When the last eagle flies over the last crumbling mountain
And the last lion roars at the last dusty fountain
In the shadow of the forest though she may be old and worn
They will stare unbelieving at the last unicorn.
– America, “The Last Unicorn”
When I was a young girl I saw The Last Unicorn, a film from 1982 based on a book from 1968 by Peter S. Beagle. In fact, I saw it many times thanks to HBO cable television. It was mesmerising to me to see the beautiful unicorn in search for others like herself, her quest to know if she was the last. Along the way, she is turned into a human to avoid danger and learns to love and regret.
This week I’m at the Im/mortality and In/finitude in the Anthropocene conference in Stockholm which is an interdisciplinary humanities and arts conference pondering questions of temporalities of life and death in a changing environment. Tomorrow I will give a paper which I’ve titled “The Last ___ (fill in blank)”. The talk will begin with a clip from The Last Unicorn in which, after overhearing a hunter proclaim that she is the last unicorn in the opening scene, the unicorn ponders:
That cannot be. Why would I be the last? What do men know? Because they have seen no unicorns for a while does not mean that we have all vanished. We do not vanish! There has never been a time without unicorns. We live forever. We are as old as the sky, as old as the moon. We can be hunted and trapped. We can even be killed if we leave our forests but we do not vanish. Am I truly the last?
In this soliloquy, the Unicorn is reflecting on the problem of seeing and knowing, or better said, the problem of not seeing and knowing. “Because they have seen no unicorns for a while does not mean that we have all vanished,” the unicorn says. Later when a farmer then cart driver see her but think she is a mare instead of a unicorn (the horn is invisible to them), the unicorn ponders to herself, “I had forgotten that men cannot see unicorns. If men no longer know what they are looking at, there may well be other unicorns in the world yet, unknown and glad of it.” The question is: Can one be sure that something is not there simply because one doesn’t see it?
The Unicorn’s questions are relevant to the histories of reintroduction I’m working with because these same kind of questions appear. At what point do you say a species is extinct? How much confirmation should there be to prove the species was still alive? Or more pressing, can lack of evidence mean the species is really extinct?
Beaver illustration from S Nilsson, Illuminerade Figurer till Skandinaviens Fauna, vol 1, Lund (1832).
In the case of the beaver in Sweden, the population had been in decline for centuries. Nils Gisslet noted in his “Om Bäfverns Natur, hushållning och fångande” from 1756 that he thought the beaver was being overhunted in Sweden. In 1834, S. Nilsson noted that the beaver was then found only in the northern half of the country and “there is no place that he is numerous, and he seems to become more rare each year. … A generation ago, one found them there [in Jämtland/Norrland] in smaller colonies of 12-16 individuals; now one finds never more than a pair together, or a female with her young.”
Increasing rarity might be easy to recognise, but what about admitting something is no longer present at all? That happened with the beaver in 1873, when F. Unander wrote an article in Svenska Jägarförbundets Nya Tidskrift in which he examined the evidence of beaver sightings and found that the latest evidence was from the far north in 1864 (the editor added a footnote that beaver was seen in Jämtland up to 1866). Unander concluded:
that as long as no proof is shown that beaver is found in the Swedish dominion and by which refute the before given facts and figures, he [beaver] must be regarded as an animal extinct from the Swedish fauna.
After that point, I’ve not found anyone claiming that beavers remained in Sweden, although there were debates about when and where the last was killed (or found dead). In publications which reported on the reintroduction efforts that began in 1922, extinction stories always an important part of the discourse because the extinction provided the grounds for the action. So for example when Sven Arbman wrote about the first reintroduction in “När bäfvern återinfördes i Bjurälfven”, he framed it within an extinction story about the last:
There is beaver in Sweden, wild, free, Scandinavian beaver, since June 6th 1922, 3:30 in the morning. It is more than half a century since that could last be said. 1871 the last was shot in a stream near Sjougdnäs.
Highlighting the previous last beaver gave these new first beavers significance.
The Last Unicorn is also a story of reintroduction in the end. It turns out that the Unicorn is not the last, although she was the last in the wild. Through her courage, she is able to free the enslaved unicorns and they are reintroduced to the world. The last becomes a way to tell a story of salvation for a species, just as it did in the discourse of the last Swedish beaver.
But of course we can also ask about the “last” beaver in Sweden as the unicorn asked about her own status: Was it really the last? Just because no man has seen it does it mean that there are no more? We will never know.