Monday, August 24, 2009

Too Long For Twitter, Part One

(Agate Beach at Patrick's Point; photo by Neil Mikulenka)

In 1978 or 1979, I first went to Patrick's Point State Park near Trinidad in Northern California. It's one of those spots where I instantly felt connection to the sacred. Later I learned it was, indeed, an ancient gathering place for the Yurok people, with whom I have some sort of inexplicable deep connection. Their name for it is Sumig, which was translated to me roughly as the place where the spirit of dolphins went to die when human beings began to populate the earth.

I returned to Sumig as often as I could, and had lots of wildlife/nature experiences there. It's where I also developed a consuming fear of sasquatch. But the story I want to tell today is about when I went with my friend Mary, who had come to visit me in San Francisco from Texas. Mary was/is deeply spiritual, beginning as a Christian Scientist and proceeding through a number of ideologies, including rebirthing and Sai Baba. Each of her new belief systems was authentic and fascinating as she embodied them.

Our second day camping at Sumig, we went for a hike along the cliffs, intending to walk down the extremely steep trail which led to driftwood-stacked Agate Beach and, if you went on along the strand, to Agate Lagoon. Halfway down the switchback trail, we looked out at the Pacific and saw three or four California Grey Whales directly approaching the surf off the beach.

We stopped to gape and wonder what was happening. Only ten yards off shore, one of these whales turned parallel to the waves and began rolling in the wash, seemingly helpless in the surf. I cried out "Oh g*d no, they're beaching themselves!" and began sprinting down the trail. Mary followed on my heels, with her camera.

A few other bystanders had gathered on the beach, and had come to the same conclusion. I stood there in agony, unable to bear the prospect of watching these magnificent animals die before my eyes -- no doubt because of some human-induced interference with their normal function. I turned to Mary and said "I'm going to save them."

"What do you mean?" she asked in alarm.

"I have to try to communicate with them" I said, unbuckling my overalls. "If I put my hands on their side and send images via energy transference, maybe I can get them to swim back out to sea."

Mary had a fit, declaring I would instead be crushed beneath them, I was insane to think I could mind-meld with a whale. But I kept stripping, taking off my Vasq boots and asking Mary to look after my small black dog, who was shivering in the cold wet wind. The other bystanders took a few steps away from me but watched avidly. Mary finally gave up trying to talk sense into me and got her camera ready.

I had stepped into the frigid water, wearing only my Rubyfruit Jungle t-shirt and a baggy pair of cotton underwear, when we heard shouting from the trail. It was a park ranger, running our way at full speed. I stopped and returned to the relative warmth of the sand. When he reached us, he was out of breath and had to lean over, gasping, for a minute before he could speak.

"The whales -- they do this -- they're not beaching" he said, staring at my hairy legs. "There's a steep underwater bench right there, rocky. They come in to scrap off their sea lice."

Mary had to sit down, she was laughing so hard. I began donning my overalls. The park ranger asked "What the hell were you about to do?"

I didn't answer, but Mary told him with what I felt was unseemly pleasure. He laughed, but also took down the number of our campsite. He said every time the whales came in during their migration to use the local facilities, as it were, he had to rush for the beach to keep visitors from going bananas. He added that I was the first to think I could wade out and save them.

Maybe it's a lesbian thing. There's an unnatural preponderance of us among marine biologists.

That night, over our campfire, Mary and I had a long, not-quite-acrimonious fight about our respective approaches to nature. I was carrying with me everywhere a set of guide books that I'd bought, to not only birds and trees but berries, ferns, shells, a walking library. I was forever stopping to (1) use my asthma inhaler and (2) look up the name of whatever I had just seen. At that point in my life, and in particular as a lesbian-feminist, naming was an act of power I could not stop myself from performing as often as was possible.

Mary felt I was missing out on the moment, on experiencing nature as it presented itself, without names or scientific background. She thought someone who believed they could talk with whales through their palms might try ditching the guidebooks and commune with salal berries on a more primal level.

We were both right, of course. It needn't have been the argument that it was, except we were both at a time in our lives when our approaches to things had distinctly diverged, we loved each other and wanted to be together, and we were not quite old enough to let the difference sit as a richness in our connection.

A few years later, my mother died and I came into a deeper comprehension of Mary's approach to the world. Some things make no real sense, even named, and you have to accept them as is.

But the power of naming is still important for us to retain, to not relinquish this power to those who use it to maintain the imbalance which all but blinds us. Language is the tool we use most often to convert information given to us by our senses into metaphor, and our brains only learn through metaphor. I think dreaming is our nightly sorting time, when our brains feverishly hold up everything we experienced that day and says "Now what does this remind me of?" before stashing it away in a drawer of memory. (Well, several drawers of memory, since every experience gets divided up into many bits that only our individual synapses know how to reconstitute again into a single memory.)

Thus, I just spent three hours creating a series of names for the fish eaten by characters in my current sci-fi novel, on a waterworld where English is no longer the dominant language. Because names matter, the words we use shape how we see things, like it or not. And having acknowledged that, I can try to move beyond the terms to an imaginary landscape where the names lose relevance again.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

[N.B. The first poem I wrote after my mother died is titled "Naming", and it's much better as a journal entry than poetry. But if you want to read it, it's here.)