Commenting on the extinction of the Great Auk, the recently deceased Peter Matthiessen wrote: “It was a living creature who died needlessly . . . extinct by the hand of man . . . . The finality of extinction is awesome, and not unrelated to the finality of eternity.” Extinction is indeed the death of birth, the impossibility that a unique niche on the ladder of life can ever reproduce itself.

I was privileged last night, along with many others, to listen to the remarkably intelligent, informative and persuasive remarks of six panelists speaking about the possible “rebirth” of an extinct subspecies, the heath hen, a bird once so abundant colonial indentured servants refused to work if fed the birds too often. By the early 1930s, the heath hen had, in fact, become extinct, the last one disappearing here on Martha’s Vineyard, despite a heath hen reservation — now the state forest — established for their protection.

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