:: Article

The Lost and the Left Behind

By Charlotte Stretch.


Terry Glavin, The Lost and Left Behind: Stories from the Age of Extinctions, Saqi, 2007

Read any newspaper or visit any supermarket, and you are likely to see strong evidence of the latest trend in human behaviour – if you don’t already subscribe to it yourself. Ethical living has become one of the biggest social causes in decades, with correspondingly ‘ethically produced’ food, clothes and accessories are beginning to dominate consumer markets. It won’t be long before our identities are based on our age, our job and our carbon footprint.

Despite this, one can detect a curious gap in our attitudes; namely, there is nothing to suggest that concern for the extinction of animal species is part of this growing trend for ethical living and campaigning. Which is strange, because they are disappearing at an alarming rate: every ten minutes, a distinct species is gone forever. As for vegetables (one every six hours) or languages (one every two weeks), attitudes are positively indifferent.

Terry Glavin’s odyssey of extinction concerns itself with everything precious that is slipping away from us: birds, fish, animals, fruits, vegetables and yes, even entire dialects. Even though he is offering his findings to a society whose general environmental concerns lie elsewhere he is neither pleading nor aggressive in tone. He simply presents the facts in clean, spare prose, leaving the emotional side of things for his readers.

Despite this, Glavin’s writing is surprisingly warm and engaging. Underlying a factual analysis of the global environment is Glavin’s own story, complete with full episodes and a cast of characters. There is no doubt that this device may put readers off, however intermittent; this is non-fiction, but not as we know it. However, Glavin’s voice is often a welcome intrusion, and seldom pointless; readers coming to the subject for the first time will enjoy Glavin’s journey of enlightenment mirroring their own.

It seems hard to imagine, in fact, that The Lost and Left Behind is aimed at anyone except the uninitiated. Clear, accessible and illustrative, this reads like a beginner’s guide to extinction, a notion supported by the all-in-one inclusion of less conventional casualties, most notably languages. (When one thinks of extinction, one’s mind is invariably drawn to the likes of the dodo and the panda.) This means, of course, that what Glavin offers is, by necessity, a heavily compressed overview of this particular history. However, contained within these limits is a remarkable amount of knowledge, most of which feels brilliantly fresh and unique. (Who knew that the relationship between Russian gangsters and shifty Japanese traders was to blame for a lack of salmon roe?)

With the unstoppable glut of pop-biology books arriving in time for Christmas (notably Do Ants Have Arseholes, currently dominating bestseller lists), it would be a wonderful jolt in popular opinion if The Lost and Left Behind were to feature as the must-have Christmas title. It’s fascinating, informative and quirky enough to knock its rivals off their perch; it’s also extremely relevant, bringing attention to a phenomenon that lives under the shadow of its more fashionable ethical peers. Books like this are rarer than the Madagascar Serpent Eagle, and we should do all we can to keep voices like Glavin’s alive.

Charlotte Stretch lives in Brixton where she is a freelance writer and an editor of 3:AM. She is currently working on her first novel.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 10th, 2007.