The Outermost House
The poet and the scientist

The language of whales

Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

Marine biologist Eva Saulitis studied killer whales (or orca whales) in the coastal waters of Alaska for over thirty years, while also writing poetry and nonfiction blending nature writing and memoir.  The following passage is from her first collection of essays, Leaving Resurrection:

Standing Raven by Preston Singletary"During my first summer out in Prince William Sound as a volunteer, one of my tasks was to decide on a project for my master's thesis. Initially, I felt drawn to the quieter ways of humpback whales, who stayed in protective areas near Whale Camp to feed. But small groups of killer whales kept passing by camp, hugging the shoreline. They were AT1 transients, mammal-eaters about which little was known except that they were mostly silent and difficult to follow....

"One day, my friend and I followed two AT1 transients from a small inflatable as they hunted harbor seals along an island shore. We lost them for several minutes, and then spotted silver mist above a rock. We let the boat drift near. Clinging tightly to the rock, its head craned back, eyes huge and black, a seal pup crouched above the water line. A transient nudged the rock, but couldn't reach the seal, at least not yet; the tide was rising. Abruptly, the whale turned, joined the second whale, and swam rapidly across an open passage. We left the lucky seal and raced to catch the transients, but they'd vanished. Cutting the outboard in mid-passage so we might hear their blows, we stood up, scanning with binoculars.

"I felt something through the bottom of my feet before I heard it. From the inflatable's wooden floorboards, a wail rose, and another, and another. My friend and I stared at each other.

"'It's the whales. They must be right under us. Let's drop the hydrophone,' I said.

"I scrambled for the tape recorder, and we huddled over the small speaker adjusting knobs as long, descending, siren-like cries reverberated against underwater island walls. In the distance, other whales answered, faintly. I'd never heard transients call before. It was like a stone had sung. I knew then. I wanted to learn the language of the whales that were mostly silent.

Side view of the Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

"In grad school, I learned the art of detachment, learned to watch how I said things, to listen for anthropomorphism, like applying the word language to non-humans. As scientists, we distinguish ourselves from whale huggers, lovers, groupies, and gurus, from those who think of whales as spiritual beings. We learn the evolutionary, biological basis for an animal's behavior. We study the various theories and counter-theories and debate their merits: reciprocal altruism, game theory, optimality theory, cost-benefit analysis.

Raven by Preston Singletary"At scientific meetings, in animal behavior seminars, we don't debate whether animals have feelings. It's terra incognita. But on the research boat, or at the breakfast table, before the meeting begins, some of us talk about these things. One non-scientist friend, puzzled by the ways of science, asked, 'Isn't it strange to assume that humans are the only creatures with feelings, that we are so different from other animals?' Is it 'animapomorphic' to ascribe animal behaviors to humans? If it's wrong to suppose animals might share qualities with humans, then how do we see ourselves? Alone at the tip of some renegade branch of the tree of life?

"Out in the field, summer after summer, we search for knowledge, employing the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, data collection, analysis, discussion, conclusion. Poet and biologist Forrest Gander says that this method 'has endured as a scientific model, and a very successful one, for it predicts that when we do something, we will obtain certain results. But if we approach with a different model, we will ask different questions.' To create a new model: that prospect challenges all of the questions I've learned to ask -- and not to ask."

Detail from the Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

As the book goes on, Saulitis returns to this subject again and again. Is the language of science the only way, or even the best way, to understand the whales she is studying? What about the language of poetry, song, and story? What about the tales told about the whales by indigenous peoples whose lives have long been entwined with them?

In the book's final essay she reflects on local stories about the whales, such as this one:

"Very long ago, when someone died, the killer whales would come take them to a certain cove, dress them like killer whales, and release them into their new form. According to this story, the only difference between whales and humans is our skins. Zipping and unzipping this skin is like lifting up the cloth of the sea to go under, to effortlessly enter the killer whale realm. It seems magical, this lifting of cloth, this zipping on of skin. But it's much like the evolution story, in which killer whales shed body shapes to become what they've been now for five million years. Killer whales know some things about living here. Maybe we have to shed the skins we're wearing, find our way back into the weave, rejoin the ecosystem, put back on our animal skins....

Kéet by Preston Singletary

"A woman from Dolovan, near Nome, told me of a time that killer whales helped her people to find food. When she was a baby, her family was moved from Elim to Dolovan. Some people went overland. Her grandmother and others went by rowboat around Cape Darby, in the Bering Sea. She herself was in the boat, wrapped in a rabbit-skin parka. The people were hungry and cold, so someone called to the killer whales and asked them for food. The next day, big pieces of muktuk washed up on the beach. The people ate it raw, they were so hungry, and the oil stained their clothes, which had to be burned.

" 'You never play with or harm or hunt or harass a killer whale,' she said, 'because they are so close to people.' She told me that a woman in Dolovan married a white man who didn't know all of the traditional rituals or rules, and one day he shot a baby killer whale. 'A person who harms a killer whale will die,' she said. An adult killer whale showed up and started swimming through the bay back and forth. The white man finally confessed to his wife what he'd done. She blamed herself for failing to teach him properly, so she went to a point far out in the water and apologized to the killer whale, saying that her husband didn't know, that it was her fault. The whale eventually forgave them and left.

Family Story Totem by Preston Singletary

"Inupiaq people say that killer whales drove seals onto the ice for hunters to catch. Tobacco was thrown into the whales' open mouths, in thanks. Those stories from many places in coastal Alaska, of killer whales opened mouthed, lips pulled back, revealing their teeth to hunters in boats, remind me of Matushka. We first saw her in Prince William Sound in 1987 with some of her relatives on my first day volunteering on a research project with Craig. While some of the whales swam rapidly around us, Matushka breached and tail-slapped repeatedly within a few meters of the skiff, dousing us with water. I was twenty-three and naive, didn't know this wasn't ordinary killer whale behavior, so I screamed and jumped around and tried to touch her. Finally, I looked at Craig, salt water dripping from his beard, and saw his unease. It was weird, he said, for transients to interact with a boat this way. We couldn't even take identification photos for fear of ruining the camera, but more so, because the whales were too close. We finally had to back away from them, but they charged after.

Killer Whale by Preston Singletary"That was my initiation into killer whale research, and I see it now as both a welcoming and a warning, a warning that my stories would have to change. My imagination would have to expand to include Matushka as she glided along the hull of the boat, her mouth wide open, showing me her teeth. I would have to look into my own animal nature.

"It's not impossible to imagine killer whales and humans having once spoken the same language, interchanged body forms. We are still dependent on each other, and the stories tell us that we must act that way, unless we want killer whales to exist only as mythical creatures, like the thunderbird, who, in one story, did battle with a killer whale, driving it into the sea, where it's lived to this day. Our big, imaginative brains define us. Deprived of the creatures who inspire our stories, will we be human? Or will we be proto-something else?

"Just as language shapes our thoughts, the way we tell stories shapes the way we see, and the way we see -- what we look at, the amount of time we spend on the water, in the woods -- shapes our imaginations. Jurgen Kremer asks, 'What if we have established a big thought system at the foundation of which is one giant rationalization? What if we need to turn things upside-down?' Is that the difference between knowledge and wisdom? Is wisdom knowledge turned upside-down? 

"I write poetry these days, a craft that encourages the holding of opposing truths in the mind at the same time. While my logical mind grapples to reconcile the Tlingit story of the origin of the killer whale with the paleontological story, in my other mind, they coexist. Both are essential."

Killer Whales photographed by Eva Saulitis

Killer Whale Canoe by Preston Singletary

Eva Saulitis died of breast cancer four years ago, at the age of 52. She wrote about her illness as she wrote about her whales: with the clear observations of a scientist and the emotional depth and language of a poet. (For example, see her gorgeous piece on nature and dying, "Wild Darkness," in Orion magazine.)  

I highly recommend Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist; Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discover and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas; and her last essay collection, Becoming Earth -- as well as her poetry, published in Many Ways to Say It and Prayer in the Wind.

X'aat by Preston Singletary

The imagery today is by Preston Singletary, a Tlingit artist based in Seattle who primarily works glass. His creations often feature killer whales because of the whale's significance as one of the crests of his clan.

"When I began working with glass," he says, "I had no idea that I'd be so connected to the material in the way that I am. It was only when I began to experiment with using designs from my Tlingit cultural heritage that my work began to take on a new purpose and direction. Over time, my skill with the material of glass and traditional form line design has strengthened and evolved, allowing me to explore more fully my own relationship to both my culture and chosen medium. This evolution, and subsequent commercial success, has positioned me as an influence on contemporary indigenous art. Through teaching and collaborating in glass with other Native American, Maori, Hawaiian, and Australian Aboriginal artists, I've come to see that glass brings another dimension to indigenous art. The artistic perspective of indigenous people reflects a unique and vital visual language which has connections to the ancient codes and symbols of the land. My work with glass transforms the notion that Native artists are only best when traditional materials are used. It has helped advocate on the behalf of all indigenous people -- affirming that we are still here -- that that we are declaring who we are through our art in connection to
our culture."

To see more of Singletary's beautiful, deeply spirited work, go here.

The Air World by Preston Singletary

Words: The passages quoted above are from Leaving Resurrection by Eva Saulitis (Boreal Books, 2008); all rights reserved by the author's estate. The Jurgen Kremer quote is from Indigenous Science: Introduction (ReVision 18, no, 3, Winter 1996).

Pictures: The art above is by Preston Singletary; all rights reserved by the artist. The name of each piece is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)

Comments

I am a Seattle native, and our Southern Resident orcas of Puget Sound have been sacred to me from childhood. I’ve been in a quiet cove in the San Juan islands when a mother and her calf surfaced and the “fwooooosh” of their exhalation so nearby brought me to tears. We are struggling here to change laws and human behavior in Puget Sound to restore salmon habitat for them. Sadly, in recent years, we have lost adults and babies to near-starvation due to a paucity of Chinook salmon, their preferred food source (unlike the transients, our Southern Residents do not prey upon other marine mammals). Tahlequah, the beautiful mother whale who broken-heartedly carried the body of her tiny calf for 17 days in 2018, in a tour of her grief, is pregnant again now. Please pray that this baby is born hale and hardy and lives a long and healthy life.

I am praying indeed, in the hope that prayers and strength from Dartmoor will cross the globe to Tahlequah.

"A Whale Called Killer" is a good read, but I was fascinated by "Listening to Whales" by Alexandra Morton. Will have to add this one to my list! 🐬

Hugs,
M&M

Terry, thank you for bringing Eva's words to a larger audience. I miss her so. We used to joke that we were writing in the morning about two miles apart looking at the same mountain, but we could create two completely different poems about it. She was something special. We've named the main house at Storyknife Writers Retreat after her - may her generous heart live on forever.

I too live in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and something I realized not long after moving up here as a child from Texas was that the Orca's really mean something to the people who were indigenous to this land. Their symbolism is everywhere and it's no wonder when you get an opportunity to see them in the wild. They are truly quite a sight to see.

Also, the Wild Darkness by Eva Saultis was absolutely beautiful, I could feel the places she was describing.

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