Extinct 23: A Redwork Quilt in Progress

My new quilt in progress is a redwork quilt memorialising the 23 species listed as extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2021. I am learning about grief, hope, and joy through this intense process.

I feel a heavy sadness when I begin each new block for my extinction quilt. My heart gets heavy looking at very old specimens, photos, and videos of these creatures that will never be seen again. There is hope, of course, that we might find them hidden in a little scrap of untouched wilderness, but it’s hard to imagine that on a globe where human impact is seen even in the deepest parts of the ocean.

The world carries on blithely and people are shocked when train tracks buckle in England at extreme heat. We are fallible beings who only have so much attention span, or energy to process terrible things happening every day, or the prospect that this might be the coolest summer of the rest of our lives.

This is why this quilt feels so important to me. I can at least do this. I can hold space to grieve these lost things on behalf of a distracted world. That is something, right?

The first species I chose was the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.

Last spotted in 1944, it went extinct due to logging.

Finding images and video of those last woodpeckers was more heartbreaking than I expected. Something about that bustling pair, taking care of their young, is very touching. So began an emotional cycle to be repeated each time I researched a different animal on the list, now vanished from the surface of the Earth.

My next species was a little closer to home: the Scioto Madtom, a little catfish that used to forage the shallows of the Big Darby Creek in Central Ohio, where I grew up. I never would have seen one in my own lifetime. It vanished in the 1950s, likely due to silting and damming of the rivers and streams where it lived.

One of the last specimens of the Scioto Madtom, taken from the river in the 1950s.

My next two blocks were the Bachman’s Warbler and the Little Mariana fruit bat. The warbler gave me a chance to do a more traditional redwork block with birds and fauna. Because the warbler often inhabited large boggy areas filled with blackberry thickets, I visualised a pair together in such a habitat.

Little Mariana Fruit bat of Guam, extinct due to overhunting, habitat loss, and invasive predators.

Currently, I’m working on the San Marcos gambusia, another fish that occupied a single area of a river in Texas.

A little about the process: After researching each of these species, I then make an ink drawing, which I transfer to fabric. The outline stitch for redwork, traditionally, has been stem stitch. So, I have been using stem stitch to outline the animal and backstitch for other lines and details. The rocks and foliage are in running stitch, and the black berries are french knots.

While I have been working on these blocks, I have countered the depressed feelings by encouraging nature to thrive in my own yard by planting a pollinator garden, planting native species of plants and providing food, water and cover for area wildlife. It has been uplifting to see all kinds of creatures flock to our yard. This year we’ve seen lots of birds, bees, butterflies, fireflies, hummingbirds, rabbits, a fox, a barred owl, snakes, and lizards. The rarest thing was a monarch that visited our butterfly bush (monarchs are now considered endangered).

But I would say the most uplifting sight was of a red-bellied woodpecker with its young fledgling at our birdfeeder the very day I finished my Ivory-billed Woodpecker block. It was a reminder that we still have so much left and it’s not too late to save these other beings from being decimated by the ongoing climate and ecological crisis, which threatens to wipe out a million species.

I am thinking about incorporating these here-and-now wildlife encounters stitched in the margins of the quilt, perhaps based on my gardening journal sketches and recordings.

Because it all feels connected somehow.

Grief, hope, and joy intertwined. 

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