Whale falls, suspended ground, and extinctions never known

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This article contributes to work within extinction studies by asking how we might ‘story’ extinctions of creatures that have been, and will remain, unknown. It grapples with losses that have been unrecorded, unmissed and unrecognisable, via the ‘lively ethography’ approach to storying extinction. This approach developed by Deborah Bird Rose and Thom van Dooren seeks to draw readers into imaginative encounters with embodied, specific, and lively creatures in order to supported situated ethical responses. While at first this approach might seem antithetical to exploring unknown extinctions, I argue that it can provide an important stimulus for developing a situated approach to losses that are often thought of in terms of undifferentiated masses. My focus is on the recently discovered ecosystems of creatures that live on the remnants of dead whales on the sea floor, known as ‘whale falls’. These ecosystems are thought to be the sites of the first anthropogenic extinctions in the deep seas, however, the specificities of the creatures that have been lost are unknown. Engaging with Rose’s call to take up the ethical challenge of writing in a time of mass extinctions, I move from her account of ‘shared ground’ to one of ‘suspended ground’, which brings together philosopher Mick Smith’s rethinking of an ethics of encounter in relation to unknown soil extinctions, and Stacy Alaimo’s concept of ‘suspension’. I argue that engaging with ethographic writing from this perspective enables us to weave a more explicit account of the mysterious and the unknown into the approach.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)454-474
Number of pages21
JournalEnvironmental Humanities
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2020
EventExtinction Studies Working Group meeting - WA, Margaret River, Australia
Duration: 4 Dec 20168 Dec 2016


  • extinction studies
  • blue humanities
  • oceans
  • environmental ethics
  • multispecies


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