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Date: 01/01/2014
  • Practices
  • Honoring Our Pain
  • Facilitators

The Bestiary

from chapter 7 of Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown; second edition, published 2014. Please acknowledge the source when you use any of these practices.


Time: 30 Minutes


This process provides a ritual structure for recalling what the Industrial Growth Society is doing to our fellow species. It serves to honor the unique and irreplaceable forms that are passing from us. It arose in 1981, at a midnight gathering of several hundred people in Minnesota, in the form of a simple reading from the list of threatened and endangered species. At its close, people were invited to call out the names of other endangered aspects of our common life on Earth; then they expressed their sorrow by the ancient act of keening. Joanna’s poem, the Bestiary, grew out of that experience, although it only names other animals, and does not include trees or plants. 

As the names are read, it is easy to feel guilty as a human. So, before the reading, the guide makes clear that this is not the point of the exercise. Guilt tends to close us down. Instead, as each name is read, let people take the opportunity silently to honor the beauty and wisdom of that unique, irreplaceable species. This approach helps people to open to the grief that is in them.



The group sits in a circle and listens as the Bestiary (see below), is read aloud. Use several voices (four is a good number) spaced around the circle; the pace should be unhurried as befits a funeral and the voices strong. After the naming of each species, a clacker or a drum is struck in one strong beat. The drum has a funereal connotation; the clacker (two pieces of wood struck sharply together as in a zendo) has the finality of a guillotine. In the Bestiary, the reader who names the species immediately before a paragraph reads that reflective paragraph as well. 

At the conclusion of the poem, the guide invites people to name things disappearing from the world. The intent remains the same as with the endangered species: to publicly name the loss, and to keep its memory. After each naming – “clean beaches”, “bird song”, “safe food”, “stars over cities”, “hope” – the clacker or drum sounds. Again the pace is slow and measured. The guide concludes with words that honor the losses that have been spoken, and the honesty and solidarity that their naming brings us now for our work in the Great Turnin

The Bestiary

by Joanna Macy


Short-tailed albatross

Whooping crane

     Gray wolf

              Woodland caribou

                       Hawksbill sea turtle


The lists of endangered species grow longer every year. With too many names to hold in our minds, how do we honor the passing of life? What funerals or farewells are appropriate?

Reed warbler

     Swallow-tail butterfly

              Bighorn sheep

                       Indian python

                                 Howler monkey

                                          Sperm whale

                                                   Blue whale

Dive me deep, brother whale, in this time we have left. Deep in our mother ocean where once I swam, gilled and finned. The salt from those early seas still runs in my tears. Tears aren’t enough anymore. Give me a song, a song for a sadness too vast for my heart, for a rage too wild for my throat.

Giant sable antelope

  Wyoming toad

     Polar bear

              Grizzly bear

                       Brown bear

                                 Bactrian camel

                                          Nile crocodile

                                                   Chinese alligator

Ooze me, alligator, in the mud whence I came. Belly me slow in the rich primordial soup, cradle of our molecules. Let me wallow again, before we drain your swamp, and pave it over. 

Gray bat


              Pocket mouse

                       Sockeye salmon

                                 Hawaiian goose

                                     Audouin’s seagull

Quick, lift off. Sweep me high over the coast and out, farther out. Don’t land here. Oil spills coat the beach, rocks, sea. I cannot spread my wings glued with tar. Fly me from what we have done, fly me far.

Golden parakeet

     West African ostrich

              Florida panther

                       Galapagos penguin

                                 Imperial pheasant

                                          Mexican prairie dog

Hide me in a hedgerow, badger. Can’t you find one?  Dig me a tunnel through leaf mold and roots, under the trees that once defined our fields. My heart is bulldozed and plowed over. Burrow me a labyrinth deeper than longing.

Thick-billed parrot

      Blue pike

          Snow leopard

                       Molokai thrush

                                 California condor

                                          Lotus blue butterfly

Crawl me out of here, caterpillar. Spin me a cocoon. Wind me to sleep in a shroud of silk, where in patience my bones will dissolve. I’ll wait as long as all creation if only it will come again– and I take wing.

Atlantic Ridley turtle

     Coho salmon     

              Helmuted hornbill

                       Marine otter

                                 Humpback whale

                                          Steller sea lion

                                              Monk seal

Swim me out beyond the ice floes, mama. Where are you?  Boots squeeze my ribs, clubs drum my fur, the white world goes black with the taste of my blood.


     Sand gazelle



                                 Asian elephant

                                          African elephant

Sway me slowly through the jungle. There still must be jungle somewhere. My heart drips with green secrets. Hose me down by the waterhole; there is buckshot in my hide. Tell me old stories while you can remember.

Desert tortoise

     Crested ibis

              Hook-billed kite

                       Mountain zebra

                                 Tibetan antelope

                                          Andrew’s frigatebird

In the time when his world, like ours, was ending, Noah had a list of the animals, too. We picture him standing by the gangplank, calling their names, checking them off on his scroll. Now we also are checking them off.

Ivory-billed woodpecker

     Indus river dolphin

              West Indian manatee

                        Wood stork

We reenact Noah’s ancient drama, but in reverse, like a film running backwards, the animals exiting.





Your tracks are growing fainter. Wait. Wait. This is a hard time. Don’t leave us alone in a world we have wrecked.

Contributor/Author: Joanna Macy & Molly Brown