I caught a ride across the island in a car full of philosophers, all of us heading to The Future of Nature conference in Corner Brook and Gros Morne. We left St. John’s late in the afternoon. The irony of travelling seven hours in a behemoth of an SUV to attend a conference on sustainability wasn’t lost on anyone, but there were six of us sharing the vehicle at least, and it was better than flying. As we reached Gander it began to get dark. We listened to the evening news on the radio, then someone put on a podcast about Beowulf. A thousand-year-old tale of warriors, swords and monsters.
when the sheen of the sun they saw no more,
and dusk of night sank darkling nigh,
and shadowy shapes came striding on.
On the podcast, a panel of historians discussed how objects in Beowulf embody narrative. The heroes build a great hall, named Heorot after the majestic deer they hunt, but the warriors themselves soon become prey for the monster Grendel. Two opposing armies make peace after a vicious war, but then one warrior notices his father’s weapon strapped to the belt of his enemy, and it all breaks asunder again.
As the darkness settled in we watched the road carefully, keeping our eyes peeled for moose. “Despite their enormous size,” notes The Land Mammals of Insular Newfoundland, “moose share with all things wild an extraordinary ability to emerge from nowhere.” Put your moose eyes on, my parents would say. Drive slowly, and keep an eye on the side of the road. Everyone knows someone who has been in a moose accident, everyone has heard gruesome stories. Your vehicle sideswipes a moose’s legs, and its heavy body crashes through your windshield, crushing you, wounded and kicking. You were just trying to get to a conference. The moose was just trying to get from one bog to another.
Then from the moorland, by misty crags,
with God’s wrath laden, Grendel came.
I walked the East Coast Trail from South Brigus to La Manche with some friends a few weekends ago, a six hour hike. The trail skipped along the water’s edge, narrow paths between trees opening up into stunning grassy cliffs surrounded by bright waves. It was surprisingly warm for September, although the air was noticeably cooler in the trees. We scooped handfuls of blueberries and kept an eye on the sea, hoping to spot whales. About halfway to La Manche, we ascended a staircase and found ourselves overlooking a small cove. The view was wonderful. The smell, on the other hand, was horrendous.
We couldn’t tell what it was at first. The stench seemed to have settled along the low part of the trail, and after wading through it for a moment we discovered its source. Below us, drifting just off the beach, was a rotting sperm whale. Its tongue was a bloated ball, its skin pale and decaying where a couple of gulls were pecking away. Its mouth lolled open, revealing rows of rounded teeth. A juvenile, big, but hardly enormous.
No one said anything for a while. We were dismayed, not only disappointed that our whale sighting was such a pitiful one, but sorrowful that the creature seemed so out of place, and so alone. We wondered if we should tell someone, report it to the trail authority or the Department of Wildlife. Whales that wash up near communities are often buried on the beach, but this one seemed likely to remain unburied. I imagined its ghost haunting the forest, a pale cloud lost along the narrow trails.
on the edge of ocean up they lay,
put to sleep by the sword. And since, by them
on the fathomless sea-ways sailor-folk
are never molested.
The podcast ended. As we continued across the island in the belly of a monstrous vehicle, I kept thinking about monsters. Monsters that inhabit fables and fiction rarely come from nowhere, but are often summoned by our trespasses or carelessness. In Beowulf, Grendel attacks the warriors’ great hall because it is disturbed by the noise of their celebrations. Moose are not native to the island of Newfoundland, but were introduced as a food source.
On the first morning of The Future of Nature there was a presentation about ghost fishing. A ghost net, lost at sea, continues to drift through the ocean, killing fish. What kind of story does this object embody? Another conference presenter brought up Serres’ The Natural Contract, which compares human pollution to the way animals mark their territory with urine, an unconscious urge. We mark a place as ours by strewing it with evidence of ourselves. We wreck the planet not intentionally, not even by accident, but out of habit. Our negligence conjures ghosts.
Beowulf slays two monsters and later dies defending his kingdom from a dragon, which, like Grendel, was angered by humans blundering into its lair. Are we Beowulf, poisoned by the monsters we’ve provoked, doomed to be buried with our mountain of treasure? Or are we the monsters? If both perish, does it even matter?
he was fated to finish this fleeting life,
his days on earth, and the dragon with him.
Serres might ask us to widen the frame, “to include the consuming muck beneath the duelist’s feet and into which they are unknowingly sinking by clubbing one another to death.” At the conference we spend an afternoon arguing over the term Anthropocene. Does nature have a future? Does squabbling over language lead us anywhere? Metaphors only get you so far. If you lose track of them they can become ghost nets, tangling all understanding.