Photos and story © 2011 by Greg King.
With greedy ears I learned the history of that murderous monster against whom I and all the others had taken our oaths of violence and revenge.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
In early summer she came, just two days after Solstice. The weather was fair for the time and place, in the mighty Klamath estuary, where summer fog can chill to the marrow if you are not active and acclimated. But this summer has been different. The foggy days are fewer, sunshine reigns in the land of moisture and tall trees. It was to this place, at this time, that the whale came.
She arrived alongside her baby. Here were the great gray whales, baleen cetaceans, filter feeders, makers of mystery and myths. They delighted so many. To enter such a river as the Klamath was not unheard of, it had happened twenty-two years before. But to swim as she did almost incessantly, almost always in the same place — below the Klamath River bridge, the one that carries the summer tourists and lumber trucks and long distance commuters along the highway called 101 — that was something new.
She could have been anywhere on the lower river, but she chose this place beneath the bridge, and she chose this crucial time of change. The Native Yurok people called her a messenger. To see her alone at the end of July, one month into her visit, was to welcome an ambassador from another world. The ocean space. The great mystery beyond human knowing, a spirit creature entrenched in our imagining and our lore and our tales of survival and death.
It was a visitation. Yes, she carried a message, even as her health waned. Eventually people came from across the West to see her and hear her message. Few listened closely, so she made up what was lacking in cognition by circling, turning, breathing, directly below the bridge. She was as visible as the sun in the sky. She circled, she surfaced, her tail fluked, her twin blowholes spouted routinely directly below the bridge.
She was patient, and as such she begged our patience as well. Humans stood for hours on the bridge, later shaking heads as they realized how long they’d been watching.
Tourists from Germany and Pennsylvania, workers from Eureka and Crescent City came to see the whales. Highway Patrol officers and Tribal cops did the dance along the paved bridgeway, admonishing viewers to stay off the road and restrict themselves to the narrow walkway subservient to that created for cars. When she swam under the bridge the masses passed back across the lanes, west to east, east to west, like a scene from a comedy. Drivers stopped to ask why so many people on the bridge? “A whale!” they said.
And still she circled. For hours and then days and then weeks she circled, sometimes turning on her side as if to feed, but always coming back, spouting, breathing. Breathing. Breathing.
You have called us gray whale. Sometimes you said “devilfish” because we fought so fiercely against your weapons. We never could understand why you hated us so. You are very clever, smelting your metals into boats and harpoons and great steel vats where you melted our skins to make lights and cosmetics. Long into the slaughter you stopped hunting us, and we have been forever grateful. But please listen. Listen, please. Slow down and hear my plea. There is little time.
Watch me move. You think I am beautiful, and I am flattered. I move my long body for you, under your great bridge that crosses an even greater river. Ah, our Klamath! Long we have known this river. Long have we ranged past its waters, a fecund river we have always known during our journeys from what you call Alaska to our breeding tides far in the warm south.
You watch my great tail fin stroking the stream. I propel. I move with grace because life is graceful. You, though, you move so quickly. I am so glad to see you out of your cars! Look upon me. I am powerful, yet I do not threaten. I am giant yet I am love. Can you understand? Do you know why I come here?
You too are beautiful! Look among yourselves, with your flowing hair, your fine skin and muscles. Your proud faces and smiling eyes. You see me and it is good, you see each other and it is also good.
We, all of us, of little more than air and water, fire and earth, and love. You come with violins and play for me along the shore. You float to me on your little plastic sphere.
You sing to me from the bridge. You have come in your boats and drummed for me. You have come in your powerboats too close to me, but I do not fear you.
Yes, it is dangerous for me here, and for my baby. You have tried to drive us back to the ocean, but that is not why I am here, to succumb to your wishes. I am here with a message.
You long to witness beauty and power, and you see these things in me. Many of you would possess me, but others understand that this is not possible. My beauty and power are already within you, within all life. You cannot possess me nor my beauty nor my power any more than you can possess the air, or a shooting star. We are not things apart. We are one. Destroy me and you destroy yourself.
Look at your work! You build great factories and these great factories create machines that make more machines. And your machines move you and move things, and they heal sickness and provide you with food and teach your children. I see you inside of machines, on top of machines, writing on machines, listening to machines. I see you with machines attached to your bodies, machines in your ears. Can you see me? Can you see how slowly I move? Can you hear this sound I make? Listen closely. Watch closely. Slow down. Please hear my story. Please understand that the hour is late. Listen.
We hear your sonic explosions across the ocean, a machine sound you use to test your military weapons. These sounds assault us. We can hear across oceans. We can hear across time. We hear you whisper. We can hear your wars. We have watched your great ships sinking to the bottom of the seas, your people struggling, shocked, grieving. We have heard your screams. We wanted to help you, but there was no helping you.
You no longer hunt us, yet we are hunted. We are haunted. Our ocean is dying. My baleen scrapes the ocean floor to scoop crustaceans, plankton, mollusks, squid and fish. I filter it all, disgorge the mud, and give thanks for the plenty from our glorious ocean. But today there is less food. What shall I feed my baby?
We find your machines at the bottom of the ocean. We eat your plastics. Our bodies contain mercury, lead, PCBs, pesticides. We are at the top of what you call a food chain, and so these things concentrate in us. Our food is sacred. All life is sacred. You call us “intelligent,” and we would agree. We are intelligent enough to leave well enough alone, to take only what we need, to revel in the purity of Earth and all she offers us, to give thanks for our meals and our home.
You have your laws. Laws to protect you. Laws to protect freedom. Laws to protect religion. Laws to protect murder.
You have laws to protect the environment! And yet what about these laws? We all know about laws and how they work, how they don’t work. The laws you made to stop hunting us seem to have worked, but mostly because you discovered petroleum. Your black oil, too, we find in our oceans.
Let us talk about beauty, about the beauty of life. See me turn in the water, right below you! You are in awe of me, I can feel that. Now look upriver, see the mountains, look downriver, see the sweet turn of the mighty Klamath, see the great forest standing even after you took almost all of it.
We remember the looming dark forest that once stood here, as this is not the first time we have traveled up this great river! Are you still in awe when you look away from me? Look upon this wild earth. I am no more grand than the forest, no more powerful than the river. I am a part of all, as are you. But it is almost too late. Please listen.
We feel the ocean acidifying. Carbon. Carbon is a great thing, but you are releasing it like locusts upon all life. Our ocean is dying. The polar ice is melting. Even the currents, the great currents that flow like blood through our seas — you are even altering the currents, and the weather. Your bombs are nothing compared to this.
Our food is disappearing, our beautiful home is changing. We know you care. We can see it in your faces when you look upon us. You love beauty, you love life. How is it, then, that this could come to be?
We are here with a message. Look upon us. Revel in our beauty, in our life. Our life is your life, but all life is in danger. Look upon us. Look upon the river. Look upon the sky. The eagle. The bear. The salmon. The children. Look upon your children, and their children. Look upon my child, swimming at the mouth of this great river while I turn and swim past you, turn and swim past, turn and swim past. Look. Look. Before it is too late.
Your scientists have told you there is a number, a number representing carbon in the atmosphere. That number is 350 parts per million. Today everyone knows that this number should not be exceeded, yet your scientists report that today the number has reached nearly 400 parts per million. How have your leaders responded? What have they done to save the precious life of Earth, for you and your children, for me and my child? Last year, a year when humans should know better, you put more carbon into the atmosphere than any year in history. A record! Humans love records.
It is almost too late. Your leaders want oil from Alberta tar sands and from the ocean, from my home in what you call Alaska, from this very shore! They want coal from the interior of this great continent shipped overland to the shores of North America to be put upon the great ships to power the factories of China, to make the plastic things whose last, and lasting, home is the ocean, our ocean, water that my baby filters to find her food. The great garbage gyres are now twice the size of your state of Texas! Another record.
Please listen. It is almost too late. Hear me as I travel your great river.
Stay out of your cars.
Keep watching the river.
Change your ways.
Help my baby.
Sit in silence.
We are friends. We are love. Now is the time. Now.
This is my message. I sow the message in my path, through this great river. Do you see me? Do you really see me? Why am I here? What could make me swim like this, far from my home, where my family now feeds, and I do not feed at all.
From awareness we must grow.
This is our home.
This is your home.
There is no other.
There is no other time but now.
Please help us.
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