Against Whales

Paul Keegan

  • The Moon by Whale Light by Diane Ackerman
    Phoenix, 260 pp, £6.99, May 1994, ISBN 1 85799 087 0
  • The Last Panda by George Schaller
    Chicago, 292 pp, $13.95, May 1993, ISBN 0 226 73629 6
  • The Great Ape Project edited by Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer
    Fourth Estate, 312 pp, £9.99, June 1993, ISBN 1 85702 126 6

For Sir Thomas Browne it was a commonplace that ‘the number of the dead long exceedeth all that shall live.’ But this is no longer necessarily true, as has been pointed out in these pages before now: there may be more people living now than all the people who have ever died. With over 5.4 billion of us alive today, on course to become 8.5 billion by 2025, we must think of the outnumbering dead as outnumbered – at least until population slows (at perhaps ten billion, perhaps 15 billion) some sixty years hence.

The corollary is that the next century will be a cold coming for everything that is alive and non-human; a bottleneck through which biological diversity must squeeze. There has always been emergency, and almost all the species that have ever lived are no more. What is new is the terminal triumph of human numbers and the dawning burden of responsibility – if only as a sharpened sense of statistical occasion. In the rush for one last Linnaean look at those systems of life which we oddly think of ourselves as empowered but unable to keep going, actual biodiversity is to be replaced by an endgame inventory of the planet’s dwindling contents. Projects like the Rapid Assessment Program in Washington or Biotrop (a consortium of American universities) have been scrambled to do just this.

As part of the emergency (which ironically includes the demand for final biological information about ourselves, in the form of the human genome sequencing project), what were leisurely kinds of writing are being pressed into active service. Moreover, there has been a hybridising of science writers, nature journalists, writer-scientists. Diane Ackerman and George Schaller are representative of either end of an increasingly blurred spectrum.

The lengthy reports gathered in The Moon by Whale Light (‘and Other Adventures among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians and Whales’) were written for the New Yorker, on which Ackerman has served as a staff writer on animal life. The very niche is new, and nature-writers today have a glamour quite foreign to their precursors, whose otium or learned leisure was spent transcribing the outside world at a lowish ebb on behalf of idler peers. At the same time the new public is more passive than the original constituency for natural history – the scattered church of Victorian pilgrims, say, who traded specimens and disturbed tidepool and undercliff, staring down a great deal as a way of holding onto short views.

Where the old nature history was parochial, whether at home or abroad (Selborne or Torquay), today’s literary ecology brings the news of the world. It is ambitious, amateur without being learned, nomadic without being leisurely, and the nature it mediates for our inert spectatorship has no norms, only exceptions. This is a distinctively American venture, in a grain which has preferred intrepid and scaresome versions of pastoral, going back to the transcendentalist philosopher-naturalists. What is new is that the threatening in nature has been exchanged for the idea of nature under threat, and the sceptical querying of natural phenomena at their most dramatic (the Enlightenment sublime) has been refashioned into the Environmentalist sublime.

Nature on this account tends largely to mean creatures, fragile witnesses to less easily focusable bio-trauma. In her tales of the unexpected, of animals in dark times, Diane Ackerman seems compelled to tell us only the kind of thing we can never know, to deliver the kind of information which excites by being accusingly resistant:

A whale is like a house with a too-large furnace and too few radiators. When a whale exercises in warm equatorial waters, it can die of overheating. If it races hell-for-leather in pursuit of prey, it can become so hot it virtually blows up. After a whale is killed in the Antarctic, it is eviscerated with a long, sharp flensing knife. The entire length of the whale’s body cavity is opened up so that the icy water can wash it thoroughly. Then it’s tied tail-first to the bow of the catcher boat and dragged back to the factory ship, where it will be hauled aboard and cut up. If the trip back to the factory ship takes too long or if the whale is left in the water for too long, even though it is lying in icy water, its bones will be charred by the heat of its internal decay. When that happens, it’s referred to as a burnt whale. Imagine an animal generating so much heat that even though lying under icy water with its belly cut wide open, its bones cook.

Ackerman writes telegrams which, taken together, broadcast an oddly calmative modern message. For if the new nature is an order of extremes, a palaestra of prodigies, in the practical sphere this becomes a prioritising of important over less important, of biomass over biodiversity, environmentalism over ecology proper. Apologists for what Edward O. Wilson has termed ‘the prosthetic environment’ picture nature as a controllable steady gate – a model which lends itself to idioms drawn from good housekeeping (knowing what is in the global larder) and good living (the environment as still-life, as artefact to be contemplated). ‘What is the most beautiful encounter with singing whales you can remember?’ Ackerman at one point asks a scientist. The (in every sense) exclusive preoccupation with threatened species inevitably sees rareness as the repository of all biophilic value. Nature is become ‘the planet’ – that lonely collective noun for us and our depleted future lebensraum of orchids and choice mammals.

Ackerman says many things about whales. Their tongues weigh as much as elephants; they have the largest brains on earth (‘brains every bit as complex as our own’), have culture and language, use rhyme to memorise their lengthy songlines (‘which obey the kinds of rules one finds in classical music’), lead enigmatic lives, teach us a new sense of time, are the guardians of our conscience.

Anything goes. These lives of the animals are a studiedly mixed genre: a compact of new science, recondite fact, mythology, admonition. An older tradition of encyclopedic writing about nature is resurfacing – a sort of marvel gossip, going back to Pliny the Elder or to Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica which set down all that had been believed about beavers, badgers, bears or basilisks. But whereas Browne also prescribed what not to believe, relishing vulgar errors within a corrective anthropology, Ackerman’s amazement clings superstitiously to wonder as broken knowledge, both a lapsarian state and the way back into the Garden.

The introduction to The Moon by Whale Light returns us to the author’s very first childhood metaphor: the sight of some trees full of dark plums, ‘huddled like bats’. In childhood we knew everything in such ways: Ackerman’s prose seeks out lost connections, along with the belief that good metaphors – new connections – may save the bats, the alligators, the pelicans, the whales, may yet close the disastrous gap between us and them. Hence the strenuous way with metaphor which characterises the new nature-writing, in whose pages everything aches to be something else.

One of the defining features of the old natural history was its unalienated sense of the limits to knowing. Evolutionary theory could be seen as confirming the humilities of the natural history that it came to humble, through its categorical discovery that we are not central to what is around us, but look on with limited recognition at a world from whose records we are largely absent, and whose present the briefness of our presence disqualifies us from interpreting correctly.

In classic American nature-writing the after-effects of the Lyellian or Darwinian moment seem closer to relief than to gloom. As if, once we have been erased from nature’s tablets, a gay science of our exclusion could arise, and our reinstatement as guests with nothing to lose. Thus the frequent exhortations to see without looking, since even the nicest of observers is in the dark. ‘What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye,’ Thoreau admonishes himself, rehearsing involuntary forms of attention.

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