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A Crude Awakening

I’m sitting on the edge of the world, looking toward the distant horizon trying to discern that point where the sea disappears beyond the earth’s bend. I can find no fine line. Fast-flying swallows dart through the winds that erratically swirl around this rocky promontory. Wild flowers bloom in compact clusters of rugged plants growing low to the rough ground, filling in gaps between lichen-encrusted rock. Below me, a tumble of large stones and jagged shelves of rock meet swells of foaming water that never quite make it into waves. The Atlantic Ocean surges and patiently wears against the ancient rock, as off in the distance a lone boat floats on calm water.

I am sitting on a rock in Finisterre, Spain, which is located along the Atlantic coast, in the northwest corner of the country in the autonomous region of Galicia. Finisterre translates into English as “land’s end.” It is part of an unforgiving shoreline known as the Coast of Death due to the many shipwrecks claimed by its rocky waters. I’m here as part of a hiking and camping adventure across northern Spain that I organized with Leah and Noah, my two 20-something kids.

Back in the 15th century, many people in these parts of Europe believed this was the last western jut of the mainland before one faced the edge of the world. Many believed that it all came to an abrupt and dramatic end out there somewhere beyond the horizon, where the sky shades into the ocean and the sun vanishes with the day. Go too far and you’d fall into some unknown gap in the cosmos and disappear never to be heard from again. A variety of phantasmagoric creatures were ascribed to this over-the-edge environment.

Some evidence indicates that the early Celtic peoples of this area had high reverence for this bit of land, making it an important space for ritual gatherings. Today, a lighthouse warns boats of the hazardous coast and hosts a gallery displaying paintings and photos from the late 1920s of people in the area who made their living from the rich marine environment. Many of the people in this area still rely on the sea for their livelihood. Some still make spiritual pilgrimages to the area, as evidenced by a cluster of Christians singing religious songs in a nearby stand of trees.

Our ideas about the world have changed radically since those days when this small spot of land functioned as an official land’s end. Following Columbus’s incursions into the New World and the flotillas of conquistadors that soon followed, it became clear that Finisterre was not the western end of the world. With the galleons of gold returning to Spanish ports, it was no longer tenable that this rocky cape be considered the last stop before hitting the edge of the earth. The world was far larger and more diverse than most Europeans had imagined. The earth was morphing—in the minds of the Europeans—into a very different shape.

This bit of land on the Galician coast then began to become known not for what it is, but for what many once thought it was. Despite the centuries that have passed since the old and new worlds became reacquainted, Finisterre still draws people to its rugged shoreline to look out to the horizon with wonder. It is hard to believe that Europeans once had such a confined view of the world.

The dominant world view has become more three-dimensional than the simpler flat scenario prevalent when Finisterre functioned as the last exit before the end of the world. While humans now can feel reassured that they will not fall off of the world out there somewhere, they have created other hazards to life. If one closely examines the rocks along the shore here, one can find the residue from a recent catastrophic event that has brought up a relatively new fear: oil.

Back in November of 2002 the Prestige, an oil tanker flying under a Bahamian flag and owned by a Greek shipping company, broke up and began sinking off the coast here during stormy seas. The old single-hulled tanker was on its way to Singapore and carrying more than 22 million gallons of heavy fuel oil when it went down. The prolonged process of the tanker’s demise resulted in multiple waves of oil being released into the rich fishing grounds off Finisterre. Spanish tugboats eventually pulled the sinking ship about 130 miles off the coast before it finally broke up and sank. Subsequent storms ensured that the oil reached land.

For the many people who make their living from the rich fishing and shellfish beds off the coast, Finisterre had, once again, become the end of their world. In an industry already depressed, this environmental catastrophe put thousands who relied on the sea’s bounty over the economic edge. Instead of a bottomless gap beyond the horizon to swallow them up, there was now a growing volume of thick oil spreading in a slick coating and killing life in its path. A vast stretch of the coastline north of here was soon contaminated, and fishing and shellfish harvesting were banned along 340 miles of the shore. An international naval coalition and thousands of volunteers along the coast worked assiduously to mitigate the damage from the oil but these efforts were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the spill. Damage to the fishing industry was estimated in excess of $100 million.

A recent study released by environmental researchers in Galicia estimates that as many as 670,000 seabirds may have perished in the petrochemical ooze, including some already in danger of extinction. Eighteen of Spain’s 22 known guillemots, one of those endangered birds, died.

Sitting on a rock, looking out to sea, I know more oil-bearing monsters lurk beyond the horizon ready to release their sticky terror on the world.

—Tom Nattell

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