Dispatch #1: On Loss
Part One: A Sylvia Plath Moment at the Charles Hotel
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   A group of Americans interested in Tibet—especially its ecological problems— were contributing to the site. They were also interested in help to heal the sectarian rift among the kagiu, and had approached me about writing a Dispatch on the Karmapa controversy – conducting an independent, in-depth investigation of twenty or thirty thousand words or so that would lay out everyone’s side of the story and perhaps thus pave the way toward some sort of a resolution. The report would be posted on Dispatches From the Vanishing World and excerpted in one of the American general-interest or Buddhist magazines and maybe even published as a short book.

     The subject was certainly right for the Dispatches. I already knew what I was going the dispatch was going to be called: “The Future of Reincarnation.” The tulku recognition system was clearly an endangered “meme,” to use a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene. A meme, I explained to the Shamarpa, is any unit of transmissible cultural information. In the world today memes and species, habitats, languages, entire cultures and ecosystems, and other elements of the world’s biological and culture diversity, are disappearing at a rate unprecedented in recorded history. Not since the massive extinctions of the Pleistocene, which took out the wooly mammoth and mastodon, the giant sloth and the saber-toothed tiger, has there been anything comparable. The difference between sixth extinction, as E.O.Wilson calls it and the earlier global-scale ones (meteor strikes or cataclysmic volcanic eruptions that wiped out up to eighty percent of the life on earth) is that it has been precipitated by us, by our phenomenal success as a species. Although Folsom and Clovis man and their cousins may have played a major role in wiping out the big Pleistocene mammals. 

    The main agents of this extinction event are human population growth and “the cancer of modern life,” as Simon Elegant, a journalist for Time Asia, has called it, which takes many forms: hundreds of millions of car exhausts, rapacious capitalism, chainsaws, bulldozers, toxic waste, the effect of the Spice Girls on Brazilian samba, of tuolomene fumes the Vietnamese children who work in Adidas factories inhale as they are gluing together sneakers. The list goes on for pages. The Dispatches, I explained, will be devoted to fleshing it out. 

    It will be a great loss if there are no more tulkus, I said, and if this mystical succession system dies out, because there is nothing like it in the world. The recognition of the present Dalai Lama, for instance, the fourteenth, has an almost fairy-tale like quality. The search committee had to hike up to a 18,000-foot lake on whose surface they saw a vision that led them, after a country-wide search, to a house with a blue-tiled roof near the China border where there lived an extraordinary two-and-a half-year-old boy named Tenzin Gyatso who was presented with a collection of ritual paraphernalia and unhesitatingly picked out the ones that had belonged to the thirteenth Dalai Lama. By this and other tests the boy was confirmed as his reincarnation. 
   Whether there is anything to the entire process depends, of course, on whether you believe that reincarnation is what happens after death. I hadn’t made that leap of faith, but I wasn’t prepared to dismiss it, either, having had intimations on several occasions that it could be have some basis—a sudden sense of interconnectedness with the other, unseen forms of life when walking in the woods—and having spent times in cultures that are much more attuned to this sort of thing like the Yanomamo, Tikuna, and Cayapo Indians of the Amazon and the Malgasies of all the archipelago’s ethnic groups. 

   I told Shamar that I would do the Dispatch as long as it was understood that I would be absolutely nonpartisan. If he was expecting me to advocate his position, he would have to find someone else. I may find out things he wasn’t going to like. Shamar was confident that “the facts” would speak for themselves. He just wanted to make sure I had them. “The past will reveal the present,” he assured me.

    I explained what the dispatches were all about, how I had gotten the idea of doing them last year, when I spent three weeks in the eastern, rebel-held part of the civil-war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo for short (formerly Zaire), doing a report for Ted Turner’s United Foundation. The U NF is supporting four national parks that are the home of some of the crown jewels of the animal kingdom—mountain and lowland gorillas, okapis, Congo peacocks. These animals are being decimated by deserters, bandits, genocidal Rwandans, and various other bands of desperate, psychotic individuals who are holed up in four national parks and living off the game. The UNF is contributing several million dollars to the heroic effort to keep them from being completely poached out. Most of it is going to keeping the guards paid and motivated to go out on their patrols. 

    In the course of my investigation I discovered that a lot of the poaching is being done by or for miners of a rare mineral called coltan, whose exceptional stability, high melting point, and conductivity make it the ideal material for capacitors and numerous other high-tech applications. Every cellphone, laptop, satellite, ballistic missile, jet plane’s nose cone, car ignition system, solid state electronic appliance, prosthetic device, and SONY game boy contains coltan. But few people have ever heard about this substance or are aware that forest elephants, gorillas and okapis are being slaughtered, roasted and eaten by its miners, so that the modern world can be supplied with it. 

   My report to the UNF, I explained to Shamar, ran 26,000 words. It needs to be extensively updated and amplified as a lot has happened and has come out since my trip. The new version will be on posted as Dispatch 2 sometime in the fall, and I have worked up a 6,000-word excerpt that has been bought by Rolling Stone magazine. So the word is being gotten out about the terrible cost of this mineral, and the UNF has gotten an independent assessment of its program and publicity for it and the little-known heroes, Congolese and expatriates, who are risking their lives to keep these magnificent animals from being poached. The experience made me realize that I could perform a service by starting a site that exposed the horrendous things that are happening in remote parts of the world and recognized the people who are trying to do something about them.

     The site, I had been thinking, should have a discussion up front that put the loss of the planet’s natural and cultural diversity in the context of loss in general. I was just beginning to gather my thoughts about this subject. Perhaps Rinpoche could help me. These were the points I had thought about so far: 

     Loss is as universal and unavoidable a part of the human experience as life and death. The death of a loved one, your children growing up and leaving the nest, the loss of property that has special meaning (like my childhood stamp collection, which I was separated from at the age of 12 and dreamed about particular stamps for years afterwards, like the two cent 1862 Jefferson with the carmine sunburst cancellation that I had found in the Prestons’ attic and traded with their son Seymour for). The heartbreaking end of a relationship that you thought was it, that takes years to get over, that you never really get over (I’ve gone through several of those), the loss of your mind and memory and marbles from Alzheimer’s (from which my mother suffered during the last eight years of her life)or senile dementia. Half the children in America live in broken homes, with one parent or the other or being shuttled between the two. There are courses in our schools on substance abuse and safe sex, but none that I am aware of that deal with how to cope with the explosion of your family, or the many other kinds of loss which a child may already be experiencing or is inevitably going to experience sooner or later. There are no seminars on “impermanence management.” The German writer Gerhard Köpf creates in his novel, There is No Borges, a despairing professor of “Lusitanics,” or the science of loss (from the Lusitania, an ocean liner sunk by a German U-boat on May 7, l915), but this is not a discipline that is recognized by any hall of learning, even though loss in its many forms is such a basic and inevitable fact of life, and learning how to process it, “becoming real,” as a Navajo friend puts it, is the great lesson of life, perhaps the most crucial survival skill. What is history but the record of loss—the rise and fall of states, cultures, and individuals?  Life is not really about winning or being “number one,” which American culture puts such a premium on. It is about losing. It is, by definition, a losing proposition. 

     How is the loss of species and memes and bio- and cultural diversity different from other kinds of loss?  Let’s take the case of Shoumatoff’s hairstreak, a small irridescent blue butterfly in the enormous Lycaenidae family that Vladimir Nabokov specializied in. My father caught the first specimens known to science in l933 on the island of Jamaica when he was 15 years old (See My Father's Butterly) and it was named for him by two taxonomists at the American Museum of Natural History, William P. Comstock and E. Irving Huntington. 


 
 

They classified it as a subspecies, Thecla celida shoumatoffii but later, as the taxonomy of the Lycaenidae became more refined,  the genus Thecla was broken up into more than 100 genera, and in l991 it was reclassified by Kurt Johnson as a species, Nesiostrymon shoumatoffii. It differs from Thecla celida celida of Cuba in having a small, wholly black tailspot on the underside of its hindwing, but inspection of its genitalia reveal it to be closer to Nesiostrymon celona, which ranges from Mexico to Argentina but is not easily seen because it is local and elusive. The last known specimen of Shoumatoff’s hairstreak was captured in l974. The species may be extinct, or the lack of a recent capture may simply reflect that not many lepidopterists have been running around Jamaica with their butterfly nets since the island turned violent in the late seventies.

   If it is extinct, no one has noticed its absence. I only know about the “bot,” as Jamaicans call butterflies in their Afrocarribean patois, and am concerned about its status, because it bears the family name, and I feel a certain responsibility for it. I have gone twice to Jamaica in unsuccessful attempts to find one in the wild. The only Shoumatoff’s hairstreaks I’ve ever seen are on pins, at the Jamaica Institute in Kingston and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (which has the type specimens, which are 68 years old and somewhat ratty). If there are no more of them in the wild, Jamaica’s plants and other insects seem to have made adjustments. Their contribution to the overall ecology of Jamaica is probably neglible.  There are more are more striking and beautiful lycenids. 

     Species and subspecies are disappearing all the time as part of the natural process of evolution. (See William Drury’s book, Chance and Change). For every organism that has successfully established a niche for itself, usually after countless generations of evolutionary refinement, thousands of others have fallen by the wayside. This is clear from the fossil record and from paleobotany and other sciences that reconstruct the flora and fauna of the past.

   Bill McKibben makes the point in The End of Nature that humankind’s (my son who majored in anthropology tells me that mankind is no longer pc) eradication of the flora and fauna is one type of loss that is avoidable. But in many cases we are oblivious to the species we are exterminating and to what is happening in remote parts of the planet that most of us have never been to and have no personal knowledge of or burning interest in.  The most tragic type of extinction is known as sentinelan extinction, in which forms of life are wiped out before they are even discovered or identified, so that there is no knowledge or record of their having even existed.

    The arguments for why the loss of species is so lamentable are scientific, aesthetic, and religious. Each species has a role to play, a place in the order of things, a “niche” in “the ecology.” For a quantification of the “ecological services” that plants and animals perform, see Nature’s Services: Societal Dependance on Natural Ecosystems, ed. Gretchen Daily, Island Press, 1997. Scientists need species and subspecies and other forms of life so they can study how they have adapted and are adapting to change, and for the insights they provide into the process of natural selection. Some species like frogs are “indicator” species. Their decline is an indicator of the deteriorating health of the overall ecosystem. Artists have been inspired by the perfection of the design and “the beauty” of flowers and butterflies. Indeed the entire notion of “beauty” (I am talking about the modern Western one, which doesn’t exist in places like Madagascar), arises from nature. Most religions have an injunction like Tibetan Buddhism’s against harming our fellow “sentient beings.” As a Christian might put it, If you start playing God and messing around with “the creation,” deciding which species go and which stay, you are going to go down. If you are willing to let Shoumatoff’s hairstreak disappear, where does it end?  The logical extension of this attitude is genocide. What does a Jew here, a gypsy there, matter in the big picture?  We are upset when humans are liquidated, but what about the other animals? 

(The points touched on in this paragraph need a lot more fleshing out. Please communicate any thoughts on them toAlexShoumatoff@Shoumatopia.Com or discuss them in the loss section of the discussion board which I will be monitoring.)

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