Monday, July 9, 2007

Going Away and Coming Back

I walked in a different place. My former home place on the Bay. In the brisk morning not long after dawn the cold infected my fingers and toes. But the feel of cold was quickly displaced by the colour-changing sky which spread from mauve to mystic pink. And as I gazed towards the horizon watching for whales in the water, a pelican flew by above the small waves.

Whales had visited the Port Phillip Bay this year in increasing numbers. Humbacks. Magnificient leviathans. They are headed south to the place where the International Whaling Commission this year allows for numbers of them to be slaughtered. I can only cry and hope that the Sea Shepherd campaigners are able to stop the useless killing of these gorgeous creatures.

The Animal Freedom website tells the poignant story of how founder, Paul Watson, made the heartfelt decision to dedicate his life to saving sea creatures. It was 1975 and he and Robert Hunter, also founders of Greenpeace, were riding a Zodiac in front of a Russian whaling ship in an attempt to protect Sperm whales. It is such a powerful story of transformation that it is quoted in full.

'Paul Watson recounts how he looked into the eyes of the dying whale:

'With a shock, my eyes met the left eye of the whale like Odysseus facing the Cyclops. That one eye stared back, an eye the size of my fist, blackish brown and with a depth that astonished and gripped me. This was no brutish creature. This was no dumb animal. The eye that I saw reflected an intense intelligence. I read the pain and I read understanding. The whale knew what we were doing. This whale had discriminated. That message was beamed directly into my heart by a mere glance. Fear there never was, but apprehension vanished like a crest upon a wave. I felt love both from and for. I felt hope, not for himself but for his kind. I saw a selflessness of a spirit completely alien to our primate selves. This was a being with an intelligence that put us to shame, with an understanding that could only humble us. And the most shameful message of all passed over to me; forgiveness.

'In an instant, my life was transformed and a purpose for my life was reverently established.

'Contact lasted only a few seconds but it seemed like much longer. The whale became quiet and began to sink back into the cold embrace of the sea and death. As he slid slowly back, I could see the life fading from his eye. I followed that rapidly extinguishing sparkle of light as the cold briny waves doused the final spark and the soul of a majestic greatness departed, leaving only a mammoth corpse behind.

'Many whales had died during my lifetime, all victims of the ruthlessness of my species. It had all been academic. This was different. This was a death witnessed and attended by my shipmates and me. Between that one unknown whale and myself, a bond had been established. I would honour this great being with my service. I would side with his species in opposition to my own.

'That experience remains for me, to this day, my single greatest moment of revelation and the source of all my strength, courage, commitment and sadness. I was scarred and left with an accursed task. The experience robbed me of all sense of joy and wonder. Human happiness would never be completely possible for me. I had looked into the eye of God. I could never be the same again.'

This spiritual understanding and empathy between whale and human is profoundly moving. This kind of story is not uncommon amongst frontline activists. I have found that many environmental activists have had an experience of severe grief and trauma associated with nature destruction which, they say, has been the stimulus to their activism. For some like Watson, it is an immediate and sudden shocking scene - the death of the whale, the impact of clearfelling a forest or forest valley, the damaging effect of deep sea trawling with its huge catches, mega-bycatch, and devastation to the ocean floor.

For others, like the 2007 Australian of the Year, Tim Flannery, it was a slow and steady deterioration of the place where he grew up. The bushy beach suburb on the outskirts of Melbourne, and Flannery's place for play and exploration where his curiosity of science was spawned, was slowly whittled away through development and infrastructure. He felt it deeply; it was vandalism. In a speech a few years ago Flannery (2001) reminisces:

'When I was growing up in Sandringham it was a magical place. It was on the edge of the suburbs. There was still plenty of bushland there and I still remember, just as a young child, being absolutely enchanted by the birds, the huge diversity of birds, making cubby houses in the tea tree, the lizards, the frogs, this wonderful biodiversity was there. ... I was becoming aware of even though I was very young and within a decade or so, all of that bush and all of the birds and all of the frogs and the lizards, plants and biodiversity and that wonderful ** flora at Sandringham had virtually all vanished.'

Accompanying ecological conversion of activists is an ethic of care. A land ethic. A sea ethic. A river ethic. A place ethic. Being awakened to the luminosity of nature engenders not only a sense of care for the earth, but a sense of care for others, and a drive to preserve the precious ecosystems and all creatures - great and small.

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Flannery T, 2001, Inaugural lecture: The Normal Wettenhall Foundation: Memorial Lecture Series.