We are all so much more than we think we are…. We are air exhaled by hemlocks, we are water plowed by whales, we are matter born in stars, we are children of deep time.
Kathleen Dean Moore, Great Tide Rising

It was our last day in Baja. I had come here to spend time with whales. I am not fond of heat and Baja is hot. And truthfully, whales, though I worshipped them from afar, had not been my favourite mammals. Despair drove me to Baja. It was March 2017 and I was still reeling from the elections and what they said about the U.S. and our chances of redeeming ourselves as a species. Could nature recover from our relentless assaults?  Was there any reason to hope? I thought the whales might have some wisdom to offer. That I would be travelling with a women’s wilderness outfit and a guide who communicated with whales seemed to increase the likelihood of this outcome. 

When a blue whale first approached – we were camped on the shore of the Sea of Cortez, just gathering for our morning circle—all the other women fell to their knees and stayed there as we watched her circle the bay (a mama and her calf our guide told us). In circle, the women spoke in tones of reverence and rapture. I abstained. I had seen those huge bodies blowing and breaching and yes it was impressive, they were BIG (the biggest mammals on the face of the earth, we had been informed, up to two city blocks in length), and these enormous creatures had come to us, or so the others insisted, come repeatedly, but I felt nothing…. certainly by contrast with my companions. Or, to be honest, I felt rage. What the fuck makes you think they are coming for us? Why the fuck would they want to come to us? After what we’ve done to them? Done to the oceans. I said this one night around the campfire, my face wet with tears which in all honesty were probably less tears of shame for our species than pain at not being able to feel what the others felt, at feeling separate from them. 

But after five days on the Sea of Cortez, spying one fluke after another, watching those giant bodies dive and surface and dive again, I had come to believe, I can’t say how exactly, that maybe yes they did love us and yes they had come for us. Now we were staying in cabins on San Ignacio Bay on the other side of the peninsula. San Ignacio is a protected lagoon where gray whales come to calve and where for this reason they were murdered en masse by humans in the nineteenth and for much of the twentieth century. But in 1977, a fisherman in the bay received a visit from a mama gray and her calf who would not leave the side of his boat until he had stroked the baby. Since then, San Ignacio has become a pilgrimage site, a place where humans can venture out in boats and be pretty sure that they’ll not only see but be able to touch a gray whale. It was now our fourth day here on the lagoon and already its rippling waters had come to feel like one of those neighborhoods that was sacred to me because she lived there—the woman I loved—and any second she might suddenly appear. 

It had been a hard morning. The hardest of the trip. Several days earlier, after a rough day of paddling that had done me in, I had leapt to the aid of someone who was heaving a double kayak out of the water—in the spirit of pitching in but also so as not to be outdone by my younger travel mates. In the process I pulled something skeletal badly out of whack. It had caught up to me the day before and I had barely slept. All night I had dreamt of a chiropractor—could I find one in this area? In the morning in the circle I told the dream and then, since the dream seemed to be wanting it of me, asked if anyone in the circle knew anything about alignment. There were on this trip an assortment of healers and yoga teachers and I was secretly hoping someone might offer to help straighten me out. No one did. I felt—there is only one word for it—rejected. No one wanted to take on my case, my crooked, aging body. An old haunted place—not beautiful enough—I went back to it. 

But there is something I’ve left out here, something about that sleepless night that feels important to say. I have spent many nights lying awake with one kind of ailment or another just listening to the minutes tick away. This night was not like any of those. Because throughout the hours, and the muscular cramps that seized my neck and held it in a vice, I remained completely calm. I remained calm because I had every confidence I would be healed….in fact it occurred to me during that long night that there is no healing without affliction. So maybe affliction is necessary?  I was afflicted, and I needed this affliction so that I could be healed. 

I had been reading about whales the night before, suddenly ravenous for knowledge about these beings about whom until now my main source of information had been Moby Dick. In one book I read that just by the way they navigate, conducting waves of light and sound, whales serve to bring everything into balance. “Planetary alignment” is how the writer put it. Well if they could align planets why not one human body?  

In late morning, after the circle, we went out in the boats. The driver of my boat was Sextos, a big burly Mexican who never ventured out into the lagoon without his flute. “A blow!” someone would shout, pointing, and all binoculars would take aim as Sextos sped up to get near, then cut the motor. Soon he would unfurl the bandanna in which he’d wrapped his flute, pick it up, and begin playing. The whales would arrive within minutes. One time what looked like a whole pod came and stirred the waters beside our boat, rolling over and spyhopping and cavorting while we raced from side to side of the boat in anticipation. At some point we knew at least one of them would sidle up to us.

I can still feel it, seeing one of those huge mottled gray bodies arcing and diving and arcing again until she was just alongside the boat, how alive it would get down in my belly. As if at one time that gray mottled body had been in mine. As if it had been mine? In these moments there is only body, there is just you and your friends on this boat and beside you now practically rubbing up against the gunwales, this giant gray slippery body of the “baby” who is the biggest animal you have ever touched. There is only the feel of the slick rubbery skin against your hand as the body moves up and down, the feel of your hand inside the baby’s mouth when you manage to push past the soft fringe of the baleen and he seems to grip onto it, the feel of that rubbery skin against your lips the one time you manage to attach your mouth to it –“Besame! Besame!”  Sextos is yelling, kiss them they love it! 

A Somali friend of mine told me that the most horrible moment of her childhood – and she lived through mass killings—was the first time she looked at herself in a mirror. She was five or six years old. It was not that she did not like what she saw. It was that until that moment she had lived in the world as a purely sentient being. Now, she said, all was localized perception. Then, it was her whole body that perceived and the world was completely alive. Whole-body perception. Here, with the whales, I had an inkling of what she was talking about. 

This is all there is in the world, just these human bodies around you these animal bodies in the water and the body of the ocean and you, who are suddenly both heavier and lighter than you’ve ever been, have been given the ballast you have always needed, yet are floating in watery ether. This is what it is to know a being so big, so massive in its primal ISness, that its waves ripple out to the far edges of the world and leave no being untouched.

When the boat pulls in to shore Sextos helps us disembark then gathers us all in a circle and has us dance sideways together and then blow kisses at each other. “Love is in the air,” he sings. It is, I can feel it, we have been loved by the whales and now we all love each other, we can’t help it!  And there is not a crooked bone or aching muscle in my body. 

But the whales are not done with me yet. Or I am not done with them. I am going out one more time in the afternoon. My last chance. As the boat pulls out I wonder if I’m being greedy. There are only five of us from the trip, wanting to get in our last hellos, and our driver is a woman who is mostly quiet as we head out to sea. The water is rough now, rougher than it’s been before, it is harder to spy the whales and for a long time we don’t see any. I notice myself beginning to long…. to hanker. To crave. Please whales just one last time. As if I haven’t already had enough. As if they haven’t already given me…. EVERYTHING! Oh but this is my last day, my last chance. Please mama please baby, just one last time. But haven’t they been teaching me patience? Being one with what is, whatever that is? Isn’t that their palpable wisdom? Obviously I have not taken it in as I watch myself getting more and more anxious….. Only twenty minutes left and still we have not spied one whale. Until, at last, yes!!! Just fifty feet from our boat, a mama and her large calf, frolicking, seeming to want our company. 

And now the baby is right up against the boat and the others are all rushing to one side to stroke him—no doubt jonesing like me. Most of them manage to get their hands on him, but he shoots off before I can insinuate myself. Damn! But now… a giant body moving towards us. The mama? Yes!  Just feet away!! This I will not miss, we have been sending the mothers our love now for days, we can’t help feeling the most aching gratitude to them for the way they keep offering up their young. And now… now I get to thank her with my hands!! I push my way in and extend myself far over the side of the boat. Oh Mama come come you’re the best mama we love you so much…. She is now so close just a few more inches and my fingers will make contact…. Instead…….!!!!… sudden shock of spray…!!!!

wet spray salt spray jet spray and now WET hair WET jacket WET pants and even the boat WET now, filling with water, and your friends and the driver also wet and pointing at you, laughing—you who all week have been trying to protect your hair from the salt water!! You, who, when the shock relents, are laughing the purest loudest most HEARTY laughter of your entire life. Also the longest, as it goes on and on and on… because this great mama has chosen this moment of your readiness your openness to blow on you with all the force of her giant lungs. There is NOTHING now but this and then for hours there is only this… complete abandon to this moment, of laughter…. And love. 

*Adapted from essay published in Feminist Pilgrimage: Journeys of Discovery, ed. Stacy Russo (Litwin Books, 2020) and Honoring Nature, ed. Lis McLoughlin, Wendell, MA (Human Error Publishing, 2021)

About the Author

Lise Weil is editor of Dark Matter: Women Witnessing. You can read more about her here.

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