Friday, November 29, 2013

The Privilege of Friendship

The other day I saw a television programme about a killer whale that had been separated from its pod at a very young age and had turned to humans for friendship. Killer whales, like humans, are social creatures, and one of the ways they cement the relationships that form their group is through body contact.
This young whale would hang out at the harbour, approach fishing and other boats, big and small, to play with the boats themselves and to be scratched and caressed by eager hands. When the whale was really happy it would turn on its back and 'rest' alongside the boat it had come to greet. Of course many of the humans were delighted with this whale who would let them pet it, who would frolic alongside, and sometimes gently push their boats around, or play with the equipment—taking a water-filled hose in its mouth and spraying anything within reach; scratching its back on the small second engines called 'kickers' that sport fishing boats carry for trolling, and a multitude of other activities.
As the whale grew, however, some of the its play began to damage equipment and to anger some of the boat owners. The marine mammal protection agency then proceeded to act with extreme stupidity. First it forbade whale watchers or any other person to get near the whale or to play with or touch it. The agency even forbade people to look the whale in the eye, although visual contact is very important, even essential to a whale's well-being. The damage only got worse. Then the agency decided to capture the whale, to try to find its pod or to place it in an aquarium. This plan enraged the local people, especially the indigenous tribes, who regarded the whale as sacred: their recently deceased chief had foretold that he would return as a whale, and this one had appeared the week he died.
A tussle began between the marine officials and the people who supported the whale's need for social contact: the indigenous peoples took to the water in their long canoes with a drummer, and, singing and paddling, they led the whale away from the trap. The marine officials countered by luring the whale back towards the trap with their own small boat. This confrontation went on for days to the exhaustion of all involved. At one point the whale was in the trap but for some mysterious reason, no-one closed it.
Wiser heads than those at the marine mammal agency realised that the whale needed human contact, to fill the gap in its life created by the absence of others of its own species. People began to volunteer to keep the whale occupied during the day and applied for the appropriate permits. The marine mammal agency would have none of it. It stuck to its guns, even in the face of a scientific marine mammal expert who said, 'I normally quantify everything in my work, but this situation is beyond all quantification.'
So people began to take matters into their own hands. Disobeying the order to leave the whale alone, they would go out and entice it away from the boat traffic it was upsetting and play with it. People were willing to go out in shifts. As long as the whale had someone to play with, and to look in the eye, it did no damage at all. But as soon as the whale was left alone, it resumed its mischievous behaviour.
Finally the inevitable happened: the whale swam into, or was sucked into, the the powerful propeller of a log-sorting tug. During the tug captain's radio transmission to the coast guard reporting the bad news, he made no effort to conceal the fact that he was weeping. The indigenous people held a funeral ceremony for the whale, which a lot of non-First Nations people attended as well. 
The death of the whale could be laid directly at the door of the so-called marine mammal protection agency, which, with extreme stupidity, had forbidden the resolution that had been staring it in the face. The whale had offered friendship across the species barrier, but the agency, even in the face of all the evidence (however non-quantifiable) had refused to recognize the whale as a subject capable of complex emotions, a consciously thinking, lonely, yearning social being.
Many of the people who were interviewed during the whale's lifetime spoke of how much it meant to them that the whale so obviously wanted to cross the species barrier to interact with humans, how the privilege of close contact with the mysterious other that was the whale had not only made them see nature with more respect, but how the whale had somehow mirrored something of what it meant to be human, even while never losing that otherness.
By the end of the film I was blubbering. I don't cry easily, but this time I completely broke down. I thought of all the whales I'd known in Alaska, some of which have been described earlier in this blog; I remembered how the same pod of white-sided dolphins would come and play with my boat on most occasions when I crossed a certain patch of water. I remembered seeing a horse, a dog and a raven playing together—a game instigated by the raven, of course. And it was the thought of Raven, along with the Alaska that I had known, which no longer exists, that made me weep the hardest.
It is now a commonplace that as we scorn relationships with animals and as we fail to protect the environment, we scorn our own humanity. We have only to look around us to the wrecked ecology to understand how thoroughly this is the case. We are not just destroying the environment, we are destroying our selves. As the oceans become acidic, as the temperature rises and the climate warms—all due to heedless human agency—we move farther and farther away from our own truth as a species. 
One morning we are going to wake up to find that we have passed the tipping point—if indeed we haven't already done so. The oceans will be too acidic to support shellfish or coral reefs; it will have been fished out. There are already areas in which oyster farms have had to be moved because the water is too acid. In consequence of all these changes, the marine mammals will have died. And on a larger scale, the change in the oceans, which have such a profound impact on our weather, will bring catastrophic consequences for us humans, not only in the magnitude of storms, or the loss of species in their own right, not only as a source of endless beauty and wonder, but also as a resource for food and pharmaceuticals.
Back in the late sixties, when I was living in New York City, starved for wilderness, when the knowledge of environmental degradation was just beginning to have impact, I wrote a folk song called 'Extinction'. The chorus went like this:

The eagle and the tiger and the great blue whale
gave us the knowledge to prevail:
they showed us our selves by form and act—
not even God can bring them back.


Blogger changeinthewind said...

"One morning we are going to wake up ..." to the season's first snow! Our dog gets so excited about this, tears around the yard, rolls, barks ... happy.

I like the profound simplicity of the white ness, the sudden change.

5:56 pm, December 02, 2013  
Anonymous desertfisher said...

I just finished reading Louis William Countryman's Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All, a very clear elucidation on priesthood. But Countryman can only intimate the priesthood of creation, of animals in particular. It is not integrated in the book that focuses on the priesthood of humanity. This piece to me is a participation in the most pressing need and call for a "sense" (in the sense of the speech of the deep mind that is liturgical in nature rather than a mere self-aggrandizing political propaganda) of the priesthood of creation, of cosmic eucharist or doxology - that every innocent, playful creature is capable of bringing human beings to "thin places" of adoration, what Countryman describes as "borders of the holy" to be transfigured.

9:09 am, December 03, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

I, too, felt tears prick my eyes when I read your blog this morning.

You use the term "extreme stupidity". No, it's evil masquerading as scientific knowledge.

Jane Smith (Pretoria, South Africa)

9:14 am, December 03, 2013  

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