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Kepa Altonaga Sustatxa > Extracts

Essay (literary and non-literary)

On reading about the death of Gould |

This morning I read that Gould had passed away. I could not believe it. I stared at the news item once again, believing that reading it a second time would bring the fact home to me. I have learnt a number of details: in 1982 he was diagnosed with cancer, of the stomach or something -we already knew that-; this time the lung cancer metastasis has brought about our friend's demise.

Yet on 5 April, four days after undergoing brain surgery, he was at Harvard teaching. Shortly before that, in March, he presented his last book: The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. It took him twenty years to complete that huge, 1,500-page work. As he pointed out during its presentation, he thought that in 1982 he would have an almost zero chance of finishing it when doctors told him he had abdominal mesothelioma. Gould passed away in New York, in his apartment in Soho crammed with books.

Even when reading such things I could not visualise Gould's death. I have a very vivid memory of the brief visit he made to us last December. I see Gould full of life, brimming with vitality; he was amiable, vigorous and keen as mustard. During those two days he spent amongst us in no way did he resemble a man in poor health. Apart from that, we noticed no sign whatsoever of the so-called jet lag caused by the transatlantic flight. We saw him fit in Eibar. He frequently revealed his high spirits and good mood, like when faced with requests from reporters, or on the trip to the Guggenheim, or during a talk with an "ad-lib" interpreter, or when, during a dinner in Durango, he raised his glass to propose the following toast to us: "May the Basque People take their place among the free countries at the earliest opportunity."

The next day turned out to be very moving for me. It was spent visiting the Ekain cave in the company of Jesus Altuna. We spent the whole morning in that beautiful sanctuary of horses, and to tell the truth I do not know what amazed me more, the group of paintings composed by our Palaeolithic ancestors in that cave, or Gould's devotional attitude and insatiable curiosity. In fact, the magic of the cave paintings in the Ekain cave in the seclusion of that place is no mean thing: it is a tremendous experience to behold the images on the walls there while receiving Altuna's detailed explanations at the same time. Only Gould's joy could increase the magic of that moment. And it is clear that Gould is over the moon, he could not be happier, because the Ekain cave paintings are the first ones he has seen in their original state. Until that moment, whenever he had had the chance to view cave art, he had only ever seen replicas. And we all know the extent to which he loved authenticity, for he often referred to it in his writings, and how unpleasant he found "vicarious" experiences. But in these lines I am unlikely to be able to reflect the splendour of the experiences in the darkness of Ekain.

After lunch we had the K/T boundary at Zumaia awaiting us. But the freezing cold that had made its way from Siberia on that very day led to the postponing of the visit to another time in the future; attempts notwithstanding, the strong winds and snow were just too much.

Five months later we read that Gould has died. But even now I can almost see him smiling.

For a long time now I have enjoyed Stephen Jay Gould's books. Humberto is responsible. In 1986 he gave me Ever Since Darwin and once I had sampled that book, I read every single book Gould had published right away. What is more, I have always eagerly awaited the publishing of Gould's next book ever since that time.

Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995) could be my favourite among Gould's books. The reason does not have that much to do with the content of the book, because in that respect I find it very difficult to decide which of Gould's collections of articles I like best. It is my favourite for several different reasons.

On the one hand, the article that gives the book its title is to a certain extent about the K/T boundaries at Zumaia and Biarritz. In the article Gould tells us, among other things, about the ammonites studied on these two spots on our coast by Peter Ward, the American palaeontologist, and also about the significance of this research in proving that a gigantic meteorite had possibly been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about such things when I had the book in my hands, but it later became clear to me that it could be the starting point for one of my writing projects, and that of course gave it added value. In the idea that is going round in my head, Zumaia is a magical place in order to link the extinction of the dinosaurs with the life of Doctor Etxepare, and to write a scientific essay. To start writing, of course, the essay that you have before your very eyes.

I bought Dinosaur in a Haystack at one of the most charismatic bookstores in San Francisco, and that makes the book very special for me. I went to San Francisco, the last escape during my brief stay in America, which marked the end of my youth, and I bought the book right there at the famous City Lights Bookstore. As I wandered up and down the street it was right there that I decided that Folin Markesa deserved not just a short article but a whole book and that I was going to write it. It was there that I thought that I needed to read Gould's books in a different way from then on, not just as an ordinary reader, but in the way that a potential writer absorbs things from an unrivalled teacher. It was there that it occurred to me that I would very much like to meet Gould.

In December 2001 the 1st conference on Scientific Prose was organised by the EIE (Association of Writers in Basque) and held at the Markeskoa Palace in Eibar. Once the programme had started to take shape we discussed who we were going to ask to do the inaugural address. The decision to extend the invitation to Stephen Jay Gould was unanimous. To tell the truth, I had no hope whatsoever that he would accept. How was a top, scientific essayist, who was a reference and model for anyone, going to come to us in a lost corner of the galaxy? Well, he did come. And we should be very happy about the fact that this American palaeontologist had found a gap in his full schedule to come to us, and especially when it was so close to September 11. We are deeply grateful for the tremendous kindness he displayed to us. That visit would also reveal other facets of Gould's nature to us. I am sure that Gould's visit filled us with encouragement, because reading the works of a well-known author in isolation is one thing, but quite another to feel the support of the writer himself.

We only just managed to get to know Stephen Jay Gould in the flesh. Now we have his autograph in his booksÓ

It was a happy contingency for me. The writer Stephen King had known him for a long time; this is the farewell he wrote in the Boston Globe: I'm glad that my life touched his life and am sorry that his light has gone out. I, too, am very happy that my life should touch his life, and regret that his light has now gone out. Now Gould's books transmute everything I write.
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