Bloomsbury Natural History, hardcover: 224 pages.
Words: Ceri Levy Pictures: Ralph Steadman
Ceri tells us all about it:
The one thing I miss doing regularly is writing a piece for the Bird Effect diaries here on Caught by the River. But my time has been taken up writing a new book with the artist, Ralph Steadman. A couple of years ago we wrote a book about extinction, entitled Extinct Boids. This was a memorial to all the birds we have lost to extinction and suggested that birds today face the potential of becoming extinct well before their time. As time passed we wanted to do something more for these birds. Something positive. We thought long and hard and decided to tell the stories of those that walk the thin line between life and extinction, the birds that could still be saved.
Ceri: We should write about the birds that are next in line for extinction.
Ralph: The next in line for extinction… are waiting for… nextinction.
Ceri: Nextinction! By George, I think he’s got it. Perfect, Ralph, absolutely perfect.
Ralph: It’s obvious, really.
And thus was born Nextinction.
The journey began and Ralph began to draw and I began to write. We discussed the birds as we went along looking at their stories and found an endless list of creatures whose lives and futures had been destroyed by man’s desire for progress. So many sorry tales and ones that needed telling but we were acutely aware that we had to entertain and bring people to the issues through laughter and smiles and not just hard, depressing facts. Ralph’s drawings are always inviting and he tells the stories of these species with his unremitting line and colour and my words have attempted to back up his imagery. Look at the Black Stilt and how the drawing came into being. This is just about the most endangered shorebird in the world with only 27 mature individuals left in the wild. We talked about it:
Ceri: I think it would be good to look at the Black Stilt, as there are only 29 of them left in the world. It is critically critical, if you can have such a thing.
Ralph: So he’s on his bike if we’re not careful. A Black Shrike on a bike…
Ceri: It’s not a Black Shrike; it’s a Black Stilt, whose numbers wilt.
Ralph: Oh right! Black Stilt…Black Stilt… Black Stilt…Not Black Shrike…on a bike.
And then he went and drew a Black Stilt on a bike but due to rhyming difficulties he went ahead and used the line, Black Shrike on a bike, anyway. It could have read, “A shrike made this bike, it was built for a Black Stilt.”
We have taken on the subject of why birds are disappearing from our vision and the answers are often uncomfortable. The plight of the Hen Harrier in the UK is the worst kept secret to those in the bird world, but more people need to know exactly what is happening with this beautiful bird. It’s all for the sake of the “Glorious 12th” (12th August, the day the grouse shooting season begins, and which runs until December). The grouse shooting industry is purportedly worth between £60-£70 million pounds and this is money that is well worth protecting. A day out on the moors a-shootin’ can cost thousands of pounds to bag some grouse and consequently, the land is diligently cleared of possible grouse predators such as hen harriers, buzzards, peregrines, foxes and stoats. These are hunted fervently and there is usually only one outcome if a nesting pair of harriers is found on grouse territory. The Hen Harrier was once a widespread resident of the UK’s moorland but relentless persecution by gamekeepers has led to the numbers of harriers to spiral downwards and out of control.
What artist would ever dream of placing a bird on a bike or depicting a hen harrier being gunned down for a “natural history” book? Probably only Ralph. If people engage with his unique depictions, we will hear the cry of “ I had no idea…” and then there is a chance that with this new idea some may engage in finding ways to support conservation and conservationists, as there is much work to be done in restoring the abundance of birds to the world. For not only are we losing species we are losing vast numbers of our common birds. When I was a kid I remember the cacophony of sound created by the dawn chorus but now there are too many soloists and duettists out there and nowhere near the size of choirs there once were and we need to find a way to change this and rebuild the orchestra if it is not already too late. The birds need our support and Nextinction pleads their case.
Ralph and I are going to be doing a few festivals this summer including Port Eliot, Birdfair, Wilderness and the Henley Literary Festival, so come along and say hello if you’re in the neighbourhood. The tales of the Nextinct are heading your way.