On Scarcity: confessions of a Japanese strychnine eater
Author of the Week: Germany
A background research for writing about extinctions
Twenty-five percent of species comprise between 90% and 95% of all individuals on Earth. On the other hand, three-quarters of the species on our planet are rare. The diversity of life on Earth is, in this sense, a question of scarcity. Although islands represent only 3% of the Earth’s landmass, they are home to more than a half of its endangered species. This is not only because human impact on plants and animals is more immediate there – due to the islands’ relatively small surface areas, they have less room to avoid us. It is also because islands have always been a place of uniqueness, of eccentricity. They are natural experimental labs for the extravagant, the fantastical. Islands also have especially much to lose: precious beings which often exist there and nowhere else.
Diversity is actually unusual on islands; Hawaii’s biodiversity (before the arrival of human beings) was an exception to this rule. Islands display staff vacancies: there are not always enough pioneers to occupy all the niches in the daily winning of bread. Islands may be free of cats, foxes or martens, and these niches are then filled by other animals, like birds. Islands can be completely free of spiders. Or of mammals, like New Zealand, whose only large predator before the arrival of humans was Haast’s eagle. Despite its three-metre wingspan, it was bound to go extinct when humans eliminated its primary sustenance from under its talons – the giant, flightless Moa bird. Islands are incomplete collections of unique specimens. Consequently, one could also say that islands are collections in the works. Collections in which evolution leaves room for new, surprising ideas.
Japan has the dubious glory of having been inhabited by two different species of wolf, and having deliberately exterminated both of them. The Honshū wolf, Nihon Ōkami, lived on the islands of Honshū, Kyūshū, and Shikoku. When the sea-levels dropped after an ice age, its ancestors migrated to Japan from the Korean Peninsula. Generation after generation, a transformation took place which can happen to larger animals on islands due to the scarcity of resources and habitat: the Honshū wolf shrank until – with a shoulder-height of merely 50 centimetres – it was presumably the smallest species of wolf in the world. Nevertheless, one day it found itself in the way of human beings. Previously, humans had tolerated them from a distance; contrary to their reputation, the wolves observed their human neighbours with caution. In fact, the Honshū wolf was already so rare, so infrequently sighted, that it had long been regarded as a ghost. Nothing but a voice, a nocturnal howl, an abstraction inviting myth. Incorporeal. The ancient Japanese called it The Pure and Great-Mouthed God. Sacred to peasant farmers, protector of seeds from wild boars, rodents, deer. In gratitude, they left offerings of beans and rice for the wolves’ new-borns in front of their lairs. Shrines stood along roadways for their worship; wolf talismans protected against thievery, arson, sickness. And then the rabies arrived in Japan. The first case was reported in 1732 in Dejima near Nagasaki, the only port open for trade and exchange with the outside world during the Edo period. Only four years later, it reached Edo, modern-day Tokyo. By 1761, it had spread to the northernmost corners of Honshū and large swathes of greater Japan. The sick wolves fly at you just like birds, Nishimura Hakū claimed in Enka Kidan, his account of the events from the 1730s, first published in 1773. The primary carriers, as well as the primary victims of the illness, were dogs. Nevertheless, ceremonies drew together clamouring bands of armed samurais with standard bearers and hundreds of volunteers to rid the forest of what had become demonic, human-eating wolves. The image of the wolf had been irreparably transformed, and all signs pointed to its extermination. In pursuit of a deer, the last Honshū wolf fell to the rifles of three local hunters near Washikaguchi on 21 January 1905. The hunters threw its corpse onto the rubbish heap. Two days later, they retrieved it, having heard that a foreigner staying at the Hōgetsurō Guesthouse was passing through and purchasing the bodies of dead animals. The foreigner was Malcolm Andersen, an American contracted by the London Zoological Society and the British Museum of Natural History to acquire the pelts and hides of exotic animals. After some haggling with the help of a translator (who later noted all this down), the price for the last Honshū wolf killed came down to ¥8, the value of approximately €150 today. The last Honshū wolf is mounted in the British Museum in London. Other than this specimen, only four preserved bodies of the Honshū wolf remain in the world: three in Japan, one in Holland.
Having migrated far more recently from Siberia, the Hokkaidō wolf, Ezo Ōkami, was comparable to North American and Eurasian wolves, standing at a shoulder-height of 80 centimetres. It, too, was once revered as the messenger of the gods, acting only as a positive, spiritual entity. Not so much an animal in the zoological sense of the word as one transcending into myth. For how should it be an actual, corporeal being when encounters consisted merely of hearing distant howling in the woods at night? The discrepancy with the Western image of the wolf could hardly be more blatant: In Germany, during the Middle Ages, one could pay taxes in wolf skins – the destruction of a wolf’s life was worth at least as much as cash. In early Japanese poetry wolves were still portrayed as godlike beings, filling the poets’ lines with wabi, that specifically Japanese and largely untranslatable feeling of misery, solitude, loss and transience. In embodying the forests, those sacred and potentially savage regions beyond palace and settlement walls, wolves reflected back the humanity and its insecurities, the uncertainties of our capacity for imagination. With the end of Japan’s isolation, its transition to modernity and orientation toward the West, came a Western solution for the problem of Japan’s wolves, and it was implemented with Japanese efficiency. After their total, systematic annihilation, the only two remaining bodies of the Hokkaidō wolf are mounted in a small, inconspicuous museum building in the sumptuous greenery of the University of Sapporo’s Botanical Garden. The pastel, lime-green wooden house bears no sign, no indication that it displays something ancient and wild, something of the holy uncanny Hokkaidō within its walls. It looks like a cabin from the Wild West, another reflection of Western influence there. The arrangement of the specimens inside offers an indication of how even extinction is threatened by history’s perpetual recording from the perspective of the victor. How, instead, might a historiography from the perspective of the Hokkaidō wolf have appeared? How might this eater of strychnine – reflecting on its life, the cause and the effect – have depicted this chain of events? Would it, too, have regarded them as inevitable?
It is puzzling that even in the animistic Japanese culture – in which toys, dolls, and even everyday objects like pots and pans are considered to have souls – a once venerated being could become the object of unconditional annihilation. Even today, not everyone in Japan throws away dolls. Some are still ceremonially cremated in a temple during the ritual of ningyo kuyo, the doll funeral, to appease these discarded companions and friends. Every 25 September, at the Kiyōmizu Kannon-dō Temple in Ueno Park in Tokyo, visitors can observe the monks burning the year’s abandoned stuffed animals and dolls brought as sacrificial offerings by women desiring children. According to an old belief, every artefact develops a soul after the symbolic age of 99 years. As soon as it is no longer in use, it begins to haunt. The artefact could be an old hat, a worn suit, a chest of drawers, a pair of pliers, grandpa’s childhood bike or a VHS tape. This belief has its roots in the uniquely Japanese nature religion, Shintō, according to which not only humans have souls, but all beings possess this potential, animate and inanimate alike. Still, remarkably, the habitats of endangered endemic species like the Amami rabbit or the Okinawa rail are repeatedly destroyed for the construction of golf courses and resorts, even though these animals are protected by law. Because the destruction of habitats, so goes the argument, doesn’t harm the animals directly, this remains legal. In contrast to animism, Western understandings of philosophy and religion continue to facilitate our ability to ignore the suffering of animals with the belief that they have no souls. One way or another, in the end, humans succeed in maintaining our licence to kill. To legitimise exploitation and abuse.
In some cases, the historiography of an extinct animal is limited – at least from a human perspective – to one single moment. Only a single snapshot. And no name is as connected, for me, with the isolated descriptions of lost species more strongly than that of Heinrich von Kittlitz. This early-19th-century German ornithologist, naturalist, artist and traveller operated in the Pacific and always arrived in the ‘right’ place at the ‘right’ time to discover and document bird species hitherto unknown to Western science. Travelling from island to island by ship at his own expense, he managed to document these rare animals for the first and only time, many of which went extinct by the time he returned from his world tour. Without lucky Henry, zoology would never have known many of these now-extinct species of birds. Von Kittlitz discovered the Kosrae crake, also known as Kittlitz’s rail, during his 1827–1828 stay on the Island of Kosrae in the Eastern Carolinas, one of the more than 2000 islands and atolls of Micronesia. In the following fifty years the bird was driven to extinction, presumably by rats brought to the island aboard whaling ships. The Kosrae crake was never seen alive by another Western scientist. The Bonin grosbeak was found only on the Island of Chichijima in the remote Japanese archipelago Ogasawara-guntō, also known as the Bonin Islands, 1000 kilometres southeast of Honshū. Von Kittlitz was the only Westerner to ever describe this bird alive, and probably the last to see, capture and kill living specimens. I had to search through the entirety of Kittlitz’s life works to find this single description in his Kupfertafeln zur Naturgeschichte der Vögel (Copper Plates on the Natural History of Birds), published in 1832: the Bonin grosbeak lived solitarily or in pairs in coastal woodlands, untimid, though often staying hidden from view. It preferred walking on the forest floor to perching in the trees. It was never plentiful.
In literature, as in reality, it may be difficult to distinguish between natural and human-related scarcity, because scarcity is seldom observed in a place before humans leave their mark. Schrödinger’s cat would understand this problem. In the future, will scarcity continue to have a place on our planet? If so, where? In niches still smaller and more isolated than islands? For a time, there will be a temporary boom in scarcity as more and more species are driven to the margins of existence. Thereafter, scarcity, too, will become a rarity.
Along with bacteria and viruses, humans represent the opposite of scarcity on this planet. As a land mammal of more than 50 kilograms, we are already 135 times more plentiful than any other land mammal of our weight class in the history of life on Earth. Population trends are rising. Our biomass, the total of the weight of all humans, is estimated to be ten times higher than the combined weight of all wild mammals on Earth. Our domestic animals, in particular cattle and pigs, have an even greater biomass, 25 times more than that of all wild mammals. Noah filled his ark with factory farms.
Translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi
A longer version of this essay was first published, together with a collection of other short essays, at the conclusion of Dodos auf der Flucht (Dodos on the Run) as ‘Sonagramme aus der Aussterbewelle’ (Sonograms from the Extinction Wave).
Mikael Vogel was born in Bad Säckingen, Germany, in 1975. After living in Seattle, Paris, Tübingen and Freiburg (among other places), he has been based primarily in Berlin since 2003. He has published six books of poetry: zum Bleiben, wie zum Wandern – Hölderlin, theurer Freund (with José F. A. Oliver, Schiler & Mücke, 2020), Dodos auf der Flucht. Requiem für ein verlorenes Bestiarium (Verlagshaus Berlin, 2018), Morphine (Verlagshaus Berlin, 2014), Massenhaft Tiere (Verlagshaus Berlin, 2011), O Wildnis Dunkelheit! – Nachtgedichte (Offizin S. Meran, 2009) and Kassandra im Fenster (with Friederike Mayröcker and Bettina Galvagni, Offizin S. Meran, 2008). In 2016, his novella, Ebola Global, was released by the renowned underground publisher SuKulTuR whose booklets are distributed in vending machines.
In 2002, he was awarded a Hermann Lenz Writing Grant. In 2015, he traveled to Hōkkaido, Japan with a Yakiuta Travel Grant; in addition to his research there for Dodos auf der Flucht, work from his residence in Hōkkaido will appear in a forthcoming band of poetry on Japan. He was awarded the Medienpreis RAI Südtirol from Lyrikpreis Meran in 2016. In 2017, he was appointed Writer-in-Residence at Kommandantenhaus Dilsberg by the Kulturstiftung Rhein-Neckar-Kreis e.V. In 2019, Mikael Vogel received both the LeseLenz-Stipendium for Poetry in Hausach and the Literaturstipendium from the German state of Baden-Württemberg. In 2021, he was awarded the Arbeitsstipendium deutschsprachige Literatur für Berliner Autorinnen und Autoren. In 2022, he was awarded the Internationale Literaturdialoge with Austrian poet Isabella Feimer.
His poem “An den Schluckspecht” [To the Boozehound] inspired a craft beer with the name “Schluckspecht Pils” [Boozehound Pilsner] from the Berlin-based microbrewery Bierfabrik – his poem was printed on the label. Friederike Mayröcker included two poems by Mikael Vogel in the list of her 25 favourite poems of all time.
Photo by Siljarosa Schletterer