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
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.