When I was a teacher in a different lifetime on a different continent, I had to explain extinction to a people that very nearly seem extinct. (How many people speak your language? Two million. Two million? Fewer than the number of people in the state of Iowa? In the city of Chicago?)
I had to explain animals that they never knew existed:
A mammoth is a furry elephant with tusks like jungle gyms.
A dodo is a bird with a bulbous beak.
A saber tooth tiger is a lion with teeth like upside down tusks. But smaller, sharper, hanging outside of its mouth, the remnants of mammoth draped from the teeth with blood.
Dinosaurs are giant lizards — GIANT — see this building? As large as this — and they were around before our ancestors had drug themselves from the silt of oceans and stood up on two feet. (Didn’t God create us? But yes, what is God but the force that killed the dinosaurs?)
And see that chicken pecking in the yard? Imagine it with scales instead of feathers and sharp teeth beneath its beak, and that’s a pterodactyl, and once it could fly.
In the third grade, I wrote a report on the Carolina parrot (that was the year I wore parrot earrings and talked about owning an Amazon grey someday — a best friend that would live to 100 — and working among the rainforest canopy as a biologist). The Carolina was the only parrot native to North America, and in the 1920s was wiped out.
This always made me very sad.
But back then, I thought that extinctions were a thing of the past, and later, a thing that happened to a few species that lived far away. As a child, I thought that the zoos and scientists would save them.
(But madam, they said to me, we must protect people first. But must we, I asked?)
Now, it’s the honey bees. The sharks. The coral reefs. It’s the great apes and giraffes. It is even the monarchs, a staple of childhood summers. All threatened to blink out of existence.
And soon the polar bears, clinging to the last of the glaciers, will submerge in the Arctic waters, and they will be a memory, a photo in textbooks, a reminder of when the earth was different.
We’ll tell our children with awe, Did you know there used to be bears as white as snow?
Courtney McDermott has a BA from Mount Holyoke College and an MFA from the University of Notre Dame. Her debut collection of short stories, How They Spend Their Sundays (Whitepoint Press), was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award and The Story Prize. She lives in the greater Boston area with her husband and son.