27 January 2009

The Singing of the Seals

I have always wanted to hear seals sing. There are many stories and legends out of Scotland indicating that seals are great lovers of music and great singers as well. There is nothing in the scientific literature about this at all. Not a word as far as I can tell.

I have called to seals with my penny whistle and had them appear out of nowhere to listen. My partner, Cynthia, once heard a harbor seal sing a single, pure note as it surfaced next to her kayak. In our musical duo, Coracle, we play several tunes that are thought to have come from the singing of the seals.

But until this past summer, I had never heard the seals sing.

Cynthia and I are planning a concert that will take place on February 21st in Bellows Falls, called The Seal Woman's Sea Joy. The concert will feature our seal music, and other music inspired by the sea and our deep connection to the creatures of the sea.

In fact, we were writing the description for the concert just days before we heard the seals sing. I have talked to a few people now who have heard the seals sing, so it is not quite as uncommon as I had thought, but still I can not find any mention of it in any scientific journal or book.

We were camping on the coast, in a location that for various reasons I shouldn't disclose, when we were awakened just before sunrise by one of the strangest sounds I have ever heard. We were deeply puzzled by it, and lying in the tent we tried to figure out what it was. A radio in the distance? A dog barking? Someone singing? Some strange sea bird unfamiliar to us? The wind?

It hit us nearly simultaneously, I think. Seals. We were hearing the singing of the seals.

We scrambled out of the tent, grabbed binoculars and microphones and ran out to the point of land. And there, on a rock exposed by the low tide, were a couple of dozen seals. Far enough away that we could not see them very clearly, and are still not sure whether they were harbor seals or grey seals. Either is possible. Or both.

They sang for about an hour, while the sun rose. My recordings are marginal, thanks to gulls, wind noise, the crashing of waves, and the slapping of mosquitoes. But we will be using the best parts in our program on the 21st. But, more important, now I know it is true. Seals really do sing. I don't know if they are actually singing songs. That would require a repeated pattern to the vocalization, and I have not found any repetitions in my small sample of recordings. But they are melodic. They are lovely.

Well, not to everyone. A fisherman was out there collecting seaweed from the exposed rocks, and the recording clearly catches his commentary on the singing seals, "They sure do like to holler, don't they?" About an hour later that same fisherman was out there in his boat shooting those very same seals. Not for food or clothing. Just for spite. A common practice, we were later told.

It was an incomprehensible whiplash of shock to be delightedly listening to the seals sing one moment, and helplessly watching them being slaughtered the next. We couldn't make sense out of it then, nor now. Their singing was a profound gift to us, and it surely drew attention to them, bringing death to we do not know how many.

In the old legends, killing the seals was also common practice. But invariably those who hurt the seals hurt them selves in some way. The seals saw to that. On the other hand, those who helped the seals, or just loved them, were always rewarded in some way, with abiding friendship if nothing else. We wonder what harm this fisherman has brought upon himself by slaughtering these innocent singers. The fishing way of life is dying, and the fishermen take it out on the seals. We wonder what benefit he and his fellow islanders might reap if they can learn to love what they now hate.

And I wonder if the seals are really singing. It is impossible to calculate the good that was done for whales when Roger Payne and Scott McVay discovered that humpback whales sing, and spread their songs throughout the human world.

If seals are singers too, it might awaken us once again to the intelligence and beauty and social sophistication that shares the planet with us.

Once upon a time I was fascinated with SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Well, we don't even recognize intelligence when it is in our own back yard. Often enough we kill it. What makes us think we would recognize it, and honor it, if it came from outer space?

I am told that along the Maine coast, shooting seals is a thing of the past, maybe two generations gone. And I understand that seals are generally flourishing, the elimination of cod having opened up food sources for them in many areas. The human battle against the seals is one the humans are sure to lose, one way or the other. Either we will fail to exterminate them, or we will succeed in that, and lose the opportunity to learn from them, to appreciate them, to fall in love with them, and with the other life forms that share this magical, singing world.

08 January 2009

Whaledreamers

I somehow thought that the key to waking us up to the dire situation of the earth right now, and the key to rapidly finding solutions would be for us to wake up to our true nature, to see the false nature of the mind-created self, and the deep truth of who and what we are. It doesn't appear to be working out that way. I am finding the words inadequate. I am finding that no one understands them, unless they understand them already from their own powerful experience of the deep unity of our existence. Without that experience, they are just more words, of little or no use.

And I am finding that there are people who are claiming to be "awakened" to their true nature as "consciousness", who nevertheless seem to have little or no understanding of or concern for the unprecedented ecological catastrophe that humans are visiting upon our earth home. They may well be doing some hidden good for the earth, but it's hard to tell.

I just watched the new Julian Lennon movie, "Whaledreamers." The movie is about the Mirning people of Australia, a nearly exterminated indigenous people who have an ancient tradition of dream communication with the whales. It is not a great movie. Some of the whale footage is beautiful, and aspects of the story of the Mirning are moving and inspiring, but the movie is a bit too hip and superficial for me to get very excited about it.

And yet, this one thing does come through the gloss. Whales change people's lives. Whales are waking people up, to both the environmental devastation we are visiting on the the earth, and to our essential unity as integral parts of a living planet. This has been my experience, and it is the reason I love my whale work. With one look, a whale can communicate the whole thing. You are not the separate little organism you think you are. You are this amazing thing called Life. We are one being, like one superorganism. I'd have to say whales are most likely the brains and we are merely the hands. God help us, the hands think they are the brains and are choking their own true brains and the world that is their true body.

All it takes is one look from a whale, and many people get this immediately. But so few of us ever get to look a whale in they eye, that it then becomes the job of people like me to try to convey that experience, and the vital message it transmits, to those who have never seen a whale, have never had the experience of oneness. It is like being an ambassador from a world that has a language that can not be translated into any human language.

Words create distinctions. In unity, there are no distinctions. Unity doesn't mean similar to, or connected to. It means one. We are one. There is only the one. There are no separate things. Humans just like to pretend we are separate and act as if we are separate, apart from all the rest. But we are not separate. Not from each other. Not from the whales. Not from earth. Not from cosmos. Never were. Never will be.

Somehow whales know how to communicate this fundamental unity. They communicate it in a way we all can understand, without words. I wish I knew how they do it. That is what all my words attempt to convey, not the idea of unity, but the fundamental fact of unity. We and the whales and the whole earth and the whole universe are one living entity. When we do harm, we are harming our very selves. Not figuratively, literally.

Oh, never mind. Find yourself a whale, and hope she looks you in the eye. You'll never be the same.

06 January 2009

What Now?

The other night we were talking about our environmental impact and looking at ways we can reduce it. The overall feeling that I took away from that conversation is that we are not thinking any where near radically enough. All our ideas are tinkering at the edges. What we need is a total, communal, global revolution in how we live. We have a human society that is growing rapidly in both sheer numbers of people and in the standard of material comfort we demand. The planet is already near the breaking point, and suddenly billions more people want, and are building, the standard of living we have here in the over-developed world.

So, wrapping the hot water heater, and installing solar hot water panels, and turning off our lights, and carpooling, while good and useful things, seem utterly inadequate. We need a whole new way of living. "We" means all of us. We need a miracle. And we need it now.

There are signs that little shifts are happening all over the place. But most of those shifts appear to be more cosmetic than deep. We need a radical shift. A shift at the very root of who and what we are and how we live. Not just a greener image. Not just a new president. A deep understanding of and orientation to our place in the natural order.

I am continuously frustrated by several attitudes that stand in the way of focusing our intelligence and energy on creating a new way of living.

There is the old attitude of "It's not really a problem. I don't have to change anything." Simple denial. Increasingly difficult to maintain, but lots of us are holding on anyway.

Then there is despair. "It's too big a problem. There is no way we can all change that much in that short a time. So I'll just carry on as always and hope it doesn't hit me too hard personally."

Finally, there is false hope. "Look at all the shifts taking place. Look at the new president. Just relax. It is all going to work out just fine."

Denial. Despair. False hope. All deadly.

Here is my feeling about this. Total, radical change is possible. It is necessary. It is inevitable. We will bring it about or it will be forced upon us by circumstance. The former is far preferable.

But to bring it about we need to set aside our denial, and our despair, and our false, easy hopes. We need to open our eyes. We need to get to work. We need to be ready for radical changes in our lifestyles and material comforts. Yes, I do think so. Most of the green gurus want us to think the easy changes will suffice. Just change a few light bulbs and all will be well.

And they want us to believe that infinite growth in every one's material comfort is still possible. But we have to be ready to give all of that up. In fact, the fastest way for all of us to survive is simply to stop demanding continuous growth in our material lives. Every other approach is going to take too much time and way too much luck.

The idea that infinite economic growth lies at the heart of our well-being is a relatively new phenomenon in human society, and a very new thing on the planet. A strictly human invention. I am no economist, but as far as I understand, this growth is fueled by an economy based essentially on lending with interest, and on legally-mandated corporate profits. This is seen nowhere else in the natural world. It has to go. It is already falling apart.

Looking at my own life, I can see that a big part of the resistance to change is based on fear. It is based on various beliefs about who I am and what I need and what I want, all of which go into making up my sense of self, who I think I am. That is why I have spent so much time talking about the self, the illusory self. We are so committed to maintaining this idea of ourselves. More committed to that, it seems, than to the well being of life on earth.

This situation we find ourselves in really does seem to require of us that we cut our ties to the past. I mean the past that tells us who we are. The past that tells us what can and can not be done.

Who knows what is possible? The other day I was pretty much slapped down, at least that is how it felt, for my attitude that I can do something to save the whales from destruction. That I can do the impossible. When all I was trying to do is get a bunch of other people to care enough to look at their own lives and figure out what they can do, what we all can do together. This is not impossible. Why is it labeled impossible? We are the source of the problem. We are the source of the solution. Maybe impossible for me alone, but not at all impossible for us together. What is truly impossible is that we will all continue to live as we are living now, and the outcome will be different from the toxic catastrophe we see now.

Our assumptions about who we are and what we need, and what is possible, are destroying the planet, our home, the source of our lives. We are in major self-destruct mode. All in the name of having more for our selves. Crazy.

There is no blame here. We are all doing the best we can. And we can do much better. We simply don't need all this stuff. We don't need it to be happy. It doesn't make us happy.

The poorest 3 billion people on the planet do need more to live decent lives. But you and I do not need any more. We need less. Much less. There is so much we need to shed. Assumptions. Guilt. Blame. Rationalizations. Fear. The past. The false self. Tons of stuff. The planet needs for us to possess less.

Let it all go, and face this moment in all its wonder and its dynamic complexity. Face it fully, falling neither into despair nor into false hope. Do all the obvious and easy things, and then dig deeper, into the very heart of who we think we are. Every moment, drop the assumptions of the past. The assumptions of last year. The assumptions of yesterday. What is possible now? And now? And now? What now? What now?

Donella Meadows liked to say, there is just enough time for this radical change, if we start now. I would put it slightly differently. There is just enough time for this radical change, and that time IS now. Now is the only time we will ever have.