fine lines like the pleats in a whale’s maw.  It was lifted from the sea by isostatic rebound, the rising of the land freed from the pressure of a mile-thick ice-cap.  It now lies a hundred feet above the shore, its body barnacled by lichen, half-sunk into the soil that still grows imperceptibly deeper each year under a shagpile of crowberry, cloudberry and bog bilberry.  The path I am on runs past this rock and winds down to the left.  Each step down the path to the sea represents a decade or two along a timeline of changes that began about 14,000 years ago, when the ice started to withdraw from this coast.  Two or three thousand years later, the fjords were ice-free.  Another millennium or two on, about 10,000 years ago, the perennial ice had gone from all of northern Norway. 

Laurence Rose, The Long Spring (2018)
Rock carvings (dyed for ease of viewing), Jiepmaluokta, Alta, Norway photo: Laurence Rose

That first rock to have risen from the depths was naked of any human inscription, but four metres nearer to sea-level, I arrived at another group of massive, sea-smoothed rocks. They had emerged from the waters about a thousand years after the stranding of the hump-back, between 6,000 and 7,000 years ago. By then, people had arrived.  They chiselled images into the fine-grained, grey-green sandstone: reindeer, moose, whales, bears and people. Archaeologists believe the images were created at the edge of the sea, 25 metres below their present-day position.  Then, the rocks would have been dyed red, like the ones on today’s shoreline, where the salt spray reacts with the rock surface to produce a natural red coating. The glyphs would have reflected almost white.

To walk that path was to travel in time, downhill to the present.  The next rock, lying about twenty metres above the shore, emerged from the sea between 4200 and 5300 years ago.  There were ghosts on this rock: great auks, four of them. 

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