This spring, I reached out to H. Douglas Pratt, the ornithologist who is among one of the last living humans to witness the swan song of the Kaua'i 'o'o during his decades researching the birds of Hawaii's Alaka'i plateau. I wanted to hear and preserve Pratt's first-hand memories of the bird and its former landscape, and discuss what his recording means now that the Kaua'i 'o'o is extinct.
Pratt and his colleagues first published a text on the Kaua'i 'o'o nearly three decades after their initial 1960 expedition to the island, before any birds were considered endangered there. As he'd later tell me, the 1998 report became a sort of posthumous publication about extinction –– the culmination of a series of manmade and ecological events that occurred between the 19th and late 20th centuries.
Human history, mosquitoes, plants, birds and diseases all intertwine in the story of the Kaua'i 'o'o. I spoke with Pratt for a few hours over the phone one rainy evening, conversing over long distances like bird calls heard for miles at the Alaka'i plateau. The idea was to preserve a digital copy of our conversation, just as the Kauaio'o's call has been stored as an MP3.
Since studying the Kaua'i 'o'o myself, I have come to think about how field research by biologists and ornithologists both personally and physically merge with their subjects through actions, writings, and preservation efforts.
Douglas is also an avid natural illustrator and has been fascinated with animating the birds of Alaka'i since that trip nearly six decades ago. He follows the tradition of one of America's great ornithologists, John James Audubon, one of the first to imbue scientific illustrations with his own strong, personal interpretations. Audubon's style of observation was later frowned upon by scientific communities, but to me, the illustrations corporally and culturally relate to the scientific material with urgency.
To me, the more animistic, visceral and intuitive the representation of an important subject matter is, the more widely its message is able to resonate with impact.
Events unfold themselves across centuries in random, unpredictable ways. Past actions and organic occurrences become foundations for the physical realities we experience today. We live in a current condition where things that had happened hundreds of years ago are passed on and inherited as global extinctions, crises, and ecological catastrophes.
As I was researching the Kaua'i 'o'o for this story, curator Toke Lykkeberg (with whom I am working for an exhibition) directed me toward a 2004 presentation titled "Between Immortality and Armageddon: Living in a High Opportunity, High Risk Society," given by one of the most widely known British sociologists, professor Lord Anthony Giddens.
In the presentation, Giddens claims we exist in a border landscape between the glooming abyss of total extinction and the promise of an ephemeral form of immortality shaped by our own technology. He also argues that we must accept the fact that that we live in a "high-risk society," where social, technological and climate realities are totally unprecedented.
These days, the rapid advancements in technologies like virtual reality are expanding the capabilities and definition of conservation beyond the scope of monuments, statues or natural-history museums. Now, animals are being converted into digital, archival material at exponential rates. Lidar scanning, photogrammetry and data visualization are the modern tools of the trade that enable scientists to create relatively close replicas of their source materials.
Organic worlds can now be nearly instantly copied, not just as static images and 3D models, but as entire simulations. When this happens, the boundaries between what is real and not, what is organic or technological, dissolve and produce something entirely new and different.