I was thinking about those orcas yesterday. For one thing, I'm reading a book called Living Downstream: A Scientist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment by Sandra Steingraber. A breast cancer survivor, Steingraber writes, among other things, about the links between DDT, PCB's and breast cancer. And these are the same contaminants born by the the whales I've studied for half of my life. I'm writing a book about a tiny population of orcas, mammal-eaters called the "AT1's," endemic to Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords. For five summers, I followed them intensively for my master's thesis, and I still observe them every summer. Half died after the oil spill in 1989. Now there are only seven left: Marie, Iktua, Mike, Chenega, Egagutak, Ewan and Paddy. When people ask me about the book I'm writing, I say that I'm trying to "personalize" a coming extinction. I'm telling their story, the part I know, but the book's also about silence, about healing, about science, and about myself. Last summer, the first field season I've missed in 24 years, I got to follow Chenega for a time by logging onto a satellite tracking website. Craig had tagged her, and each morning, I woke up on Cape Cod and opened my computer to see where she was. When I worked on the book last summer, my own experience with breast cancer twined itself around each word. We seemed in a new way joined together. One afternoon last fall, this is what I wrote:
When I’m afraid of the cancer returning to steal my life, I meditate on the AT1s, as I did before each chemotherapy treatment. They have something to teach me, this family of secretive orcas living secret lives in a remote place, each breath bringing them closer to extinction. I’m certain they remember their dead, Eyak and Eccles, Kaj and her family, Icy and Bergie, and that some days, when they blast their calls north up the Passage, they listen for an answer. But I’m equally certain that, though they carry their losses encoded inside their enormous hearts, the remaining seven live acutely every minute; though they dance with death every day, they don’t dwell on death for an instant. Every moment, they are aware of the place they’ve chosen, present to every bleat, wave lap, squeak, outboard drone, light dapple, echolocation click, water current, cloud shadow, hydrocarbon molecule, basalt face of whatever cove or passage they’re in right now. Whether they know they’re dying out or not, they’re completely present and completely alive, and they will be, even the second before they die. In the end, they teach me how to live. They are alive forever inside me. The poet and philosopher Mark Nepo, a cancer survivor, writes “I danced with death. Death backed off.” When the day comes that not one AT1 hunts along the coastline of Prince William Sound, I will grieve and carry on. But I will bind my heart to this belief: though their language in the physical world may be lost, the gods they were will continue singing. They will sing in the wind rippling along the water of Squire Cove, in the splash of a seal ducking into a kelp bed at the head of Copper Bay, navigating through channels between ice floes off the glacier named Tiger Tail. That language will never be lost.
I'm writing about them today also because walking back from a breakfast gathering at Elli's professor's house this morning, I talked to her boyfriend Peter about my book project. He's graduating too, with a degree in Environmental Humanities. He's also a musician. And a writer. And he loves to work with plants. And to read. He told me that even at a small liberal arts college like Whitman, students already get specialized into their majors, and they poke fun at each other: the ones that live in the "art house" vs. the ones who live in the environmental studies house, for instance. Everyone's already divided up into camps. Like Peter, I understand the world better when I read poems and write and collect data and play music and talk philosophy and watch birds all at the same time.
I have to admit that I've felt a little jealous watching all of Elli and Peter's friends these last two days, imagining and remembering that sense of a whole life about to unfold, moving forward into the unknown, into possibility. When I left college and headed north, driving with my boyfriend to Alaska, I was too immersed in the immediacy of the experience to take stock of myself on that threshold. I bounced between possibility and guilt at leaving my family and pure fear. Maybe the point of a commencement weekend, though, is not for the older generation to stand back and watch and remember and get all nostalgic, but to participate, to embark also. Perhaps it's a wake-up call. The moving-on after breast cancer is a threshold not unlike a college graduation, come to think of it. And there are so many others. This weekend, I've spent time with Elli's grandmother Anne, whom we call Akka, her mother's mom, who is 82, another person who embodies the idea of commencement. Several years ago she too had early breast cancer. And recently she lost her beloved, her soul mate, a man named Johnny. Walking two miles along a stream with her, talking about writing and travel and books, she wasn't, to me, a breast cancer survivor or a widow or even a grandmother. She was a woman fully alive in the present moment. This spring, her son took her to India with a small group led by a Hindu meditation teacher. And this summer, she's coming to Alaska. The death of one's life partner must be another forced commencement. Perhaps a college or high school graduation is preparation for those future "end of the world as we know it" moments, ones even scarier than launching out from the nest of home and school. Life, it seems, is one world ending after another. But as the Haitian proverb states, "Behind the mountains, there are more mountains."
That REM song's been running through my mind all day, after Craig reminded me that it came and went: the end of the world, as predicted by preacher Camping. But maybe it did end. And it's just a bit more subtle and under cover than we assumed. It's the end of the world as we know it, the song goes. I know Elli and Peter and all of their friends must feel that right now. Maybe we all should, every night before sleep, whisper to ourselves that line. I think about those orcas, whose world changed "in the instant," as Joan Didion put it in The Year of Magical Thinking. Some didn't make it. The ones who survived swam across the threshold and occupied the new world, damaged as it was, opening out before them.
Writing that last section, I remember a Mary Oliver poem, so I'll end with it. It refers to that "end of the world as we know it" for which all of the things I mentioned here, including "the big C," are but preparations. The really big one.
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
Those orcas, they are my teachers in this. Those remaining seven will not disappear "simply having visited this world."
All of the wild places are my university. And this weekend, these wild 21 year-olds, and one wild 82 year-old: they are my teachers, too. May we all be teachers and students for one another.
Happy End of the World!