What do we really lose when a language is lost or when a species goes extinct? Humboldt’s Parrot is an excerpt from a forthcoming book titled Spoken Here: Journeys Among Threatened Languages and in it writer Mark Abley connects the two kinds of disappearance together. He eloquently touches on how within the next couple of generations, most of the world’s 6000 languages will vanish, due mainly to the unstoppable tide of English. The parallels that he draws with the plight of endangered species are quite remarkable and offer themselves as a very strong backdrop to his main thesis.
On a visit to the Canadian Rockies a couple of years ago, I recall dangling a hand off a walkway beside a natural pool in Banff National Park, eighteen inches above a bed of brown-green algae. A dragonfly skimmed the surface. The algae rippled in the wind. “Pond scum,” you might say. Except that this particular scum contained a few diminutive snails: Physella johnsoni, the Banff Springs snail, which appears to survive in just five springs near the townsite of Banff. The snails occur only where foul-smelling, lukewarm water spills out of Sulphur Mountains springs and into ponds. With their tiny black eyes and their coiled, globe-like shells, the snails survive by feeding on algae. Even the largest of them are no bigger than a small fingernail. I could have scooped a few up in the palm of my hand.
If you were to dip your hands into the turquoise water while wearing mosquito repellent or sunscreen lotion, you would threaten a threatened species even further. Over the millennia, the snails have adapted to a delicate environment containing large amounts of dissolved gypsum, little oxygen and no artificial chemicals. Human swimming in the hot ponds illegal now but tempting has destroyed some mats of algae, and with them the snails’ eggs. “Are snails just as important as grizzly bears?” asks a Parks Canada leaflet. “You bet they are!… Healthy populations of Banff Springs snails indicate the integrity of their unique hot-spring ecosystems. Its all just a matter of scale.” The snails used to exist at nine springs in the area; from four, they have disappeared. Many other species of hot-spring snails once flourished in Europe and North America. Most of them are now extinct.