In our twenties, we found a painted turtle on a hike. We were crushingly alone then, isolated from the world, trying to discover the source of our pain.
Blending memoir with nature magazine-esque profiles of extinct animals, Robert James Russell manages to weave a creative non-fiction essay that is as informative as it is immersive. ‘Anthropocene Moves’ was published in decomP magazinE, accompanied by some wonderful illustrations by John Vestevich and an audio recording of the piece as read by the author. Substituting the autobiographical “I” with “we”, the reader is shifted from the place of viewer to a more uncertain footing, left to decipher, to question, and to re-live these borrowed memories.
There, we see a mark of faded, scratched nail polish along its back, a neon pink racing stripe. We have no idea if this turtle was ours, if it was the one we painted. But we wonder, Has the turtle been stuck here all these years?
Russell pairs the loss of these irretrievable species with distinctly connected memories that ring with nostalgia: at times a sense of sorrow or yearning, a peculiar sense of facing the resolutely unchanging past. The inability to retrieve, or change, what has already happened. The helpless, restless want of youth, the incomprehensibility of loneliness, the almost impossible sadness of hunting an animal to the last of its kind dying alone in captivity. How what we think we know about loss, never quite lines up with the reality of it, in retrospect.
The last thylacine died in a zoo on September 7, 1936. We witnessed its species end, the ruination of a genetic code. There are photos, so many photos, but when we talk about its diet and its mating and day-to-day habits, we are guessing: We know just about nothing at all.