Lurching out of the mists of time, the unicorn is a beloved fabrication for those obsessed with fantasy. It's pure white horse-like body is crowned with an extended horn and naturally it can only be captured by a virgin.
There's a captivating chamber dedicated to the mythical beast at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris. It's a veritable Unicornucopia. On a tiny screen is a video by artist Maïder Fortuné with unicorn standing in the snow at night time. There's also a bronze unicorn torso with that distinctive ivory tusk protruding from it's forehead.
Twisted tusks like these can grow up to 3 metres and were prized above all else in the ancient world. During the Renaissance, they were given to the mighty by loyal subjects to be displayed or crushed into a powder that would deactivate poison potions.
These treasured objects were obviously never sourced from actual unicorns but from the a creature almost as rare - the Narwhal, an extraordinary Arctic sea mammal. The male of the species grows weightless around a horn that protrudes from the left side of its skull, forming a twisted tusk that is used to probe around under the polar ice. Once thought to be used like swords for fighting, those tusks are actually sensitive tools that gauge changes in water temperature and can flex up to a foot on each side.
Once upon a time I bought a miniature green soapstone carving of a narwhal from a Inuit in Holam. I was feeling the insulated quills of a polar bear skin hanging on a clothes line when the craftsman drove up and produced the exquisite sculpture from his glove box. There on the shores of Beechy Island, in the North West Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific, I held this Narwhal close. I'd seen some rare footage of the mysterious mammal and was now in the grip of its totemic presence.
"We know more about the rings of Saturn than we do about the Narwhal" - Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams.
I was on assignment for Vogue Living aboard the MS Frontier Spirit which had pulled in to Iluvialuit (Beechy Island) to witness the graves of three seamen who had perished there around 1845 on an infamously ill-fated expedition led by Tasmania's former governor Sir John Franklin.
We too got trapped in the pack-ice further on down the Passage and watched from the safety of the deck while polar bears stalked around the frozen hull.
The Canadian Coast Guard IcebreakerTerry Fox smashed a way through for us. But that was 1992. Now it's largely ice-free. Back then there were 5.47 billion people on the planet. Now there are over 8 billion. Narwhals numbers are 170,000 max. Quotas for traditional hunting are in place but tragically their habitat is melting off the charts due to global boiling.
Les Arts Cynegetiques
Les Arts Cynegetiques, or the arts of hunting, are celebrated in the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature through a range of exhibits that explore the relationship between humans and animals. It's a vexed one indeed. Thumbing through the worn index cards provided to identify the various species on display, I spy a golden horned Rhinoceros, another mythical being made visible through the museums tantalising overlay of contemporary art. I think of the last two Northern White Rhinos, both female, awaiting species extinction. Pushed out of their habitat by expanding human populations and hunted for their horns which were falsely attributed to increasing men's virility, these creatures don't judge us. Nor do Pangolins whose scales supposedly help women lactate.
But wandering through those forests of skulls and trophies does make you think about the impact you have on the planet. How many animals have died to get you here? How many legs of lamb have you consumed?
We can always hope that all the threatened species will be saved but with the relentless destruction of remaining habitats, the outlook is grim.
Hope is our species default setting. It makes us feel warm and fuzzy like those soft rainbow unicorn toys. But how can we have hope when the freezing oceans in which narwhals twist around their magnificent horns, and Emperor Penguins breed under the Aurora Australis, are heating?
Climate activist and Dharma teacher Catherine Ingram believes that hope holds us back from our full potential. She advises us not to be hopeful or hopeless but hope-free. It enables us to be more actively engaged in life which counters depression caused by the reality of what we've done to all the other species we share this planet with. For Ingram this is an evolutionary fact. We, as a species, have done this knowingly. And this is exactly where we are meant to be in the time and space continuum.
I flew to Paris for my 60th birthday on a jet plane conveniently ticking the carbon neutral offset option. I don't have any children whose future I have to worry about. Just life on Earth in all its magnificence.
We are a part of a cosmic miracle, the only species that can imagine a future. An installation in the Musee suggests that our trajectory can be traced from Planet of the Apes to.....maybe Barbie? We will all one day go back to dust,or fungi, leaving a layer of plastic to mark our era, the Anthropocene. Many of us will imagine our unicorn souls flying free from this Samsara, as the Buddhists call it - this world of suffering where we are torn between wanting something, like meat, and fearing what will happen to our karma if we kill and eat that flesh?
Plants and humans have a much more gentle interaction, although chain sawing down old growth trees in this precarious era is an abomination. Just the other day, a"single-rider log" was taken from Tasmania’s Florentine Valley - one giant Eucalyptus Regnans, hundreds of years old taking up the entire width of a logging truck.
It's not just the tree and its growth rings of course but the other life forces dependent on it, like mushroom, bees and lyrebirds.
"Momento Mori", said the slave to the Roman General - "remember you will die". But be sure to leave something hope-free yet of utmost value in the Unicornucopia.