A family of nēnē raise their young. Photo: National Park Service

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Keep It Rural, an email newsletter from the Deesmealz. Like what you see? Join the mailing list for more rural news, thoughts, and analysis in your inbox each week.

Hear reporter Claire Carlson narrate her column on Keep It Rural, a series from the Rural Remix podcast.

In Hawaii, there is a goose that can walk on lava.

Its partially webbed feet have ropy toes that allow it to traverse rough, solid lava plains that would scratch and bruise softer flesh. Called a nēnē, it’s the only Hawaiian goose left of at least four other endemic goose species that lived on the islands before the introduction of nonnative animals like mongoose, pigs, cats, goats, and cows destroyed much of Hawaii’s native animal and plant species.

But nēnē breed well in captivity, which is why you can still see them today in Hawaii, often in the more rural parts of the islands (but they also like golf courses: In 2022, 11 nēnē geese were injured by golf ball strikes on the Big Island).

Now, with its carefully managed population, one of the biggest threats to the approximate 3,800 nēnē found in Hawaii – besides golf balls – are cars. In 2021, three nēnē were killed over the span of two weeks in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, two of them mates. The male died on the same stretch of road a week after his female mate was killed there. Like many other waterfowl, nēnē usually mate for life.

Love is always tragic (Shakespeare taught us this), but love in the anthropocene is particularly tragic, at least to me. To love anything now means you’ll one day lose it, at the rate we’re blowing through the planet’s natural resources. Nothing is sacred when every square foot of land has a dollar value, every tree a stumpage rate.

But perhaps this is how love was even before industry-as-we-know-it changed landscapes, ecosystems, and the climate, irreversibly. As long as death has been around, love and loss have always been inextricably tied. And maybe that’s what makes the anthropocene beautiful, in a demented way: it’s sped up the dying process.

When I first saw a nēnē in Hawaii, I didn’t think much of it. With its long neck and porky brown-and-black-feathered body, it really just looks like a glorified Canada goose. Only after learning about its endangered status did I start to love it.

People like rare things. A limited quantity is what gives something value under capitalism – that’s why diamonds are so expensive. An abundance makes a thing feel less special.

But everything is endangered in the anthropocene, even the mundane. The once prolific passenger pigeon endemic to North America was driven to extinction by the start of the 20th century in part because it was considered a cheap, easy-to-find meat source, until it wasn’t so easy to find. Thousands of insect species (perhaps the most mundane creatures of all?) have been wiped away as the planet warms, some disappearing before humans ever learned they existed.

Loving something in the anthropocene means knowing it will die, possibly right before your very eyes (if you’re paying attention). Nothing – no one – is impervious to death. Remembering this makes every thing special, even if right now that thing is prolific, widespread. Even if that thing is us.

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