Saved By the Whales Again!

Natural History Magazine recently reported two separate instances of humpback whales protecting seals from the very sophisticated and coordinated attacks of orca whales in the Southern Ocean.

http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/exploring-science-and-nature/161929/save-the-seal

The scientists who observed the rescues speculate that this might be maternal instinct on the part of the whales. The problem with that bit of speculation is that it is extremely difficult to determine the gender of humpback whales at sea, and there is nothing to indicate that these were female whales.

The final paragraph of the article may come closer to the truth:

“When a human protects an imperiled individual of another species, we call it compassion. If a humpback whale does so, we call it instinct. But sometimes the distinction isn’t all that clear.”

It seems likely to me that other animals are perfectly capable of acting out of compassion. I would not be surprised if the seals communicated their distress to the larger whales. Last year we saw interspecies communication at work in the case of Moko the dolphin who saved two pygmy sperm whales who had beached themselves in New Zealand.

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/save-the-whales-how-moko-the-dolphin-came-to-the-rescue-of-a-mother-and-her-calf-795025.html

We seem to find it hard to believe that a non-human animal is capable of flexible behavior. We humans sometimes act compassionately toward other animals, and sometimes we eat them. Why should we think other animals behave any differently?

Whales have been living on Earth with their large, complex brains about a hundred times longer than modern humans. Maybe they are the more mature species, and we have a thing or two to learn from them about living on Earth with grace, balance, and compassion.

This is my hope for the year(s) ahead. That we humans will begin to see other beings not as objects to be studied or exploited, but as co-equal creatures, creators and creations both, of this amazing, rich, vibrant, living Earth.

Waves of Stillness

For the past several months I have been working on a major revision to my CD, Natural Meditation. That project has become a bit bogged down. So I wanted to share with you, my faithful blog readers, the new track for the CD. I recorded the track on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, last August. Here is the script for the track, not as I originally recorded it but as edited for the new CD. It is one of my favorites, about the closest I have yet come to conveying the essence of how I see the world.

One other note: when I capitalize the word “Life” I am referring to the entire life-system, birth, growth, decay, death, reintegration, rebirth, the complex interplay of ecosystems, and all the unseen, unknown underpinnings of the same. Like wise when I capitalize “Bay.” I am referring not just to a body of water but to an entire life-system.

jlc

I want to take some time to talk about something I consider central to natural meditation.

I’m sitting on the shore of the Bay of Fundy, shrouded in fog. Foghorns sound in every direction. The Bay of Fundy is a 180-mile long, 700-foot deep, ancient rift valley at the northern end of the Gulf of Maine. Over 100 billion tons of water flow in and out of the Bay every twelve hours, making it an area of exceptionally high marine productivity and endlessly changing character.

A large grey seal lives here, whom I have observed over several years. A length of orange nylon rope is wrapped around his neck that was once attached to a lobster pot or a bit of fishing gear or a buoy. He got entangled in it and couldn’t get it off, and the rope has remained in place. Over the years his skin has folded over the rope, embedding the rope in his neck. Filaments of nylon stick out like hair. The neck looks raw and infected. The seal can’t do anything about it and the presence of this rope will surely shorten his life.

The Bay remains abundant with seals, dolphins and porpoises, large whales, pelagic birds, and the herring and plankton on which they all feed. But for how long? Whales and seals get entangled in our gear, seals are shot wholesale by fishermen who see them only as competitors for their livelihood, and the fisheries are erratic. Here on the shores of the Bay, it is all on display: nature’s abundance and inherent balance, and the imbalance we have introduced. Our ways of living and working, of growing and catching food, of making things, of gathering the resources to make things, and our ways of disposing of those things are tightening like a rope around the neck of the world.

How has such an intricately balanced system lost its equilibrium? For the first time in the history of the earth, as far as we know, one species’ activity is having an impact at a planetary level. Radical change is needed, but what is the root of the imbalance?

Most of us derive our sense of who we are from the things that we accumulate, not only money and possessions, but our accomplishments, our status in the community, our personal resume. We spend our lives trying to pin ourselves to these things, to locate ourselves in them.

But it doesn’t work. When we reach what we think is going to be the pinnacle of achievement or possessions or experiences, even spiritual experiences, very quickly that achievement loses its savor, and then we need the next thing. Another pinnacle appears and we feel like we have to set out to achieve that new pinnacle. We are never satisfied with who and what and where we are right now. We are always seeking something else, something more, something better. And that constant pursuit of more is running full speed into the wall of the physical limits of the planet.

And since that pursuit of more and better never brings true satisfaction, but is actually making most of us more miserable, and making the planet less vibrant and healthy, it makes sense to step back and ask, what does satisfy? What makes for a rich and satisfying life?

This is where natural meditation has a part to play. It may not seem like much, but it makes a real difference to take a look around at what is right here. It makes a difference to listen to the waves crashing on the rocks, or watch the gulls flying by, or the swirling of the fog, the grass bending in the wind, the other animals going about their lives, looking for food, looking for each other, playing. It makes a difference to pay attention to our own thoughts and feelings and sensations in the same way, without blame and without self-justification, without an agenda. Paying attention freely, opens up the possibility of clearly seeing the natural world, the impact we are having on it, and our place within it. Paying attention makes it possible to see the ways in which the mind tricks itself into thinking it is separate from everything else. And paying attention in this way allows a sense of self to emerge that is deeper than any words or ideas can convey.

At its root, the ecological crisis is not about too much carbon and too many people and too much waste and too many toxic products. It is not about bad policy and inefficient technology. It is about us. We have forgotten who we are. In our scramble to accumulate and possess, to understand and control, we have lost touch with the living truth, which we cannot possess. Paying attention to the whole movement of Life, is one way of remembering what has been forgotten, and restoring the balance.

The fog is clearing a little and the wind is picking up, creating ripples on the surface of the water. These ripples have their own distinct, individual quality, yet they are in no way separate from the Bay. In partnership with wind, the Bay forms surface ripples that arise, intertwine, fade and disappear.

Nothing can be held. Everything slips away from us: our most beloved friends and companions, our most cherished ideas of who we are and what the world is, our own lives. Everything is in motion, like ripples on the surface of the deep. Everything resides in stillness, like the depths underlying the activity at the surface.

When I first came to the Bay of Fundy I was captivated by its presence. 100 billion tons of water in motion, yet the stillness of it enfolds everything in its embrace. Stillness in motion. The deep, rippling at the surface. The whale, rising to breathe. This stillness lives in us as well, and knowing it is a profound homecoming. Knowing this stillness at the heart of our own lives reunites us with everything.

Watch the grass blowing in the breeze. Watch the sun rising. Listen to the rain falling. Listen to thoughts arising in the mind and falling away, like waves crashing on the shore.

This is life in this moment, the true miracle. This is deep stillness, expressing itself in everything. In us. In the other animals. In the plants, the insects, the water, the soil, the air, the clouds, the fog, the mountains, the deep bedrock, the depths of the sea, all the sea creatures, the empty space within and between, all the life fueled by the sun’s energy, all the phenomena in the universe.

When we discover this stillness in our own being, then we have no need for more than this that is, right here, right now, exactly as it is. Because this is everything. In this moment, in life being lived right here, right now, the whole universe participates. It is all the movement of stillness. All the marvelous interplay of waves on the surface of the deep, and therefore the very deep itself.

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.