Confronting our mortality with vague metaphors, religious glosses, and computer analogies.

We don’t know why dogs choose to roll around in carrion remains, covering themselves in the stench of decomposition. Why, when they approach the corpse of a small mammal, they will plunge with gusto, dropping a shoulder and rolling their backs over a carcass. What strikes a dog’s owner as a violation of the most basic taboo comes so naturally to dogs. It is hard to know if their expression is one of compulsory instinct or of outright delight—supposing, of course, that this is a useful distinction. Some researchers argue dogs are attempting to boast to other dogs, to pass off the scent of the dead animal as proof of their own kill. Another prominent theory argues it is because they want to disguise their own scent so they can hunt more efficiently. But this assumes the dogs will be invisible while reeking of decay, as though their prey will be unconcerned when they smell death creeping up behind them.

When my wife and I lived in Santa Cruz, California, taking our dog to the beach could be daunting, an idyllic experience made fraught by the hazards of death washing ashore. The idea of Santa Cruz evokes beautiful and pristine beaches—sandy expanses stretching from the boardwalk. For me, those images trigger an indefinable melancholy. The few beaches where dogs are allowed are the coves and inlets that collect detritus—seaweed but also the dead things the sea has expelled. Our dog has an insatiable curiosity and a love of these dead things. The time he dove into the wreck of a carcass that I could not even identify was the most horrifying of all. I remind myself that I am projecting my revulsion, but because it will not do to have a housemate who reeks of rotting corpses, my wife and I do our best to keep him away from the dead.

How, in the end, can we know if what stalks us in the dark is Death itself, or just some animal who has adopted Death’s scent as camouflage?

In late 2012, a few months before a drifter shot and killed two Santa Cruz police officers—the first such deaths in decades—hundreds of Humboldt squids washed up on the shore of the beaches of Monterey Bay. For a week we could find all manner of their corpses, from a stray tentacle to an entire mantle, several feet in length, in the process of fading from red to translucent white. Humboldt, or Jumbo squid (also called rojos diablos) are a constant scourge among Pacific fishermen, fighting for food and even, some claim, attacking humans. So little about the squid is known that they have become susceptible to catalogs of rumors and inaccuracies. I’ve read second-hand claims that the squid have killed fishermen, and testimonials by divers that they’re harmless, curious, thoughtful. All agree that they have an uncanny intelligence, the depths of which are unknown: they hunt in packs, can convey complex messages through the patterning of the chromatophores in their skin that can flash red or white, and have been seen opening latches with their tentacles.

In the Monterey Bay the Humboldt is an alien. Their range is actually to the south, in Baja, and while they have followed the Humboldt current as far north as British Columbia, they tend to stay in waters 1,000 feet deep, or more. They rarely encounter the coast. Venturing north on El Niño currents, the Humboldt’s recent conquest of the waters from Monterey to San Francisco is in part because of overfishing, as people have gradually reduced the populations of tuna and other large fish that once competed with the squid for food.

The Humboldt squid grows in a few short years from less than an ounce to a hundred pounds; it will eat anything, including its own kind. Its aggressive seeking of new waters and exploiting of resources seems to rival our own in its hubris and arrogance—the traits we associate mainly with humanity—suggesting once again the degree to which we’re indistinguishable from the natural world around us.

At first, it wasn’t clear what had caused the sudden wash of so many dead squid to the beaches. A researcher frequently cited in later news reports described how the squid “follow an algorithm,” searching for new and productive areas, until they run into an anomaly—in this case, a beach. Repeatedly quoted in the stories about the beaching, the line struck me as odd: such a singularly focused metaphor, that of a computer program, employed to describe behavior that is no doubt far more inscrutable.

Humans have always tried to make sense of animal behavior—particularly unexpected or anomalous behavior—through metaphor. In his 14th-century book, John of Mandeville tells the story of an island with “a great wonder that no one, I believe, has seen anywhere.” He describes how once a year, “every species of fish” comes forth “to cast itself one after another on the shore in such numbers that one can no longer see the water, only the fish. They remain there for three days and everyone takes as much as they want. On the third day, they withdraw and are replaced by others that do the same thing. And thus in succession until all have gone.”

Mandeville reports catching many of these fish himself, explaining it was God who supplied the fish to aid the famished inhabitants of the land. For Mandeville, as for his audience, there could be no other explanation: “For Nature does indeed make many different things, but it is against Nature that the fish, which have the whole world to go around in their freedom, come to give themselves to death of their own free will. And certainly that could not be except through a great miracle from God.” For Mandeville, there is no doubt that the workings of nature—however strange them may seem at times—come from God, which is to say no matter how inscrutable the world may be, it’s reassuring to know that there is always a reason behind it all.

In his writings, Marco Polo relates that, during his travels in Georgia he came across a monastery called St. Leonard which contained “a great wonder”: “A large lake of water issues from a neighboring mountain, in which, during the whole year, there is not found a fish great or small, except from the day before Lent down to the evening of Easter Sunday; and during the whole of that time fishes are taken in great abundance, but none at any other.”

Today we often see in such beachings the results of overfishing, global warming, sonar, and other manmade disruptions in the waters. What we now take as mostly a consequence of humanity’s folly was once a signal of God’s grace, proof that not only was the natural world ours to plunder, but that the dumb beasts of this world knew this and willingly offered themselves up to us, that their deaths only have meaning insofar as they adhere to our religious beliefs or our algorithms. Despite the sometimes epochal shifts in our attitudes toward religion and science, we remain firmly planted in the center of the drama.

A Humboldt squid that washed up on a Santa Barbara, California, shoreline. (Photo: Public Domain)

A Humboldt squid that washed up on a Santa Barbara, California, shoreline. (Photo: Public Domain)

The day I found myself surrounded by so many dead squid, brought there by forces I could barely understand, was a complex struggle both wondrous and repulsive. My main means of making sense of any of it was through vague metaphors, religious glosses, and computer analogies.

Of course far more pressing that day was the simple act of frustrating my dog’s desire to coat himself in the smell of death. But the dead were everywhere, barely a few feet apart, a bumper crop of pungent, bloated fruit, reddening in the late sun, unavoidable, crowding in on us from all sides. Finally, I gave up and took the dog home.

The next day I came back without the dog to investigate more closely, only to find that nearly all of them had vanished. Whether they were eaten, removed by some municipal authority, or washed back into the ocean, I didn’t know.

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The phrase “on the beach” can signify a drawn-out, distant form of death. The title of Nevil Shute’s novel, On the Beach, comes, I’ve been told, from a Navy expression meaning “retired from service.” At the edge of the land, on the edge of an abyss we can never fully understand, the beach becomes a liminal zone.

My own confrontation with mortality on the beach took place, when I was 19, in 1997, on a beach just a few miles north of Santa Cruz. One night in late summer, I had come to the coast long after midnight with my two friends Jenna and Mike. The beach was pitch black, and we navigated a dirt road that took us to it in blind faith. When we reached the sand, the only light we could see was from a few distant ships and the traces of bioluminescence in the sand when we would rake our feet across the beach. We were there for the simple fact that there was nothing else to do and no reason to go home.

What we now take as mostly a consequence of humanity’s folly was once a signal of God’s grace, proof that not only was the natural world ours to plunder, but that the dumb beasts of this world knew this and willingly offered themselves up to us.

In that darkness, walking without purpose and talking of nothing, Jenna gradually became aware of a smell that, she said, was a smell so strong it could only be something dead. I offered weakly that it was merely low tide, but she became fixated on a flat black rock that loomed ahead of us, a few feet high and six or eight feet long. I maintained she was simply smelling the ocean, but she became convinced that the rock was a dead seal. We could barely distinguish the rock against its surroundings, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to get close enough to the mound to resolve the question. We soon became seized with the fear that it was not only a seal but a sleeping seal that might, if woken, turn on us and attack. We circled it, not closer than 10 feet, not knowing what it really was—enthralled, under some kind of spell in which time froze. Finally, Mike picked up a fist-sized rock and pitched it gently toward the thing. A flat, wet thud against the skin and blubber dispelled all our doubts.

A few days later, Jenna told us that she had returned the next day, the seal now badly rotting, and—worse—covered with trash, decorated perversely by some unthinking person. We agreed that this desecration was horrible, yet, looking back now, lobbing a rock at a corpse is hardly more reverential. Our only defense is that we had been utterly bound by the terror and formlessness of the corpse, and we might have been held all night had the thud of the rock not broken the spell.

That night I became aware of a part of death I hadn’t known before—something beyond just the horror and repulsion of the decaying body, but the anxiety and the unknowing, the circling around the periphery of a thing whose presence fills you with a terrified awe, but is nothing but an empty black shape.

But then, this is just more of the making of metaphors, of reducing the natural world through the lens of our humanity. Whatever that seal’s story, its life, the chain of events that led to us discovering its body on the beach that night—all that eludes me. I’m left only groping for metaphor.

How, in the end, can we know if what stalks us in the dark is Death itself, or just some animal who has adopted Death’s scent as camouflage?

The Weekend Essay is a Saturday series edited by Leah Reich.

Lead photo: A dead whale washed ashore at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. (Photo: Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia Commons)

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