Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mouth to Earth Resuscitation: Part 2, Healed and Whole Forever*

*Even with a messed-up fin.
Quote for the day:
If the animal
coming toward us so surely
from another direction
had our kind of consciousness
he'd drag us around in his sway.
But his being
is infinite to him
incomprehensible, and without
a sense of his condition
pure as his gaze.
And where we see the future
he sees everything
and himself in everything
healed and whole
Rainer Maria Rilke, "Eighth Elegy," from Duino Elegies, translated by David Young

6 May
A slow, ponderous swell lumbers into Hinchinbrook Entrance this morning.  The sky has cleared, but clouds still cling to the islands.  We spent yesterday in Montague Strait listening, scanning, counting the sea lions on the Needle, photographing two humpback whales (one named Freckles), then hiking a beach on Green Island.  As soon as we landed the kayaks we could see we’d be walking along the shore with our eyes glued to the ground.  The beach was covered in oblong, dark gray, palm-sized stones streaked with white quartz lines, each stone a Joan Miro painting, or an illustration for an obscure geometry problem.  What, for instance, one rock seems to say, is the mathematical relationship between the outer two rings of Saturn?  Another ringed in two perpendicular directions made me think of L.  I picked it up for her.  Its geometry seemed to illustrate the relationship between kale and Ativan.  Once, on the phone, talking the virtues of kale smoothies, and about what she needed to get through her recent breast cancer diagnosis, we concluded:  “There’s a time for kale, and there’s a time for Ativan.”  Overlapping circles drawn with a slightly unsteady thin-tipped paintbrush ringed many stones.  Others were marked with X’s or O’s or both, or spirals, or eyes.  I’m looking at a collection of those stones on the dinette table in the boat cabin.  

But in a minute I’ll go up onto the flying bridge to join Craig, to scan for whales and get my 20 minutes of sun on unprotected skin.
After our search up Montague Strait, we anchored up last night just outside a small lagoon in Rocky Bay, a tuck in massive Montague Island, a place where years past, herring spawned.  One year, I remember collecting kelp fronds plastered with roe, sautéing them for breakfast.  This year, no gulls congregated on the beach, no roe peppered the kelp beds.  The herring, still struggling decades after the oil spill, spawned to the north and east of here this year.  But the lagoon, evening and morning, was still alive with the secret life of Montague Island.  That island, which I think of being the backbone of Prince William Sound,  protecting it from the full brunt of Gulf of Alaska storms, is best known by most locals for its massive, moody brown bears and abundant deer.  I love it for that wildness, but as much for its quiet, intimate places, like the lagoon in Rocky Bay.  After we anchored the boat and ate dinner (rockfish stew with fresh-picked seaweed, coconut milk, Swiss chard, mushrooms, broccoli), we kayaked into the lagoon’s shallows.   With the dense cloud cover, it was dusky, but even so I scanned the forest edge for the shadows of brown bears.  Once, kayaking in a narrow channel along Montague, a brown bear emerged from the alders and just stood there, nonplussed, staring at us, not scared, not alarmed, not defiant.  Just taking our measure, like the old, mean farmer in my childhood neighborhood, shotgun slung over shoulder, staring down a couple of teenagers trespassing in his corn field.  But we spotted no bears that night, just a loon, two pairs of dusky Canada geese, a troupe of river otters, a sea otter, harbor seals, red-necked grebes, wandering tattlers, goldeneye ducks, mergansers, and one Sitka black-tailed doe standing stock-still, her tan hide nearly invisible against last year’s dead grass. 
Today reminds of one of the ways the Sound gradually takes you in, slows you down, wipes your mind clean.  Time loses meaning.  It can be maddening or exhilarating.  Endless hours rocking on the boat with the hydrophone down or crossing Hinchinbrook Entrance back and forth searching for whales induces, at worst, boredom, at best, passivity.  Let evening come.  Let the anchor drop.  Let me lower myself into the kayak, paddle into a lagoon and lose my brain for awhile.  Because the mind that invents boredom and passivity is the most boring thing of all.  Yesterday, lying on the Green Island beach after our walk, I turned onto my stomach and placed my cheek on the stones and noticed beach flies, dry little non-descript insects busy all over the rocks, a city of flies, industrious, and in that mindless state, I considered them for a long while.

Later.  We’re now heading into Zaikof Bay after our first killer whale encounter.  A strong current pushes the stern back and forth.  All day, a large tiderip agitated the water around Schooner Rock, and from a cliff above the beach this afternoon, we watched humpbacks feeding along the rip’s edge.  One humpback surfaced blowing loudly, harassed by a small pod of Dall’s porpoises.  A flock of green-winged teal landed in the cove below us, and foraged through the kelp beds a few feet from shore.  I climbed up into the woods, singing to the brown bears, whom I decided to call “Baba Hanuman,” after an Indian chant we listened to this morning.  Hanuman is the Hindu monkey God.  “Son of the wind, destroyer of demons, I bow to you,” goes the chant.  Drinking tea before pulling anchor, I played “Prayer for Hanuman” on my I-Pod.  I need a prayer for the Hanuman brown bears of Montague Island, a prayer of thanks and of permission.  During the final months of chemo, I visualized myself landing a kayak on a beach near here, where a brown bear on top of the storm berm.  Because of the brown bears, I both love and fear Montague Island.  Ancient Chugachmiut stories describe their ferocity, say they are all descendents of a wronged woman who transformed herself into a bear and killed her betrayers.  Friends who hunt deer on the island tell tales of being stalked or charged or robbed of their shot deer.  In the story I told myself, a brown bear tended to my red and white blood cells during chemo.  I felt I needed that kind of fierce, protective power.  Spring and early summer, we spend weeks anchored in Montague Island’s coves, because the killer whales frequent Hinchinbrook Entrance, and not the more protected inner Sound, with its smaller islands and less fearsome black bears.  So I’ve had to make my peace with the bears’ presence.  I make a lot of noise on the beaches and in the woods.  In my head I ask permission to land on their beach.  Especially when the sand we walk on is imprinted with tracks big enough to hold my boot and then some.  Now I called them “Hanuman.” 
A cold wind blows off the beach where we’re anchored.  The sun’s bright, and my eyes ache.  The killer whales traveled south, along the outer coast of Montague, headed for the ocean, and the late afternoon sun shone right in our eyes, made photographing their left sides challenging.  For some reason, I feel sad tonight.  Some of it is familiar, the cooped up feeling on the boat, the lack of autonomy and privacy.  I’m back in a place I’ve loved for 26 years – over half my life.  Perhaps there’s some grief I’m not acknowledging.  I’m back doing the familiar things, but I don’t feel the same.  I admit I’m preoccupied by breast cancer even out here.  Even Craig dreamed about it last night.  “Downloading some big files,” he said.  Reading The Emperor of All Maladies wasn’t exactly reassuring.  In fact, it was a bit like reading a book about brown bear attacks.  It recounts the history of breast cancer, how it’s been viewed and approached scientifically, what’s known and not known.  Most recently it’s been viewed as a genetic disease, caused by mutations.  It takes quite a few mutations over a long time, according to the author, to unleash breast cancer in the body.   The mutations give cancer supernatural powers, like being able to evade the body’s normal defense systems, like immortality (if left unchecked).  But for all its smarts, I still think it’s an ultimately stupid disease, which kills itself in the end.  It’s “a distorted version of our normal selves,” Mukherjee writes.  So I feel unnerved, and I think obsessively about mutagens past and present.  Maybe it’s another facet of facing my mortality.  My body’s pre-programmed to die.  My body’s vulnerable.  If the wind blows the wrong way, and I breathe some boat exhaust, can that cause a mutation?  Can the non-organic strawberries I ate today cause another? 
I pick up my binoculars and scan, in an absent-minded way, the ten mile-wide strait of water between us and Hinchinbrook Island.  Craig’s talking on the cell phone with Dan, a tour boat operator in Seward and member of our research group.  We’re about to launch the kayaks for a walk on the beach to check out that white thing lying on its side above tideline, an enormous wedge that might be a whale skull, but probably is a beached root-wad.  I’m staring through the binoculars and thinking about whether I’d rather have time alone on the boat or another walk, I’m filled with angst, when a thin black wedge rises and falls in my field of vision.  And then another.  It’s unmistakable, even though from this distance, it’s as thin as a sliver.  More killer whales.
In meditation retreats, bells ring.  These remind you to stay present in the moment, to not get lost in other worlds inside your head.  When those bells ring, or when I catch myself following a set of thought tracks through the woods in my brain, I take a breath that feels so deep it reaches down to my toes.  It’s like surfacing after a long dive.  It’s like looking up from writing, and staring the shoreline out the window, not thinking, not even looking in any concerted way, getting lost in what’s out there.  The killer whales are the bells today, the head-clearing breaths that wipe the slate clean of mutagens, of carcinogens, of speculations, the mouth-to-earth breaths of resuscitation.  They are one-syllable breaths, at the most two.  Air, water, life.  
Later.  We pulled anchor, headed back out into the cold wind and glaring sun.  This time, it was AE pod, the most resident of our resident orca pods.  This family rarely leaves Prince William Sound, and it has bit on an inbred look.  The adult males’ fins curl over at the tip or cant over to the side from their weight, or they wobble.  The trailing edge of their fins, seen from behind, isn’t straight but wavy.  One male, who died a few years ago, had a dorsal fin curled completely over so the tip touched his back, forming a question mark.  Sometimes, male fins deform this way with age or as a result of stress.  A few resident males’ fins fell over onto their backs after the oil spill.  A rough winter might lead to weakening of the cartilage holding the massive fin upright.  Whatever the cause, environmental or genetic, the tottering, wobbling fins of the males distinguish them from all other killer whales we know.  They wear their questions, their weakness, their injury, their mortality, on their backs, but those things don’t seem to slow them down.  They don't seem to notice.  They remind me of a favorite poetry book of mine, The Duino Elegies, by Rainer Maria Rilke.  The "Eighth Elegy" begins this way:
With its whole gaze
a creature
                        looks out at the open.
But our eyes
            are as though turned in
                        and they seem to set traps
all around it
            as if to prevent
                        its going free . . .
Free from death.
            Because we’re the ones
                        who see death.
The animal that’s free
            always has
                        its destruction behind it
and God ahead of it
            and when it moves
                        it moves forward
forever and ever
            like a flowing spring.
"Flowing spring" may be too graceful a description for those wobbly-finned AE killer whales.  But maybe there’s something I need to learn from them. 

No comments:

Post a Comment