It’s with some trepidation that I stuff my suitcase with copies of my latest novel and set out for Lost and Found: In Search of Extinct Species, an Explora International Conference at the Toulouse Natural History Museum.
The last time I attended an academic conference was during my research for The Find. The 2005 Symposium on Dinosaur Park at the Royal Tyrell Museum turned out to be both useful fascinating, but since I was the only non-palaeontologist there (and almost the only person not wearing dusty boots and brown, technical clothes), the initial experience was disorientating. It was as if I had been dropped into another culture – or even onto another planet – an impression compounded by the arid, fantastically eroded landscape surrounding the museum, so very different to the lush temperate rainforest I inhabit. Until I made a friend who could help me translate the dense, polysyllabic language spoken, I understood only about one word in five, and my brain wound itself into knots as a result of the sheer effort expended in connecting those one-in-five words with assorted guesses at other words and with the often baffling visual imagery presented, in order to form some semblance of coherent thought. I was asleep by 8:30pm, utterly exhausted, and fully aware that I could blame no-one but myself. Now, that same self has gone and signed me up for Lost and Found…
However, a trip to France is always a good thing and during the tedious, anxiety-inducing wait at the Heathrow I make sure to remind myself that the food is bound to be delicious and that this time I’ll be part of the conference, rather than an outsider peering in, and a multi-disciplinary event looking at extinction in art and literature is a perfect context in which to present The Find.
As it turns out, the entire event – skilfully orchestrated – is an intense and very pleasurable experience, fertile and thought-provoking in the way that a metaphor or simile can be. I give my presentation first, and so am soon able to relax and enjoy the others. The speakers – literary critics, art and cultural historians, a sociologist, several palaeontologists, as well as another Canadian novelist – are without exception articulate and passionate; presentations include a study of extinct creatures in Edith Nesbitt’s fiction, a heart-rending examination of the extinction of the Eskimo Curlew, an account of an extraordinary nineteenth century children’s book in which fossils were portrayed as out to be the serial reincarnations of an Indian fakir, an enquiry into various extinction scenarios for the American prairie, and an imaginative investigation of what it might be like to confront our very own, human extinction… At the end, Joan Thomas reads from her fine novel Curiosity, which centres on the first woman fossil collector/palaeontologist, Mary Anning.
Seemingly disparate approaches and ideas turn out to relate to, or to provide new perspectives on each other. Each presentation is bound up with its own particularities, yet there are many connections between them – and, it seems to me, an underlying ‘finding,’ too: how hard we struggle, when presented with new evidence about the world or with new situations or predicaments, to apply our existing ideas to what confronts us – and how poorly doing so serves us. God did not plant fossils in the cliffs just to test our faith, and it seems unlikely that science alone will not find a way out of the problems our technologies have created for us. What we need is a special kind of imagination, one that uses the whole of our humanity, rather than parts of it. It’s good news, that the kind of exploratory, inter-connective thinking this conference engenders is not itself extinct – though, since it does not turn an obvious profit, it rarely finds favour with administrations or governments, and might well be described as endangered.
Between and after the presentations we continue the discussions arising from them, network, and explore the world about us which in turn becomes part of the conversation. We eat local food, tour the truly spectacular museum, watch peacocks display and mate, and travel into the countryside of Aude, lively with spring growth and the scents of crushed juniper, thyme and sage. We find fossilized fragments of dinosaur eggshell, narrowly avoid stepping on processional caterpillars, and taste the local sparkling wine.
Toulouse – from the tall, thoughtful student who met me at the airport to the explosive espresso machine in the Hotel du Taur – is a delight. My thanks to Laurence and Marie for inviting me, and to the BC Arts Council, McArthur & Co and Vancouver Island University for making it possible to take The Find to Lost & Found.