Monday, November 30, 2009

Sporting With Leviathan IV

[This section of the chapter has only been roughed out. Apologies for its unpolished state; I am deep into a different project.]

Although whales are part of everyday life in Alaska, and while all whale encounters are extraordinary, there was another camping trip, this time to Gambier Bay, that echoed the first one.

Gambier cuts several miles into the eastern flank of southern Admiralty Island National Monument, which, among other glories, has the highest concentration of brown bears on earth. Its many coves provide good anchorage. Pleasure boats drop the hook for a weekend, and commercial boats seek shelter for during storms, and storage for hundreds of tanner crab pots in the off season. Forest Service and private hunting cabins are scattered through the woods, invisible from the water. For all of this activity, Gambier Bay is a wild place, and we were constantly on the alert because of a sow and her cubs.

Our week and a day began on a monochrome morning when everything was different shades of grey—the sky, the air, the sea. Skeletal spruce, soaked and black, loomed over the harbor, dripping with grey moss and mist wraiths. Everything seemed rapt in a sullen inertia, a feeling intensified by the limp atmosphere, by the motionless gulls perched on pilings and lined up along the breakwater wall in an orderly row that stretched half a mile.

We trudged along the dock, the splintered boards weeping with moisture and slick with algae. A motley collection of fishing and pleasure boats were tied up to the slips in dreary, ragged ranks. Some of them looked (and were) derelict. The whole harbor appeared grotty and unkempt. The Hamble it was not. My French friend had wanted the 'real' Alaska experience. Well, this was it.

Eventually we found the boat we were looking for. It, too, was grey, but unlike many of the other boats, immaculate, as was its lanky, reticent skipper in whose face was written a long and difficult history. He was Lynn Schooler, later to write The Blue Bear.

It was a three hour run down to Gambier. The campsite Lynn chose was several miles in. He dropped us off. As soon as we had set up tents, the skies opened. The rain and wind continued the entire week without a break until the day before our pickup. It wasn't the gentle rains of pre-global warming Southeast Alaska; it was monsoon rain with lashings of a winter storm. The water bucketed down. Even with all the extra tarps and a fire I never let go out, we were miserable. There wasn't much we could do except stay in our tents and zone out. I worried about my friend.

Finally, the afternoon before our pickup, the weather broke. We spent the whole day paddling, visiting a sea-lion rookery, exploring nooks and crannies. Finally we came back to our campsite and threw ourselves, exhausted, on the beach.

I was nearly asleep when without any warning—I don't know how to describe this—it seemed as if a giant hand picked me up and plopped me back in my kayak. Unable to speak, unable to comprehend why this was happening, unable to resist the tremendous force that drove me off the beach, breaking every safety rule in the camping safety book, I paddled like a mad woman for the entrance to the bay.

My friend , awakened by the commotion of my hasty departure, pulled on her spray skirt and came after me; she later told me she thought I'd lost my mind. Her kayak was faster, but we were two miles out before she caught up with me.

"What is happening?"

Without breaking rhythm, shocked by my own words, I gasped, 'The whales are coming."

There is no way I could have known this; I began to think I had lost my mind. But the power of speech had left me; I kept paddling.

My friend, aghast, turned back.

As I approached the marker at the entrance to the bay, I saw three whales steaming up Stephens Passage from the south. They made the turn into the bay and came straight for me. There was a mother, an adolescent, and a calf.

Suddenly they surfaced about a hundred yards away and turned between two small islands toward my camp. I followed — carefully! As I rounded the end of the nearest island I grabbed a rock and hung on for dear life; the calf was spy-hopping at the far end, only tens of meters away, as if it were waiting for me to catch up so we could play.

The water here was very deep; these islands were originally carved by glaciers. Now the same subtle sense that had driven me off the beach in the first place was telling me that the other two whales were directly below my boat.

And then they started singing. [*]

O the music! It was unlike normal whale music; it was cetecean Bach. It came up from the water like mist, pulsating the wooden frame of my kayak, sounding my bones from the marrow, perfusing my flesh, pouring tears down my face. There was a pause. A final tonic chord containing all the notes of the universe burst through my body, a Western harmonic chord as if from the biggest pipe organ that ever was.

The mother and adolescent surfaced, swimming towards camp. The calf continued to wait at the end of the island, lifting its head horizontally out of the water to look at me. I followed, careful not to get between it and its mother, but it swam alongside, playing with flippers and flukes all the way to the campsite.

I landed, utterly spent. The whales were about a hundred yards off shore —and they began to breach, leaping clear of the water, over and over, vertically, horizontally, tail-slapping, flipper-splashing, sending great sloshes of water against the rocks.

I don't know how much time passed.

And as quickly as it began it was over.

The whales rolled and waved their flippers at us and swam toward the entrance the bay.

[*] Only male humpbacks are thought to sing; but the calf was too small to be separated from its mother, and the adolescent was too small to breed.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sporting With Leviathan III

In the darkest hour of the night—a deep twilight—I was yanked from sleep by a clanking noise. Bear! my foggy brain screamed silently, a bear in the food cache! But before I could sit up I realized that the sounds I'd heard and didn't quite match what my brain was telling me. I tried to quiet my breathing and my heart, to clear the sleep from my mind. I could hear something, but it was coming from a different direction than the food cache.... I snapped wide awake. Something was breathing....

A whale! There was a humpback whale just on the other side of the rocks that stood between the sea and my tent. It sloshed and lolled, perhaps scratching its back or belly as whales do along such a coast. I listened, immobile in my cocoon, gazing up at the white and blue tent ceiling glowing faintly with starlight. The whale was very close, only a few yards from me, and in a flash I somehow knew it knew I was there, suspended, waiting.

At that moment a focused stream of energy began to pour into me. To say it was like an electric current is far too violent a metaphor, but even in my state of shock there was no questioning its reality. Whatever the process was, it was instantly apparent that these metaphorical particles had coherence and meaning, grammar and syntax. I pinched the skin on the back of my left hand with my fingernails to make sure I wasn't dreaming (the marks remained for days). I had no idea what this communication meant, I only knew it was coming in, and that a small part of my mind was torn by anguish because I didn't know how to respond, anguish that this tremendous annunciation would have to go unanswered because....

This anxious static crackling around the periphery and confusing the signal died away, absorbed into the vast stillness created by the whale's unknowable message pouring into me. I began to hope, hope against hope that there was something primal in me that would know how to respond. And there was. As I lay under the tent dome bathed in starshine, wide open, the whale's whispering paused, and it was an equal shock to feel a similar flow pour out of me from an unfathomable core as it had been to feel the whale's signals coming in. I could only try to stay out of the way of what was going on. I cannot tell you what this was or how it happened. I struggled to suspend my disbelief even while the exchange was talking place.

For perhaps half an hour the conversation continued between the whale and the unknown part of my being that poured itself out in response, between the leviathan whose ancestors had once lived on land only to return to the sea, and the human whose ancestors had come from the sea and could never go back. What the whale sought in this exchange I cannot know. Part of me stood aside, helpless, in the absolute silence, watching the answering stream flowing out of me during this antic call and response. Part of me hoped that whatever was being communicated included joyous welcome, delight, gratitude, awe.

But longing and loss also yearned across the abyss, not only the littoral between the campsite where I lay and the salt water that cradled the resting whale, but also that between one species and another. And grief, grief too great to bear for the burden of human destructiveness, the slaughter of its race by mine. Yet simply by the fact that it had happened at all there was also in that conversation the searing, burning mercy of forgiveness.

Why had this great creature sought to arc millennia and unimaginable difference? a détente, however brief, between the cetacean and the human? The encounter unmasked and flensed me with something like glory, exposed my heart and my guts, my dishonesty and absurdity, my weakness and my disbelief. And suddenly it was over: the whale was there one moment, communicating, and in the next moment a void. The waves returned to their rhythmic slapslap, the spruce boughs whispered the secrets they tell in the night to errant breezes. I fell exhausted back into sleep, a sleep soaked with unnamable tears.

* * *

Far too soon, the intense light of morning pushed through the tent walls to drag me back to consciousness. The brief dark had given way to a ferocious dawn. I was supposed to meet my friends before the merciless life-giving sun emerged from behind the eastern ridge. I struggled out of my sleeping bag and fumbled into my clothes.

I unzipped the tent and poked my head out the door, not quite sure if I would find the same world I had left the evening before. It looked the same; the air was fresh and charged with light. Reassured, I crawled out, zipped the flap closed again, and set off through the trees along the rocky shore, along the edge of the world. The water was on my right. On my left the forest had not quite given up the night: clammy tendrils of mist caught here and there on the branches, dripping down the grey-green moss beards. A raven accompanied me, flying just over my head, landing every few yards on a different bough, each time setting off a shower of needles. An nearby eagle screamed its territory. A salmon leaped clear of the water and smacked down; an otter slipped between rocks, a flow of brown. The rocks gave way to gravel and sand, and the forest to a graceful sunlit cove.

My friends were already waiting, silent, motionless, facing the sea. They were human...or were they? What is human? Were they really there or had they been turned to stone? They were people I knew—but did I know them at all? What are friends? Were they tangible? Were they real? What is real? What visitors had they received during the night? Had they seen visions and dreamed dreams? Had the world expanded as infinitely for them as it had for me?

In the watery mirror dawn's transparent colors grew resplendent, and as the sun flared above the mountain's outflung arm a whale breached, its huge body curving above splintered liquid refractions, shedding cascades of light. It seemed to hang there, suspended, for an endless moment before it crashed down, sending fountains of crystal spray along the breeze that touched our faces and our hearts.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sporting With Leviathan II

The last embers of the fire winked out as the sun disappeared, leaving me spent, bewildered, feeling a little foolish. Mist began to rise from the ground; waves heaved and hissed against the fortress of rocks that protected my campsite, a small clearing between the looming evergreen forest and the beach. The sea along this glaciated coast is deep and very cold. Death would come in about ten minutes to a body immersed without protection.

The trees were almost black from the afternoon rain. Their soaked trunks and the moss-laden branches dripped and sighed. Darkness crept out from under the canopy and slowly began to devour everything. I shivered in the dampness and lit the camping stove to heat some water, seeking more the comfort of routine than a warming drink. I set the stainless steel pot over the tripod burner. While the small blue flame emitted its miniature roar, all the little worries about things that could go wrong came crowding into my mind. I ran through a cautionary checklist.

There was nothing in my tent that might smell like food, not even toothpaste. The food cache was a good distance away, covered with a tarp and heaped with pans so that any four-legged intruder seeking a midnight snack would make a racket. I had seen no bear sign. A spring tide was predicted for midnight, but the kayak was well above the tide line, braced by a log and tied to a tree for good measure. The weather was perfect; the VHS forecast no wind....

My fretting was cut short by a sharp stab on my ankle, and I woke up to the immediate peril of becoming a blood bank for the nearest million mosquitoes. Alaska mosquitoes—the mosquito is the unofficial state bird—come in three sizes: minute, medium, and helicopter; the small ones hurt the most. I switched off the stove. The contents of the pot went into my hot water bottle instead of my mug. I ducked inside the tent netting and zipped up the flap. Whatever happened this night would happen. I squirmed into my sleeping bag and fell asleep, a stone dropped into a deep well..

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Troll Flu

It isn't as if there aren't notices posted all over the university and town, in the library and in Duke Humfreys. But on Saturday when I came back to DH from coffee this Troll had sat himself down at 'my' table in an otherwise empty library; anyone who has watched recent episodes of "Merlin" will know exactly what I'm talking about by using this noun: the hulking hunch, the medusa hair, snuffling, schnurking, sneezing, coughing, grunting, belching, clearly in the early and most contagious stages of flu.

Of course it was too late. He had already sprayed all over my books and computer. I remonstrated with him. He swayed his head back and forth, and as if it had only just registered, after I had gone back to my task of packing up, jumped up in slow motion and backed defensively against the balcony support with limp paws waving ineffectually in front of his chest, then sat down again, schnarshing over his manuscript and everything else. I left, went home, showered in Dettol, knowing there was no escape.

On Monday I felt fine until suddenly mid-morning in the library it hit me from nowhere like a swinging gantry; I barely made it out of DH to the bathroom, narrowly avoiding the most appalling humiliation I can imagine. I crawled home to bed. The worst was not the pulling of both ends against the middle, the delirium, the chills, fever and muscle pain, it was the ground glass in every joint from neck to small toe.

I don't normally detail my physical woes, but I want to make the point that IF YOU FEEL SICK STAY HOME.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sporting With Leviathan

Its flames were barely visible in the incandescent evening light, but the fire had caught, and they darted here and there with increasing strength among the spruce twigs piled at the base of some short pieces of driftwood I'd piled on top of a flat grey boulder. A thread of smoke rose dark against the blazing fireball sinking towards a gold and blue horizon that was almost north. The sun circles around us at midsummer, as if it has lost its direction and no longer knows that it is supposed to rise and set East and West. Light pours down the great glacial-carved fissure that is Lynn Canal, transforming it into a molten flow. On either flank of this liquid light marzipan-iced granite peaks blush with alpenglow. On this night to the southwest a few lingering rain clouds drifted off, rosy and bruised.

The driftwood popped as fiery tongues licked salt. Names flew up with crackling sparks: Raven, Eagle, Whale, Otter, Swimmer, Wolf, Bear. They hovered and encircled, inhered and permeated. It is dangerous to invoke spirits, nor had I ever done so before, not like this, not with this holocaust of imagination. It was an act of desperation. I was drunk on the landscape, the place, the very rocks.

The afternoon had been wet. Mist scarves hugged the shoulders of the mountains, floated motionless above the water. My friends dropped me with my gear and a green and white kayak at the boat ramp, made sure I was safely launched, and drove on. The boat rested motionless in the water as the car vanished from sight. They would hike in and find their own spots to camp. At sunrise we would gather, but until then I was on my own. My right hand held the paddle in a death-grip; the other clung to the rough, weathered boards of the dock while I reconsidered.

Although I had lived in a remote forest cabin in northern California for several years, and although I had learned as much as I could about the special circumstances of camping in Alaska, this was the first time since childhood that I had overnighted in a tent. My friends would be within shouting distance. It was almost impossible to get into trouble. The area where we would set up a half-mile or so from one another was so close to town that it was almost laughable to call what we were doing ‘camping’. Even the solitude was an illusion.

All the same I was nearly fifty. I did not know how I would react to being out there after such a long absence, much less being on my own; it was always possible that I would become disoriented, that my skills and instincts would fail to reawaken. Perhaps it was folly to attempt to learn so much so late. Nonetheless, here I was, poised in a round-bottomed kayak that responded to my lightest breath, on the edge of this beginning, this necessary trial before I could risk other trips I had in mind.

I inhaled slowly; my left hand shoved. The kayak wobbled for a moment as it moved sideways, then, as the paddle entered the water, floated soundlessly forward into a world of grey and silver that within a mile would become open water. The upward-curved prow slipped through the membrane of surface tension, which held and supported it. The only sound was the rhythmic plink of drops falling from paddle blades as they made their low circle, dipping in and out, propelling the boat gently forward. Above my left shoulder, a pair of eagles sat immobile on a spruce branch, their heads brilliant white against the dark green. I could feel the glare of their yellow eyes as their gaze swiveled slowly, following my progress.

Under the satin surface of the water an ebb tide was running. The boat made a sudden, almost imperceptible lurch as it hit the unseen stream, as if the kelpie of the place had seized this bath toy and was propelling it more swiftly towards the mouth of the cove. My stroke hesitated as it lost purchase; my knees braced lightly against gunwales, which amplified the subtle friction of the hull moving through the water and entered my bones. My body sang with its low vibration. I do not know when I laid the paddle across the cockpit in surrender.

Ahead, a languorous mist scarf draped itself on emptiness. The unseen current drew the boat onward into its damp caress. Grey folds of icy nothingness slipped past my face as I floated unseeing, without time or space. Its trailing end glowed rose and gold and deliquesced into droplets. The kayak emerged from the fog into sunlight breaking through the clouds in Palladian splendor, and I wondered at a world beyond dream.

A raven flew by, laughing.

Monday, November 09, 2009


Gentle Readers, I am unwell and unable to post today. Will be leaving the library shortly; there is no internet in my little room, where I will stay until I recover. Will post again as soon as I can! Thank you for your patience!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Owen Revisited

This year celebrated a particularly beautiful Feast of All Saints, my favourite feast in the entire calendar. Even when I was a child the day awoke a mixture of emotions I couldn't begin to identify; joy, longing, pain, grief, exaltation—all apply and none. I could never get through the eight verses of "For All the Saints" without weeping. In university and during my first years in the convent I used to write a sonnet every year on All Saints. And now that I am old and [partly] grey-headed, little has changed; I no longer write sonnets, but the intensity remains.

After First Vespers on Saturday evening, the community and the rest of us were embracing, laughing, weeping a bit, and wishing one another well on the patronal feast. On Sunday morning I broke down again in the second part of "For All the Saints" but managed to finish in style. Then off to Magdalen College for an all-Howells Evensong, including "Like as the Hart", surely the most alluring mystical song ever written.

On All Souls I was on the way to what I anticipated would be a very dull seminar (but I get so tired of my own thoughts), when I ran into a friend who invited me to what proved to be a most stimulating dialogue on art and the apophatic and excellent conversation over a glass of wine. I left early to catch Evensong at Queens, which was all-Byrd and, judging from the number of members in black tie present, their foundation day.

With "Justorum animae" my soul sang; both soprano parts are forever etched on my memory. I emerged from the ambiguous beauties of the over-warm Hawksmoor chapel into the lovely shadows of the darkened quad, the coolness of the autumn night caressing my face. Through the sturdy oak wicket into milling students and the roar of the High—all forgotten in the half-muffled peal cascading from Magdalen tower. The building seemed to shudder and sway with the reverberation of its ten massive bells.

I first heard a half-muffled peal twenty-five years ago on Remembrance Sunday at Canterbury, sounding through the quiet of the canons' close. The metal clappers called in a minor key to the sons and daughters of Abram for whom there had been no ram in the thicket. The reply came, as if a faint echo from the farther shore as the leathers struck in turn, a silent weeping for pride that refused sacrifice and sent them to slaughter instead. Yet bravely they went, the farmhands and the debonair, to mud and mayhem, groined tunnels, and wells too deep for war.

But last night's half-muffled majors rang the saints' laughter through the city; even the growl of traffic and students' shrieks couldn't drown the call and response back and forth across the river of death. As the bells' rejoicing expanded their pattern, I stood on Magdalen bridge, and looking over the parapet into the black Cherwell saw, in a brief moment, a fleet of ghostly punts ferrying from their respective shores the living and the dead to meet in the swift current at the centre, the embrace of a communion that death can never break.

I turned and walked on with light step over gold of damp sycamore leaves; a westerly blew fresh with sea-tang. The full moon, encircled by a ring of endless light, sailed through clouds of witness. I rounded the dark Plain and headed towards the neon glare of Cowley Road, surrounded by the living and the dead, the disciplined hunting of the bells fading behind me.