Earth Day 2016: Get Inspired by Maya Lin’s What is Missing? Website

By Pat Leonard
April 22, 2016
Maya Lin's What's Missing mapLike a sky full of stars, each point of light on the What is Missing? map expands to tell the story of a place or a species.
New self-paced course: Learn How to Identify Bird Songs, Click to Learn More

Every day is Earth Day for artist and architect Maya Lin. For the past seven years, much of her life and work has been devoted to showcasing the planet’s endangered, threatened, or extinct species and habitats—what she calls her “memorial to the Earth.” Rather than a single monument, her “What is Missing?” project has gradually taken shape across multiple installations and displays around the world, including the Sound Cone at the California Academy of Sciences and the Sound Ring sculpture right here at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Lab has long partnered with Lin on some of her projects by providing sound recordings and scientific expertise—a partnership based on shared concern for the natural world.

“She’s incredibly inspirational—a visionary thinker. She brings art and science together in a way that very few people can,” says Cornell Lab director John W. Fitzpatrick who is also a member of Lin’s nonprofit board.

Earth Day 2016, then, is an opportunity to revisit the themes so eloquently expressed in Lin’s memorial projects and to renew our commitment to taking small, personal steps that add up to big changes. Even though this is the 46th Earth Day—there is still so much to do.

A good place to get some ideas and inspiration for an Earth-Day makeover is Lin’s newly revamped What is Missing? website. Some of the new or updated features include:

  • Searchable Content (put the name of an animal, country, or topic in the search field)
  • Map of Memory
  • Downloadable Timelines
  • What You Can Do
Maya Lin speaks during the dedication of the Sound Ring at the Cornell Lab. Photo by Jason Koski, Cornell University PhotoMaya Lin speaks during the dedication of the Sound Ring at the Cornell Lab. Photo by Jason Koski, Cornell University Photo.

“The content is divided into two sections,” explains Lin. “Ecological stories presented on the Map of Memory and Actionable Items located in the What You Can Do section. The Map of Memory contains more than 3,500 stories of biological abundance, loss, recovery, and disaster. We’d really like people to contribute more of their memories to this section.”

Among the memories: one woman notices fewer Cock-of-the-Rock near Machu Picchu, Peru; another man remembers with awe the millions of wintering monarch butterflies in a misty cypress forest in Mexico; another mourns the loss of the wild creatures remembered from youth–lizards, frogs, Cedar Waxwings.

Fashion Funding Conservation

Maya Lin-fashion funding conservationPhillip Lim designed limited edition T-shirts will raise money for conservation.

In a collaboration with clothing designer 3.1 Phillip Lim, the What Is Missing? Foundation is also raising money for conservation organizations, including the Cornell Lab, through the sale of limited edition Lim-designed organic cotton T-shirts. Each features the life-sized footprints of a crane, elephant, rhino, or tiger. Each shirt comes with a tag that contains information about the species and the groups working to protect them. For example, the Siberian Crane T-shirt highlights work done by the Lab and by the International Crane Foundation and offers information about four endangered crane species. Find out more.

“These are stories from around the world from everyday people, reflecting on what has been lost,” says Fitzpatrick, “along with sounds and images of species that are gone. Everything is deeply researched. But there are also stories of conservation successes, too.”

The site also includes about 50 in-depth timelines teaching ecological histories about cities, rivers, and species. The timelines are downloadable and shareable, tracing key conservation events in a particular region. Click on other “stars” to learn about species already gone from the wild (probably before many of us knew they even existed) including the Panamanian golden frog, the scimitar oryx, and the Socorro Dove.

Earth Day Origins

earth day logoEarth Day was first held in 1970.

The idea for an Earth Day was born in the United States out of environmental disaster—the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. First held in 1970, Earth Day marked rising public consciousness of what impact human activities were having on the natural world and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Endangered Species Act was passed along with the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. Earth Day went global in 1990. According to the Earth Day Network, formed after the first observance, Earth Day is now “the largest secular observance in the world, celebrated by more than a billion people every year.”

Find ideas about what you can do to preserve species right now by visiting the What You Can Do section. These are not pie-in-the-sky impracticalities. These are changes in behavior, such as buying patterns, that become “best practices” for a sustainable world: buying shade-grown coffee that preserves vital habitat for birds in Latin America; using certified wood products that are produced by companies adhering to sustainable forestry practices; reducing our use of plastics that live on forever to pollute the environment.

Lin is also thinking ahead, hoping to influence the environmental awareness of today’s young people who will be the ones dealing with the world we leave behind for them. She is working on a curriculum for high school students to build ecological histories, combining science, history and art, to pass along lessons about the significant ecological changes that have occurred in their communities.

No one expects it to be easy. But Lin is thinking positive. As she said during the dedication of the Sound Ring at the Lab, “We need to stay really optimistic. Because the alternative is, what, we give up? The loss of species and habitats is all about land use and resource consumption. We have to make species protection through habitat conservation a huge priority because what we’re doing right now is spending our kids’ and our grandkids’ future.”

Need Bird ID Help? Try Merlin