The Archetypal Walrus

Reflections on robbing the dead

Reflections on robbing the dead
Artwork by Kananginak Pootoogook
Kananginak Pootoogook, Untitled, 1999, ink and coloured pencil on paper 50.8 x 66 cm (Cape Dorset). Inscription: “We always wanted to follow our fathers when they went out hunting. Here he is using a telescope.”

The walrus, unlike its neighbours, the dolphin, orca, beluga, seal, and sea lion, is not easily domesticated. But this is only one of the reasons you won’t find many walruses performing in aquariums. More relevant, perhaps, is the beast’s appetite: up to 8,000 clams a day. And then there is the delicate matter of suction: they say a walrus can, with its lips alone, pull a bocce ball through a sheet of plywood. They also tend to die young when kept indoors and, while alive, they are smelly and irascible.

Their human equivalents don’t do so well in captivity either; I know this because once, very briefly, I went to a glossy east coast prep school. My English teacher was so like a walrus that a T-shirt was made to honour the resemblance. He was popular, and the shirt was intended as a kind of testament—a portrait of the man, complete with Clark Kent glasses and long tusks, along with the phrase “The Archetypal Walrus” (he was fond of identifying archetypes). Not long after I was asked to leave the school, a rumour echoed back to me: the walrus now spoke of many things, of shoes and ships and sealing wax—in short, he had lost his mind. He had been forced to leave the school as well. Even though I failed his course, I wore my Archetypal T-shirt with pride until it fell apart.

About eight years later, having gone west in pursuit of an archetype to call my own, I ran across another walrus, this time in the wild. It was a brief and sordid encounter, but it left me able to say, with complete honesty, that I have “handled” a walrus. I was alone on a remote beach in southwestern Alaska, looking for a boat I’d lost, when the walrus floated by. It was dead (if you think they smell bad when they’re alive…).

My first reaction upon seeing the walrus was to exclaim, “My God, a walrus!” So far, so good. Maybe it has tusks, I wondered.

This is where the trouble started. I waded into the 5°C water and rolled this absolutely massive, gas-filled carcass over so I could see its face—something I intend never to do again, should the occasion arise. Once upon a time, these creatures were called sea horses; in Old English they went by horschwael (horsewhale), and their scientific name is Odobenus rosmarus, meaning “tooth walking seahorse.” But a dead walrus, up close, is like a seagoing Jabba the Hutt. With a hide like an elephant, the colour of sand, it looks more like a protoplasmic waterbed than anything you’d be tempted to call one of God’s creatures. It is also extraordinarily heavy; male walruses can weigh up to 1.4 tonnes. This one’s appearance wasn’t improved by the fact that someone had beaten me to it and torn out its tusks.

In between waves of exhilaration and disgust, I experienced a third emotion: disappointment. I felt cheated—robbed, even. This is not to say that I would have sold the tusks; I wanted them purely as a souvenir. No, the painful part, the part that makes me feel vaguely nauseous, even fifteen years on, is how, in that moment, I felt I deserved a piece of that animal. This response wasn’t calculated or planned; in fact, it may have been as pure and spontaneous as any I’ve ever had in my life. It wasn’t for anyone else’s benefit; there was no one around, literally, for kilometres.

An aerial image of all this would have been comical, if it weren’t so grotesque. Picture to the west, a vast ocean of celadon grey (not green) and, to the east, a gaping, treeless void of coarse grass and alder thickets interspersed with pothole lakes fed by streams that coil back upon themselves like intestines. Along the broad shingle beach that sutures this agoraphobe’s nightmare, there is literally nothing of human manufacture for thirty-two kilometres in any direction, save bits and pieces of wrecked fishing boats and the occasional crashed plane. Nothing but this tiny, naked, out-of-state scavenger armed with a pocket knife, hacking away at the gums of a creature twenty-five times larger than himself. (If I couldn’t have the tusks, I figured, I was damn well going to get some teeth).

If you were to multiply this archetype of eager industry and visceral entitlement by millions and then transpose it to a forest, a buffalo herd, a mountain, or a stock exchange, you would have a pretty accurate picture of the history of the New World from 1500 to the present day. I was to the walrus, and to Bristol Bay, Alaska—a place that, over the course of three years, I dug, drilled, dynamited, shot at, fished from, pissed in, shat on, and then abandoned—what England was to Canada. What Ottawa is to British Columbia. What North America continues to be to much of the world. The only difference is that, in the end, I lacked the requisite conviction and stick-to-it-iveness to fully plunder my prey. My pocket knife was no match for walrus bone, and I felt a growing discomfort with my own reflection in the light of that long, long Subarctic day.

Sometime later, after forsaking the walrus and finding my lost boat, I ran into my neighbours: first, Mike the Vietnam vet, a man of few words and big dogs who never went anywhere without his M-16. And then, Charlie the sourdough—six-foot-something, mutton chop sideburns, smile like a rotten picket fence—who once very nearly killed me with an articulated loader.

Charlie was lurching down the beach with a bloody club in one hand and a skinned fur seal pup in the other. He was going to throw the little carcass in the ocean, so I took it from him and ate it. By doing so, I reasoned, I was saving the poor creature from being wasted. But wasted on whom? Local eagles, seagulls, and crabs, as opposed to a transient Homo sapiens? This is the scary, refreshing thing about remote places like the wilderness, or the back alleys and upper floors of office buildings: they encourage the human chameleon’s true colours to show themselves—not in the civil pastels of our daily lives, but in the primal blacks and whites and reds of undiluted self-interest. It is not a failure of our human nature that causes us to take all we can. No, it is more a matter of not being able to overcome our animal nature. We are merely cleverer versions of the aptly named killer whale, and of the far less romantic lemming: a creature who dumbly rides the sine wave roller coaster of population explosion and catastrophic die-off. We just ride it in more elaborate ways. But if one looks at the ends rather than the means, the veneer separating us from them is terribly, terrifyingly thin. The difference amounts to little more than a tendency toward a species-centric vanity that, if mayflies and comets had senses of humour, would make them laugh hysterically and ask, “Who on earth do they think they are? ”

This may not be how we like to envision ourselves, but this is how, collectively, we act. Life in the North sometimes makes this very clear.

While I was up in Bristol Bay, I didn’t take what I needed, I took what I could get—just like everybody else. Sometimes I got skunked, but other times I made out like the proverbial bandit. Like a hyena or an oil company, I suffered through the lean times, but when there was prey to be had, I gorged until, belly distended beyond anything you’d have thought possible, I could hardly move.

Today, settled comfortably on Vancouver’s west side, I can finally afford to pay someone else to do my plundering for me: ikea, Chevron, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans; it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that my clothes no longer reek of diesel and fish guts, and I never have to make another one of those hopeless four-time-zone phone calls to a distant girlfriend who I know is with somebody else. I’m also spared the unbelievably depressing atmosphere of the post-conquest, post-plague, postmodern native village. I don’t have to look at the blackened eyes of the lone prostitute flown in to service the visiting fishermen at ten-minute intervals. And I don’t have to spend my weekend searching for the hasty graves of boys murdered by their skipper. Or listening to the sound of bullets whizzing over my head as my own skipper empties a fifty-round banana clip into the seals that are cruising our fishing nets while we haul them in. Or trying to persuade some coke-addled Yupik dude not to load his plastic flare gun with shotgun shells.

Now I get to spoon with my wife in a king-size bed, instead of with a man called Bullet in a cramped gillnetter bunk.

Still, as much as I like living in the South, there are some things I’ll miss about my time among the Extractors: the sensual, citric pleasure of Del Monte stewed tomatoes straight out of the can; the thrill of seeing my first airplane crash, or discovering what a couple of sticks of tnt will do to a refrigerator; that heady sense of lawlessness that made almost anything seem possible. But who really wants to hear about slumming in the heart of Arctic darkness when that’s what so many of us are trying to avoid ever having to think about?

Today, I am, through my actions if not through my preferred self-deception, joined in solidarity with my fellow North Americans as we barrel through the world’s resources, half asleep at the wheel of our continental suv. To my neighbours, I appear well-adjusted and socially conscious: a recycling husband who makes three-figure pledges to Médecins Sans Frontières. A taxpaying father who, if given the choice between protecting another country, another species, or his own children, would blindly choose his offspring every time. A hard-working writer who doesn’t fret too much about the real costs behind the cheap prices he pays for imported goods, because he feels entitled to them. Just like he felt entitled to the tusks of the archetypal walrus. Just like the animals we claim not to be.

John Vaillant