Monday, April 25, 2005


(Alternate post title: Land Mammal and the Whales -- yes, it sounds like a bad garage band)


If you go to and scroll down to the April 22 entry in the "Whalesong Log," you can hear something remarkable. A Maori woman named Raina Ferris visited Maui and went out in a boat to chant a traditional Haka. Several whales came near and -- I swear to god -- sang along. It's quite remarkable, and worth downloading.

There is something about this chant and the whalesong that has a completely overwhelming effect on me. The first time I listened to it, tears started streaming down my face. I know this makes me sound like a total woo-woo whale-hugger or something (and yes, I have seen the movie Whale Rider -- I've seen it at least a half-dozen times -- and yes, I cry during that too). I do not think that whales are any more spiritual, gentle, or intelligent than any number of other species, although I do believe they are fairly intelligent. (They ain't gentle, though. I have seen huge male humpbacks competing over females, and it's rather violent.) I do not think that whales were put on this planet to teach us a cosmic lesson. I do think whales are amazing and beautiful creatures. And my own interest in whales has led me to read more widely about environmental issues in general and to become more aware of my own footprint on this damaged planet.

But ... just go listen to the song. It's quite beautiful.


In December 2000, I finished up my Master of Library Science degree. My mom gave me a whopper of a graduation present -- a check large enough to go take a week's vacation somewhere. I thought long and hard about it, and realized that I wanted to go whale-watching. I'd begun reading a bit about whales, my interest having been sparked a few years earlier when I visited a then-girlfriend in Delaware & saw a large pod of dolphins swimming and leaping not far offshore. They were cool -- and if dolphins were that cool, how amazing must whales be?

So I took my graduation money and I went to Provincetown. Okay, I wasn't just there for the whales; P-town is a queer vacation paradise, and it has lovely B&B's and funky little shops and terrific fresh seafood and neat little bookstores and live music all over the place. I went out whale-watching for the first time and when I saw my first humpback -- a female, which the naturalist on board identified as "Giraffe," a fairly well-known individual -- I just about cried. There's something so beautiful about these animals, the grace of their flukes, the unhurried way they go about their business.

Now, I had been writing very little for several years at this point. There were lots of reasons for this -- the death of my father, a relationship that was first wonderful (and took up all my energy) and then disastrous (and took up all my energy), then several years of working full-time while going to library school half-time. I thought maybe all the writing had dried up in me. But a week in the amazing clear light of Provincetown, the total relaxation of having no obligations other than to go sit on the beach with a book and maybe go out whale-watching again, and the ... something ... that those whales stirred up deep inside me -- well, I started writing again. Hesitantly, clumsily, but I could tell it was still there for me.

Later that summer I came into a few unexpected dollars and found a cheap airfare, so I zipped back out to P-town in early September. My last morning there -- September 10, 2001 -- I caught the early morning whale-watch, and saw a young whale (whose mother was identified as "Owl") breaching, leaping from the water over and over, apparently just for the joy of being a young playful mammal. I flew back late that night, the last flight of the evening from Boston to Chicago, the last flight of the evening from Chicago to Indianapolis. And then, well, after the next morning there were no more flights for a while.

At this same time there was a North Atlantic right whale -- an extremely endangered species, with perhaps 350 individuals remaining -- entangled in fishing gear off the New England coastline. He was first sighted in June, about the time I first visited P-town; several rescue and disentanglement attempts were made throughout the summer, garnering a fair amount of news coverage, but he grew more and more sickly and emaciated with each sighting. On September 16, though the news wasn't paying much attention at that point, the radar beacon attached to a buoy on the trailing gear went silent, and the whale was presumed dead.

I remember sitting in Bryan Park, a big green expanse of grass and trees and little rolling hills, a few days after I got back to town. I needed to feel my skin in contact with the earth, the healing of that. I sat on the grass in the park and wrote about whales; about the young whale breaching over and over with such exuberance; about the right whale as his skin turned ghostly white and he finally sank in silence; about the breaching of boundaries, how so many people's sense of safety had been breached a few days earlier. The earth brought me solace and the writing, though it didn't bring me understanding, brought me some measure of peace. It was the first time in several years I'd found that through writing and it felt like coming home.

Would I have come to that point without whales? Maybe. Probably. But I still credit whales for some of it. I will always try to go on a whale-watching vacation every few years. (In February 2002, I went to Maui for the first time, also for the whales -- and found a whole lot more than whales -- but I'll save that for another post. Which is pretty funny, since this whole post started off with listening to Maui whales.) When I go to Provincetown in June for my workshop with D.A. Powell, you can bet I'll be on board the Dolphin Fleet boats at least a couple of times, binoculars and camera at the ready, tasting the salt air on my lips, letting the wind tangle my air, scanning the waves for the slightest flash of fluke. I can't swim for shit, but being out on the ocean like that feels like home in a way this landlocked Midwestern girl can't ever explain.


This is the only sestina I have ever written. It's not what I wrote that day in the park -- that turned out to be a prosepoem, and it's not that good. This, I wrote the following summer, during the IU Writers' Conference, inspired by my workshop with Lucia Perillo, a class on forms with Karen Volkman, and a class on "poetry of the changed world" with Roger Mitchell.

[poem deleted; if you want to see it, comment or backchannel me]


Radish King said...

I was at the coast this weekend, so glad to come back and find this link. Everyone in my office is listening this morning.

Emily Lloyd said...

Well, you know, this is beautiful. The post and the sestina. (Can't listen to the whales, no speakers at work) I like that you let some of the sestina lines be much longer than others, rather than keeping them relatively uniform. It's appropriate to the subj matter, of course, but also...just a nice, new look at the possibility of the form. Thanks.

Pamela said...

Beautiful link, and nice sestina, too. Thanks for posting this.

I used to live in Virginia, and we'd go north to see the whales. I can remember my son telling me how they looked like pickles. That may be my favorite image of all time. Of course, I stole it immediately. LOL.


Anne said...

Rebecca - I have literally spent hours listening to the live whalesongs. It's thoroughly addictive! Makes me wish I were there and not here, though. Sigh.

Emily - thanks! The funky lines are, of course, a result of the "oh god how in the world am I going to get to that damn end word" problem, but we'll pretend I had artistic reasons for doing it like that. :) (and yeah, it's a nature poem... heh.)

Pamela - Pickles! LOL! Humpback heads do kinda look like pickles though, with the bumps they have. I can totally see that. I'm gonna think of pickles the next time I see whales!

jenni said...

Tonight on the local TV station they had a special on humpback whales and Jack and I watched it! It was really cool. The showed how they migrated to the silverbanks and then to cape cod. Another thing I learned about whales was that those crusty spots are barnacles! That's why they jump out of the water--to get the barnacles and other parasites off of them. And they were talking about how the underside of their tails are distinct to each whale, like a human's fingerprint. In a way, it was a sad program, there are only 6000 or so left, at least when this documentary was filmed. Anyways, i thought of you when I saw it.

early hours of sky said...

I swam with seals when I was a little girl off the coast of Nova Scotia. The whales would come up close as well and we would hear them sing in the distance. We once had one raise a whole fishing boat out of the water on its back. Quite scary. I love all sea creatures...