BRINGING BACK THE DODO

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – Emily Dickenson

All this has been a very long time coming. I wish that I could speak to you from the future, a time when I will exist again in the corporeal medium. Meanwhile, consider me as the Spirit of the Species. While I am replete with hope that the attempts to manifest me will be truly successful, I acknowledge there can be no certainty in these matters. My existence is in the hands of the deities, the magicians, the technicians, the scienticians, and probably a few other categories of specialists. These beings are all devoted, diligent, and in many cases gifted with the light of what I might call genius. However, as you will realise, I am a difficult case. They say it is proving harder to resurrect me than it is to bring back the Thylacinus cynocephalus. I love the scientific names for things, my own being Raphus cucullatus. I am much better known as Dodo. I am a creature of mystery; I am an enigma. Perhaps this fact is a great part of my charm and fascination. And then there’s the matter of my non-existence. Some people have chosen to believe that I have never existed. That too is a cause for fascination. What price the unicorn?

One of the most important specialists in world-wide research into me is Dr Kenneth Rijsdijk at the University of Amsterdam. You can find Ken online at his site called Dodo Alive, which is a pretty good and optimistic name, you would agree. He and his colleagues investigate the DNA of dodo bones. Imagine! It was the Dutch, by the way, who set the Extinction Machine in motion, in my case. Long, long ago Arab and Portuguese sailors visited my island. Then, towards the end of the sixteenth century, Dutch expeditions were out and about on the briny deep, a glint in their nautical eye, seeking trade throughout the East Indies. In 1598 A.D. Dutch ships visited the island, and 1601 reports spoke of The Dodo. The sailors generally didn’t like us as meat, except for our stomachs and breasts. Apparently. They preferred eating the coo-coo turtle doves, which seems reasonable. In our stomachs they found the stones we used/use to help us digest our own food. I remember the stones. Most subsequent reports mention the difficulty people had in cooking and eating us. No problem catching us, no problem at all. And all kinds of artists simply loved to draw and paint dodos – and not always from life. And they still do. The Spirit of the Species and the Image of the Species – everywhere you look. There are many many copies of copies of copies. The truth will out when the Comeback is complete. By 1690 there were no dodos left alive on planet Earth. Sad Face.

It might be a bit of a race between me and Thyla for the Comeback, but we will both get there, or should I say here, in the end – or the beginning. Breathless Excitement! There is something timeless about the times I am discussing, so you will have to forgive me if I appear to go back and forth, or round and round in weaving wandering circles. When I say ‘I’ you must understand that this first person pronoun refers, as I have said, to the Spirit of the Species. And if you look at a map of the world you will see that Thyla and I used to be (are) separated geographically by more or less open sea. There was Thyla, sometimes known as the Tasmanian stripy tiger, roaming around Van Diemen’s Land looking for prey while I was happily marching about like some cheerful swan on Mauritius, gleefully swallowing quantities of fruits, seeds, nuts, bulbs and roots. And generally mixing with flamingos, giant tortoises, lizards and parrots and suchlike. It was a pretty sight. I had no predators. (Cue human beings.) Of course Thyla lasted longer than I did, back then, but fizzled out in the Hobart Zoo in 1936.
I imagine that you might have first encountered the idea of me in the work of Lewis Carroll, who even identified himself with me, and who showcased me as a character in his great book of 1865 A.D. He used to visit my tragic remains (a foot, a head, mummified) in the Museum of Sciences in Oxford, and these vestiges stirred his imagination, as why wouldn’t they. Accompanying these sorry scraps of the physical life of the species was a portrait of me painted in 1626 by Roelant Savery, a Dutch master of the still-life. You would almost certainly recognise his glorious bowls of flowers with their sprinklings of lovely little zippy lizards and insects. (Forgive me, won’t you, if I get carried away with the adjectives.) His picture of me was the inspiration for the later interpretation by Sir John Tenniel. It was the Tenniel image, illustrating the story by Lewis Carroll, that rocketed me to a kind of fame, and placed me as the poster-bird for the Extinction Industry. I beat Thyla to that by quite a long way, didn’t I? Thyla became the go-to extinct mammal towards the end of the twentieth century, and in a great flurry of scientifical excitement they decided to make an attempt at bringing us poor old creatures back to face the twenty-first century music. Cue crashing cymbals and groaning organs.

I will be needing gendered pronouns in a minute, and I confess I don’t know whether the Spirit of Thyla is male or female, but I can tell you I was/am (trouble with tenses again here) female – a fact that I imagine is useful to the work of the scientificators, should they truly want to crank up a new branch on my family tree. How can a spirit have a gender? Search me. Of course it may be possible, after the first Comeback of the species, for that Comeback to be cloned, and for the clone then to undergo a change of gender. I am sorry, but I don’t have all the answers, and I must trust in the skills and imaginations of the deities and magicians I mentioned earlier. They once did some funny work with sheep, and also with the ears of mice. They’re mighty clever, you know. For one thing, they grow human beings in glass dishes, I believe.

I hear that one swallow does not make a summer. That makes sense, doesn’t it. One new dodo will be thrilling, but two will be necessary if dodos are to make the full necessary Comeback to rollicking racy vitality. No glass dishes for us! Of course I am nothing like a swallow, no streamlined darting bluebird of happiness me. I should say I am the antithesis of a swallow. After a good deal of scientifical discussion and argument, it was decided that I am/was a giant flightless bird of the pigeon or dove kind, a sort of earth-bound waddling Holy Ghost. I’m a little bit afraid I might end up as a Comebackatoo or somesuch. That reminds me to tell you that dodos murmur like well-mannered pigeons. Really sweet and low and comforting.

In my corporeal manifestation I am thirty inches tall, and I weigh about fifty pounds. My head and bill are enormous, my wings minute, and my tail feathers truly splendid and nicely curly. I am very proud of my tail feathers, by the way. You can tell. My legs are short, my claws large, scaly and powerful. My colours are a lovely grey, mingled with some yellow and green. So you see, nothing like a swallow. If you must know, the colours are somewhat nondescript, or, you might say, subtle. I walk in an upright fashion, and I possibly resemble a swan. Yes? Very early on the whole island was called Swan. But it’s not that they are going to write a ballet called Dodo Lake any time soon. Or isn’t it? As you will see, this idea is not completely out of the question. For one thing, people are turning into robots as we speak. Read on.

Hope, as the great Emily Dickenson said, is the thing with feathers.

You will be wondering how the foot and the head ended up on display in Oxford. I will explain. In the early seventeenth century an Englishman called John Tradescant the Elder, collected a vast number of strange and rare objects from near and far. He opened the first public museum in England, the Musaeum Tradescantianum. Two of the rare objects were, you guessed it, the dodo head and foot, which later were displayed in Oxford, and exposed to the gaze and imagination of Lewis Carroll who advertised me to the world as the creature that said: ‘Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’ I don’t believe I ever really said that, but I might have. Perhaps I have forgotten. It’s been a while. It doesn’t really sound like me though.

You will also be wondering about where I came from, and when and how I faded out to the point where all you have are weird old scraps and the Spirit of the Species. Well, to tell you the truth, these days there are bones – even a full skeleton. However, I believe a comeback requires a bit of soft tissue. But more of that later. For now, think exploration, think sailors, think cats, rats, pigs and monkeys. Invasive species, yes. Destroying the habitat and eating the eggs and scaring us out of our feathers. Are you sitting comfortably?

So think long ago, think eight million years ago. Think Africa, Think ocean. Think volcano. And vroooom-whoosh-kaboom! Great disturbance of the waters. Then, there you have the island, twelve hundred miles off the south-east coast of Africa, in the Indian Ocean. My island home. Today you will know it, since 1992, as the Republic of Mauritius, famous for its beaches, lagoons, reefs and sunsets.

In the sixteenth century the Dutch ships came, and long before the sun had set on the seventeenth century, Raphus cucullatus had been removed from the island forever, removed from the face of the very earth itself. Extinct. Last seen, in fact, in 1662. In the nineteenth century, a few bits and pieces remained to be marvelled at, and also subjected to a certain amount of searching scientifical research.

But now I bring you to the Pond of Dreams. You have been very patient. And here’s a great new term for you: subfossil material. The story is hotting up! So is the planet, of course, hence bringing me and Thyla back from our extinctions might be just a luxurious and eccentric exercise of dancing in the darkest, darkest gloom-dark dark.

The Pond of Dreams is a natural storage facility in which are found the preserved bones (and sometimes even soft tissue) of animals including dodos in an anoxic medium where bacterial activity is minimal. I enjoy my borrowings from the scientificators. This is your subfossil material, as promised. The pond is more of a swamp than a pond, really, and is located close to the sea on the south east coast of Mauritius. In 1865 (the same year that John Tenniel’s picture of a dodo was published in Lewis Carroll’s book – cue coincidence) after searching for thirty years among the dreams of the pond, a Mauritian schoolmaster named George Clark finally found, in the very deepest part of the water, the preserved bones of dodos. (Quiet and meditative notes on a silver flute.) Collection of our bones from these waters has continued, and examples are now found in museums all over the world. The only known complete skeleton was assembled by Louis Etienne Thirioux, a quiet and somewhat mysterious Mauritian barber, yes, barber, who died in 1917. Quite recent, in the scheme of things. The Scheme of Things – I love that phrase. This skeleton is kept in the Natural History Museum in Port Louis, Mauritius. Nobody even knows whether the barber found the bones in the Pond of Dreams, or somewhere else. However, Kenneth Rijsdijk and his colleagues from Dodo Alive searched the waters of the pond as recently as 2006, and they found a treasure trove of bones. Subfossil. I enjoy saying that.

From the Horniman Museum in London you can download a model of a dodo to a 3D printer. Is that what you want to do? It’s a long, long way from the Pond of Dreams, a long way from the times when I wandered along through the warm wet glaucous greenery, watching the skinny flamingos, bypassing the big old turtles, catching glimpses of bright parrots on the wing. Swallowing fruit. There was a drought, you know, and, thirsty and desperate, we all crammed into the lovely waters of the Pond of Dreams where our bones have been sweetly preserved like cherries in a bottle of syrup for four thousand years.

Pause to absorb some of that information.

I have given you the faintest whispering spiderweb scintilla of an impression of the history of the species so far. It is safe to say that there is an infinity of information available in what is called ‘out there’.

The next step is the Comeback. Cockadoodlecomeback. It won’t be long now. Stay tuned. Hope is a wonderful feathered thing. I remember the pond, I remember the stones. I remember all the dreams. The parrots. The rats. Stay tuned. And I tend to imagine there is a choreographer somewhere in an upper room busily devising Dodo Lake. Oh yes. Cue the new Tchaikovsky. Dodo Lake, Pond of Dreams, Here Comes the Past. Dodo Lake, starring live onstage the Comeback Raphus cucullatus. Believe me. It’s going to happen. Oh yes, it’s going to happen. Stay. Tuned.

One thought on “BRINGING BACK THE DODO

  1. Pingback: the dodo | Colours in Black and White

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