The arched back of a whale rises out of the canvas of the ocean’s surface and the eternal rises through the brevity of a moment. Water runs down either side of her, a cascading shhhhhh. Sunlight ascends in silence: bright orbs on slate skin. Somehow I did not anticipate this difference between the intellectual experience of knowing such a being exists and the physical experience of encountering her. How fragile a form is abstraction! How easily shattered to leave one reeling in the aftershock of the utterly unfamiliar.
What remains at the surface when this North Atlantic right whale swims below: her recently born calf, turning and splashing.
His lungs new and growing, the calf must breathe much more frequently than his mother and so he rises and dips just ahead of and above her. (The sound of the breath of the calf is akin to that of distant surf crashing against rocks. I put the back of my tongue to the roof of my mouth and make a sound like kchsshhhhh. The mother’s breath is fuller, deeper. It carries the shape of a resonant chamber; wind turning round the dripping walls of a blue-black cave. I put my tongue in that same position but emit a louder, lower, slowly whispered ckuuuuu.) A right whale and her new calf are rarely more than a body length away from each other, so even when I can’t see her, the presence of the child reveals the approximate location of the mother.
The mother in me can’t help but acknowledge the mother in this whale. I see how she stays within a body length of her calf and I think of my daughter hugging my thigh. The whale nurses her child and I think of how I will later pump milk in my hotel room to keep the supply flowing for when I again hold my daughter to my breast.
I’ve been cautioned time and again against anthropomorphizing. But I’ve grown tired of such concerns. Of course—I will never intimately know the world of this whale. She and I diverged from our common placental mammalian ancestor tens of million of years ago. There is an interior and exterior distance between us that cannot be overcome. (Though how fun to imagine her sensory, watery universe!)
Reaching across the species divide is destined to be fraught, but this does not mean it is fruitless. Especially in light of the fact that—whatever the biological distance between my world and the world of this whale—we have become deeply entangled.
I have always been afraid of open water. But it is not this fear that finds me as I struggle to find my balance on this small, rocking boat and repeatedly imagine myself being pitched into the sea.
What I am afraid of is how seeing this whale, even for this brief moment, has opened a portal into care. I’m afraid of recognizing my desire not to step into that care and, therefore, not to be vulnerable. Because, ultimately, I am afraid of how quickly that uncrossable distance of mystery collapses in on itself when right whale calves are struck by ships.
Empathy and imagination are among our greatest gifts as human beings. When applied with curiosity and care, they might help illuminate an aspect of the lived experience of another species, and they might clarify the beauty of mystery within which another species resides.
Still, there is an understandable hesitancy to allow personal emotion to distort scientific understanding. And there is an understandable hesitancy to allow empathy to leave us vulnerable to pain, lack of control, and the unknown.
I have never in my life been more vulnerable than in these last two years as a mother. It seems that a universal truth of parenting is that it situates you very uncomfortably at the knife’s edge of ineffable love and unimaginable loss.
So when I see this whale calf, there is a part of me that wants to play my already over-extended vulnerability close to the chest. For, in just a moment, he and his mother will swim away into that wide ocean where there are large, fast-moving vessels and tens of thousands of miles of rope from fishing gear, both of which have led to so much unbearable loss for his species.
What I mean to say is: It is easy to become paralyzed when we stand at the threshold of possible grief, and are asked to enter.
But we have forged so many tethers of harm between ourselves and the beings with whom we inhabit this planet. And so forging connections of care and compassion will, in part, require us—again and again—to make generous offerings of our vulnerability.
In the words of the poet David Whyte:
“One of the great theological questions is around incarnation, which simply means being here in your body — not anywhere else, just here with life’s fierce need to change you, and the fact that the more you’re here and the more you’re alive, the more you realize you’re a mortal human being…Will you actually have the conversation, given that is so? Will you become a full citizen of vulnerability, loss, and disappearance, which you have no choice about?”
Especially in Western culture, our separation from the living world has kept us from being full, ecological citizens of the places we inhabit. We are shielded from feeling the weight of the loss we are inflicting. I, too, often want to turn away from the difficulty of that conversation. But we have largely lost sight of our nonhuman neighbors. And in the case of the North Atlantic right whale, the very real and near possibility of extinction is one consequence of such invisibility.
Robin Wall Kimmerer writes: “The mending we need will require reweaving the relationship between humans and our more-than-human kin.”
Each of us carries threads that can be applied to that work of reweaving. One of those threads for me right now is motherhood. (I would love to know what those threads are for you.)
There is no need to keep such threads wrapped tightly to ourselves just because they will fail in overcoming the distance of mystery and just because they will open us to loss. Reaching across divides and into the unknown can be a radical act of compassion—both for other beings and for ourselves.
Bloodlines—and, I like to think, milk-lines—are among what tie us to our own kin. How can we keep extending, unspooling, those threads of kinship beyond ourselves?
This ocean-bound, nursing mother does not know of my existence. But my existence—our existence—affects her, affects her calf. And so she is one of many who calls on us to step through that threshold and to do that work of vulnerable reaching.
To learn more about right whales and recovery efforts: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/north-atlantic-right-whale
I just completed my first book research trip. Coastal Georgia was a land of eroding forest boneyards, bottlenose dolphins, and expansive wetlands. Exploring grief, entanglement, loss, and hope—Chapter Four of REBIRTH is now in the works.
Huge thanks to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources for making this trip possible.
Reading / Listening / Watching:
The Last of the Right Whales, directed by Nadine Pequeneza
The Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler
Changes in the Land, William Cronon
Half-Baked Stories About my Dead Mom. The latest episode of This American Life, in which Etgar Keret speaks about finally being able to write about his mother.
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Chelsea, you ask what the threads are for us. For me it’s being anchored and slow in one place - revisiting, re-looking, rethinking, re-learning as a natural/unavoidable way of life.
Thanks for a lovely, thought provoking piece.
milk lines is a very good way to put it, indeed.
always grateful for the way your words light up around me, creating the wild within my head as I sit at this desk, detached from the wind out there.