The extinction of the dodo | A passage from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

Dodo, 1638 by Cornelis Saftleven (1607-1681)

He left the dodoes to rot, he couldn’t endure to eat their flesh. Usually, he hunted alone. But often, after months of it, the isolation would begin to change him, change his very perceptions—the jagged mountains in full daylight flaring as he watched into freak saffrons, streaming indigos, the sky his glass house, all the island his tulipomania. The voices—he insomniac, southern stars too thick for constellations teeming in faces and creatures of fable less likely than the dodo—spoke the words of sleepers, singly, coupled, in chorus. The rhythms and timbres were Dutch, but made no waking sense. Except that he thought they were warning him… scolding, angry that he couldn’t understand. Once he sat all day staring at a single white dodo’s egg in a grass hummock. The place was too remote for any foraging pig to’ve found. He waited for scratching, a first crack reaching to net the chalk surface: an emergence. Hemp gripped in the teeth of the steel snake, ready to be lit, ready to descend, sun to black-powder sea, and destroy the infant, egg of light into egg of darkness, within its first minute of amazed vision, of wet downstirred cool by these south-east trades… . Each hour he sighted down the barrel. It was then, if ever, he might have seen how the weapon made an axis potent as Earth’s own between himself and this victim, still one, inside the egg, with the ancestral chain, not to be broken out for more than its blink of world’s light. There they were, the silent egg and the crazy Dutchman, and the hookgun that linked them forever, framed, brilliantly motionless as any Vermeer. Only the sun moved: from zenith down at last behind the snaggleteeth of mountains to Indian ocean, to tarry night. The egg, without a quiver, still unhatched. He should have blasted it then where it lay: he understood that the bird would hatch before dawn. But a cycle was finished. He got to his feet, knee and hip joints in agony, head gonging with instructions from his sleeptalkers droning by, overlapping, urgent, and only limped away, piece at right shoulder arms.

When loneliness began to drive him into situations like this, he often returned to a settlement and joined a hunting party. A drunken, university hysteria would take hold of them all, out on night-rampages where they’d be presently firing at anything, treetops, clouds, leather demon bats screaming up beyond hearing. Tradewinds moving up-slope to chill their nights’ sweating, sky lit half crimson by a volcano, rumblings under their feet as deep as the bats’ voices were high, all these men were caught in the spectrum between, trapped among frequencies of their own voices and words.


This furious host were losers, impersonating a race chosen by God. The colony, the venture, was dying—like the ebony trees they were stripping from the island, like the poor species they were removing totally from the earth. By 1681, Didus ineptus would be gone, by 1710 so would every last settler from Mauritius. The enterprise here would have lasted about a human lifetime.


To some, it made sense. They saw the stumbling birds ill-made to the point of Satanic intervention, so ugly as to embody argument against a Godly creation. Was Mauritius some first poison trickle through the sheltering dikes of Earth? Christians must stem it here, or perish in a second Flood, loosed this time not by God but by the Enemy. The act of ramming home the charges into their musketry became for these men a devotional act, one whose symbolism they understood.


But if they were chosen to come to Mauritius, why had they also been chosen to fail, and leave? Is that a choosing, or is it a passing-over? Are they Elect, or are they Preterite, and doomed as dodoes?


Frans could not know that except for a few others on the island of Reunion, these were the only dodoes in the Creation, and that he was helping exterminate a race. But at times the scale and frenzy of the hunting did come through to trouble his heart. “If the species were not such a perversion,” he wrote, “it might be profitably husbanded to feed our generations. I cannot hate them quite so violently as do some here. But what now can mitigate this slaughter? It is too late… . Perhaps a more comely beak, fuller feathering, a capacity for flight, however brief… details of Design. Or, had we but found savages on this island, the bird’s appearance might have then seemed to us no stranger than that of the wild turkey of North America. Alas, their tragedy is to be the dominant form of Life on Mauritius, but incapable of speech.


That was it, right there. No language meant no chance of co-opting them in to what their round and flaxen invaders were calling Salvation. But Frans, in the course of morning lights lonelier than most, could not keep from finally witnessing a miracle: a Gift of Speech… a Conversion of the Dodoes. Ranked in thousands on the shore, with a luminous profile of reef on the water behind them, its roar the only sound on the morning, volcanoes at rest, the wind suspended, an autumn sunrise dispensing light glassy and deep over them all… they have come from their nests and rookeries, from beside the streams bursting out the mouths of lava tunnels, from the minor islands awash like debris off the north coast, from sudden waterfalls and the wasted rain-forests where the axeblades are rusting and the rough flumes rot and topple in the wind, from their wet mornings under the shadows of mountain-stubs they have waddled in awkward pilgrimage to this assembly: to be sanctified, taken in… . For as much as they are the creatures of God, and have the gift of rational discourse, acknowledging that only in His Word is eternal life to His Word is eternal life to be found… And there are tears of happiness in the eyes of the dodoes. They are all brothers now, they and the humans who used to hunt them, brothers in Christ, the little baby they dream now of sitting near, roosting in his stable, feathers at peace, watching over him and his dear face all night long… .


It is the purest form of European adventuring. What’s it all been for, the murdering seas, the gangrene winters and starving springs, our bone pursuit of the unfaithful, midnights of wrestling with the Beast, our sweat become ice and our tears pale flakes of snow, if not for such moments as this: the little converts flowing out of eye’s field, so meek, so trusting—how shall any craw clench in fear, any recreant cry be offered in the presence of our blade, our necessary blade? Sanctified now they will feed us, sanctified their remains and droppings fertilize our crops. Did we tell them “Salvation”? Did we mean a dwelling forever in the City? Everlasting life? An earthly paradise restored, their island as it used to be given them back? Probably. Thinking all the time of the little brothers numbered among our own blessings. Indeed, if they save us from hunger in this world, then beyond, in Christ’s kingdom, our salvations must be, in like measure, inextricable. Otherwise the dodoes would be only what they appear as in the world’s illusory light—only our prey. God could not be that cruel.

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow. The selection appears on pages 109-111.

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