A Catalog
of Extinct Experience
The China Bomb
by Chris Desser


Growing up in California, I spent many summers backpacking and rock-climbing in the Sierra Nevada. Like most hikers on the trails, I kept a stainless steel cup hooked to my belt by its crooked wire handle so I could dip into a stream whenever I was thirsty. That mountain water, running black and deep, or white and frothy rushing over rocks, was icy, sweet and delicious. It never occurred to me to wonder if the water was safe to drink. Today I would have to wonder. Grazing and erosion have polluted most Sierra streams with giardia, an intestinal parasite. Drinking from these streams now will surely make you sick. The freedom to trust instinct to survive and the confidence it affords are disappearing. Relying on instinct alone has become an endangered, and perhaps extinct, experience.

For several weeks last spring, the Hale Bopp comet was a bright smudge in the western night sky. I was captivated by it--it appealed to some wordless and primordial place within me. Watching it as I crossed theGolden Gate Bridge on my way home, knowing its visit was going to be brief, I felt sharply present. Like a mariner using the constellations, I located myself by it. Transfixed, I felt related to the ancients who were also awed by it and to those who might witness its next visit hundreds of years from now. The comet stood out in a sky that was otherwise dark, devoid of stars that had been extinguished by air pollution and bright city lights.From time to time I escape my urban environment for Colorado's Rocky Mountains or the lakes and forests of northern Michigan. The night sky looks different in those places. Thousands of stars are visible, shooting stars arc the sky and the Milky Way provides a capacious existential context. Living in cities, as most people do, we dwell in increasingly self-referential environments. Streets, buildings, cars, billboards,airplanes and helicopters --nearly everything around us has been made by humans. To look at a sky filled with stars is to be reminded that humans did not create most things--that there are other forces at work. This perspective is both humbling and inspiring. But as the human population migrates to cities, and cities engulf wilderness, the experience of looking up into the night sky and seeing stars is also becoming extinct.

Around 1900 there were 7000 apple varieties in the United States; now there are around 2000. Thousands of varieties have disappeared because they are not cost efficient to grow or they don't ship well or there is no mass market for them. Once grown on family farms, apples--and most of the foods we eat--are largely a product of industrial agriculture. Instead of knowing the flavor of a particular apple--a Stayman Winesap, Northern Spy or a Mutsu--we are more likely to know only the color--red, yellow or green. And if the color of a fruit is unpopular, for instance the amber gold of the Sun Crest peach, it can presage the extinction of that flavor. But a plant doesn't disappear without wider ramifications--the whole web of relationship within which it exists is affected. The insects that pollinate it, like bees, may also disappear. And then another food, a variety of honey, for example, becomes extinct. And then another flavor, another experience perishes.

With the loss of bird species like the upland sandpiper, the grasshopper sparrow and the eastern meadowlark, their distinctive songs, and our chance to hear and delight in them are lost as well. With the loss of tree species the sounds of instruments made from them are lost. The cedar that the Fender guitar company used to manufacture its guitars is no longer available. This cedar imparted a distinctive sound to the instrument. Beautiful sounds, once common, are now extinct.


The Earth is a source of those moments which if we actually experience them are eternal. --Robert Haas

These experiences-- drinking Sierra stream water; tasting the soil of Pennsylvania in an apple, or the dirt of Provence in lavender honey; hearing and feeling the reverb of a guitar; and seeing the multitude of stars in the sky and knowing with a cellular certainty that I am part of something greater than myself--are what Robert Haas calls eternal. They live within me. They have provided me with a visceral understanding of the interdependence and interconnection of life. But these experiences and the eternity that they embody are vanishing; those who come after us will know nothing of them. With scant awareness, we are destroying the opportunity to know them in favor of the development, pollution, and acquisitive impulse that are byproducts of an increasingly globalized economy. As we continue to value economic growth over the opportunity to know such moments, we lose access to sources of inspiration and creativity. So I am creating a Catalog of Extinct Experience. My intention is not to evoke nostalgia nor despair. I hope, instead, to reawaken in people an awareness of the interdependent nature of our lives on this planet and the losses entailed in the choices that we are making.

To our detriment we have largely ignored Aldous Huxley's wise exhortation that we "Never give children a chance of imagining that anything exists in isolation. Make it plain from the very first that all living is relationship. Show them relationships in the woods, in the fields, in the ponds and streams, in the village and the country around it...[A]lways teach the science of relationship in conjunction with the ethics of relationship."

Engaging in these endangered experiences now may rekindle our sense of awe; it may remind us of the relational nature of our existence. We can find places to see the stars in the sky. We can sit by a stream and imagine what it would take to restore the purity of the water and then take action to do so. We can savor the flavor of an heirloom apple and refuse to settle for the tasteless pulp that agribusiness serves us. We can seek flavorful, organic food, redolent of the place where it was grown. We can walk in the dappled sunlight of an eastern forest or the heavy mist of California's coastal redwoods and determine to save forests by promoting and using wood alternatives. We can experience our wild lands and then carefully consider the cost of development at the expense of wilderness. We can respect the habitats of endangered species and the migratory routes of songbirds and other creatures vitally affected by our decisions. Engaging in these experiences might remind us that our survival, evolution, creativity and inspiration require the survival of the wild world.

Here's my email: chris@igc.org, please send me extinct and endangered experiences from your lives.