Of Whales and Wonder, Water and Webs

“Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” – Mary Oliver

Lime Kiln State Park, San Juan Island, Washington State – mid-summer evening. Waves of the Haro Strait are punctuated by the jumping of pink salmon – sudden silver streaks against the deep blue of the water. Beside the old lighthouse, people congregate on rocks or picnic tables for the daily performance of the sunset. As the gold sun slips slowly behind Vancouver Island, the mountains on the horizon become blue and brilliantly silhouetted.

Lime Kiln State Park sunset (photo credit: Rhonda Miska)

Lime Kiln State Park sunset (photo credit: Rhonda Miska)

Suddenly, silently, the elegant black dorsal fins of the two Southern Resident orca whales slice the water, submerge, and then reappear. Around me, I hear gasps of delight. From where I am perched on a rock near the shore, a seven year old boy – who up until this point had been more interested in teasing his younger sister than in the natural spectacle – is transfixed and big-eyed as he takes in his first views of wild orcas.   It is a collective, spontaneous experience of wonder.

Whales have captured the human imagination for millennia – likely because they are similar to us in so many ways. They are mammals, social beings with strong family ties, intelligent, affectionate, exhibit a range of emotions, and use language to communicate. Due to their enlarged limbic system and high number of spindle cells, a case can be made that whales are capable of empathy. Some even assert that whales are “non-human persons.”   Whales are revered in ancient cultures from around the world, sometimes seen as kindred spirits to humans.

Our kinship to orcas makes the threats they face – among them, acoustic trauma due to noise pollution, bio-accumulations of toxins like heavy metals and flame retardants in their blubber, hunger caused by declining supply of chinook salmon – seem pressing and personal.  The movement to “save the whales” has led to some significant wins, mostly recently bringing down Elwha and Glines Canyon dams to restore the salmon population. Organizers and activists continue to call for and end of captivity of orcas. Out of our wonder at and appreciation for orcas, we humans have taken sustained and consistent action.

As I sat on the rocks at Lime Kiln State Park watching the sky turn from blue to pink to lavender, I remembered the Web of Life station in the Meditation Trails at Shepherd’s Corner in Columbus, Ohio. The web invites visitors to experience interconnectedness visually and physically. No matter which strand of the web you are holding, you will feel it if someone pulls on any other strand. It is a kinesthetic way of experiencing the truth Dr. King articulated: “We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.” The orcas are a strand in that web. We are a strand in that web.

Web of Life at Shepherd's Corner (photo: Dominican Sisters of Peace)

Web of Life at Shepherd’s Corner (photo: Dominican Sisters of Peace)

There are many other strands in that web that we humans find much less compelling. The Southern Resident orcas who graced us with their presence at sunset primarily eat chinook salmon. Chinook salmon eat – among other things – amphipoda . They are shrimp-like crustacean scavengers who eat detritus (read: feces). Now, let’s be honest: even with the best PR campaign, “save the amphipoda” will never take off as a rallying cry. We will never see amphipoda-inspired hashtags in social media organizing. There will never be the amphipoda cinematic equivalent of “Free Willy.”  Yet amphipoda are a part of that web. To use Thomas Berry’s language, the amphipoda – no matter how humble by human estimation – are among that great “communion of subjects.”

Amphipoda (image: Wikipedia)

Amphipoda (image: Wikipedia)

I’m going to keep pushing beyond orcas and amphipoda: perhaps the circle of communion and concern has to extend even beyond “all sentient beings.” Can our web of “all our relations” (to borrow the Native American term) exclude trees and mountains, watersheds and air? I lived for one year in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania where 90% of the land has been leased for non-conventional natural gas extraction (read: fracking). I had a conversation with a local man who had leased his land. When I asked if he was concerned about potential contamination of the ground water, he responded matter-of-factly:

“Well, if the water goes bad, then HillCorp promises to ship in water for as long as I need it!”

I struggled to understand his cavalier approach to accessing clean water and to articulate a response that was respectful and honest.  Centuries ago, Francis of Assisi spoke of how Sister Water praises God – intuiting the connections of the web of creation and their praise of the Creator. Our current Pope Francis, in Paragraph 30 of Laudato Si, speaks of access to clean water as “basic and universal human right.” Beyond valuing water for the way that it serves human beings, might we even embrace a “deep ecology” that sees water itself as having a right to remain inviolate?

How do we get from here to there? How do we expand our embrace and understanding of this web from orcas to amphipoda to water itself so that nothing is seen as expendable and there is no part of life that we are willing to desecrate and destroy?

Perhaps we come back full circle to wonder, to the movement within that seven year old boy at Lime Kiln State Park that caused his eyes to widen, his jaw to drop and an astonished “wow” to escape his lips. Awe and wonder are named as gifts of the Spirit in our Catholic tradition. It is a grace to pray for – and we cooperate with that grace by opening our eyes to beauty. Laudato Si speaks of the world as “a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.”

Orca at sunset (Photo credit - www.hickerphoto.com)

Orca at sunset (Photo credit – http://www.hickerphoto.com)

Dorothy Day was fond of quoting Dostoyevksy’s line that “the world will be saved by beauty.” If we are to move into the ecozoic era, at least one step in the Great Turning is to see beauty in all strands of the web – from the graceful orca to the bottom-feeding amphipoda to the vast expanse of water that acts like a circulatory system for our planet – to open our eyes and hearts enough to utter our own “wow” of wonder.

Wendy L Wareham photography

Wendy L Wareham

About the author: About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. Her writing has appeared in appeared in various print and online publications and she is a contributor to Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table which will be published by Paulist Press in September.

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