The Story Given to Me by Seals

Ancient stories taught our ancestors to hear the voices of the larger than human world.  There are those stories, for instance, in which men find themselves married to seals-who nonetheless still long for the sea.  No matter how much the seal-wife loves her human husband, she will abandon him for her first home if she gets the chance.

And if her husband is not wise enough to give her that chance, she will die. As with the seal-wife in this tale, something of the wild may profoundly touch us–it may even come to live with us for a time.  But if we attempt to keep it under our control, we will kill its vitality. We will also lose something essential in ourselves in the process.  There is the telling origin of the word “nightmare” related by Robert Graves in The White Goddess.  Those who first domesticated horses in Britain believed that for every mare broken to a stall, there was a “nightmare” that haunted the craggy cliffs and bogs where humans dared not go.  And with her long teeth and dangerous hooves, she trampled those who would domesticate her in their dreams.

The sense of the wild as something in need of taming is a relatively new one in human cultures– and as the historical incident above indicates, it carries considerable psychic ambivalence. Pope Benedict recently observed that we need to reclaim an understanding of natural law: of the perception that we might find a guideline for human conscience in the profound spiritual order of the natural world. This idea directly coincides with traditions of indigenous Northwesterners such as those on the Columbia River who understood the “laws of creation” as necessary and ethical human behavior.

Indeed, many cultures understand that natural life has something essential to say to us both about the sacred and about human conscience.  Take the story from the Black Sea, which tells how seals and whales once lived on land and built an empire with their hands whose bones are still very much like those in our own hands. According to this story, they also created a sophisticated technology– but they used it to make war on one another and ravage the earth.

In short, they violated natural law in a way parallel to what many humans are doing today.

The Mother of Life intended to destroy them before they destroyed life itself. But the holy men among them struck a bargain with her. If she would let their people live, they would take to the sea, and exchange their dangerous hands for flippers.  As part of the bargain they would warn others away from the mistake they had made.

Thus it is a seal might follow us along the shore, as if trying to catch our attention, or a whale will beach near a ship as if it has something to tell us– in spite of the dangers to itself in doing this.

It is not so great a distance between listening to the earth in order to understand “natural law” and attributing agency to the wild. Indeed, if we truly believe that the natural world is animated by law that transcends human whims, mysterious things follow.   Folktales from traditions throughout the world reach across species lines to the mythic times when “all the animals and humans spoke the same language”–and animals had much to teach us about being human.

Such tales are not limited to non-Western societies.  There is an intriguing European folktale from the Middle Ages, in which a young boy outcast by his rich father for failing to be a social climber has one marvelous trait:  he can understand the language of animals. This skill not only helps him foil the plots of those humans who conspire against him. The story ends by his being chosen Pope, since the doves of the Holy Spirit speak not only with him but about him to the faithful.

What folktales tell us in their mythic inspiration, the natural world expresses in its own mysterious ways when wild creatures reach across the species lines to us– as has happened to me–and likely to each of your in various ways.  Such experiences have led me to believe there are no coincidences- -only stories waiting to be told.  Those stories are gifts that life blesses us with: our job is to be alert enough to recognize them.

One such story of depicting my own experience begins at Sunset Bay on the Oregon coast almost twenty years ago. In winter, when I came to Coos Bay to teach, I regularly walked the beach alone, in companionship with sea and sky–and a certain baby seal who would follow me along the edge of the tide line, popping up to eye me with its  wide unblinking stare. In response to its curiosity I began a spontaneous song

“You with your ocean eyes,

I with my feet on earth.

What will say to me?”

As I sang, I happened to look down at the beach where I strolled. And there at my feet was a flat rock, half the size of my palm that was shaped exactly like a seal!

I placed this in the glove compartment of my car as a memento of the mysterious ways in which our world is bound together.

A few months later I was camping at that same beach with my seven year old daughter, who was fascinated by the seal-stone and its story.  As I ran in the sand a short distance away, she took it out to play with. And amidst the uncounted stones on this beach, it slipped away and disappeared. No matter how hard we looked, we could not find it again.

My first response was frustration.  How could she be so careless with my treasure? But then I understood something.  Perhaps she has done just what she should.  What good is a thing with a story to it preserved in the dash compartment of a car? (Or a museum or a zoo?) It should be taken out, admired, played with-and ultimately given back to the elements once again.

After all, my daughter had only given back to the beach what belonged to it. Such a thing we may hold in our hands only long enough to glimpse something luminous from the heart of life. Only long enough, that is, to feel how precious it is-before we release it back to the natural world from which it came.

And if we do give it back, as I did only with my daughter’s help, more wondrous things may happen.

A short time after the stone was lost, I was at Cape Arago beach, a vigorous walk from Sunset Bay.  I like to imagine that this was just time enough later for a stone to be swept up by the tide and travel back to the sea with a story attached to it.  For, as I sat against a driftwood log, half dozing in the sparkling sunlight, a baby seal climbed out of the sea, pulling itself laboriously through the sand, and placed its head on the log on which I leaned my own head less than a foot from my own.

During the time I stayed by the log, the seal dozed beside me.  When I walked up the cliff to my car, I watched her slide back down the beach to the sea and swim away again.

She left me with this story that indicates how much larger the world is than our rational conception of it–the limiting rationality that the Pope decries as constraining us only to analyze and manage our world rather than to feel our full embeddedness in it-and accept the messages it wishes to bring us.

But if we do perceive the way the wild places us in its story, we can hardly fail to honor a world so full of gifts.

Please note that this material is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden.  I welcome you to link to this site, but you need my permission to reproduce the material here.

27 Responses

  1. What a wonderful story. The coast has always been a magical place for me. I think very few people have such experiences or as openminded to the beauty of life in order to appreciate it. One thing that I always think about in respect to the connection between humans and the lives of other creatures is that they do not depend upon. If humans were somehow wiped off the planet the animals and plants would continue to thrive. However, if we were to loose an animal or a species of plants is it possible that our lives could be threatened. This in my opinion should cause people to pay a better respect to the environment and other creatures in it. Living life like we can do no harm or that we can continue to take as much as we wish from the environment is going to cause us nothing but problems.

  2. I couldn’t agree with your last sentence more, Ashley. Thanks for sharing this magical moment with myself and the seals. Likely you have experienced some similar moments on the coast you also love.

  3. First, I love hearing the origins of our English words, so thank you for the story of “nightmares”. I always wondered about that word, and I’ve often thought how natural it seems that dreams and horses be linked in our subconscious development of language–both hold such a mysterious power. This power of mystery that we sometimes (well, most of the time) choose to ignore, is nonetheless present in our lives. It is us who make the choice of allowing ourselves to receive the joy and the gifts of The Mystery, but it is not us who create it or hold influence over it. We can only be participators, and perhaps facilitators, but not controllers. This is a rare role for humans to play…one of NOT being in control. Although some people feel anxiety over not being in control, I find that appreciating the natural “laws of creation” as something I, nor any other human, has control over, is supremely liberating and comforting. This gives me a sense of place, a sense of belonging, and a sense of being at home in the world, because there are forces that are an influence on me, no matter where I am. The laws of creation are always with me. The world will always be bigger and more mysterious than I can every comprehend. This allows me to just BE what I am, a human, just one part of the Mystery.

  4. I really enjoyed this story. It made me realize that the best gifts in life are given freely. Like the seal that came out to keep you company who was comfortable enough to take a nap in your presence. The seal was not forced to do this. It chose to act this way freely. This leads me to believe the seal could sense you were a trustworthy or a safe person, maybe even a mother. What a neat thing to be able to experience. This reminds me of a time I looked out the back window to see my cat laying right beside an elk without either having a care in the world about it. Normally animals tend to stick with their own type as people do too. It is amazing to witness this type of behavior. It is reassuring to know it is possible for diverse species to get along naturally.

    • Hi Laura, thanks for your response here. It is a gift to share such experiences with other living creatures. It is wonderful to be reminded that the world is mysteriously larger than we often give it credit for–and we humans are not alone in the cycle of life.

  5. I read this thread when I first started this class and loved it. I have always wanted to experience these kinds of interactions with sea mammals. i have always felt such a strong connection with seals, I love that they look without reservation and see with intetnt to see what is.
    What a beautiful stroy to be able to share with children– My son is very connected with animals. We have a very old dog– and recently we’ve been having meaninigful conversations with her, it is ok for her to go now, we are ready and we have experienced a serious decline in her health since then. I can see if we didn’t have these conversations, worry and fear would arise where our comfort in knowing we understand eachother resides. This experience has taught me so much about what we can learn from animals and in observing my child I’ve come to truly appreciate the connection that is possible when you have always known the interconnection we share with animals, and the quality of life that blossoms when with mutual understanding, we are able to be at peace with life’s processes.

    • Thanks for sharing your touching personal experience here, Kelly. It seems that one thing we can learn from animals is how we ourselves fit into the cycle of life and death– and how to love others means to make ourselves vulnerable to this cycle, with all its potential joy, grief, and lessons.

  6. Like the rest who posted here, I really enjoyed the story. Although not as complex as how humans interact, this sort of communication shows us how we can improve our relationship with the natural world around us. It would definitely help us if we were to adopt the idea of “partnership societies” in which not only a fair treatment of both genders is honored, but the natural order of things is also not disrupted (i.e. if we can communicate with animals and not see them as “food”, “clothing”, ..etc, then we will treat them better instead of just hunting them down!).

    • I’m glad you liked this Yousef. I certainly agree with your point about the partnership stance with respect to both other humans and the natural world. I think this would also change our quality of life and allow us to be more present here.

  7. A couple of years ago I lived on the Russian River in northern California, about 10 miles from the mouth. From my living room I could see the harbor seals playing as they followed the salmon up the river. There is something wonderful about animals at play, but sea mammals are particularly special. When we canoed down the river, they would follow along behind our boat. The younger ones even seemed to be daring each other to see how close they could come to our boat before popping out of the water. At one point, I even had a seal hide behind my boat while he ate part of a salmon he caught. He just bobbed there and looked at me while he ate, like a family member sitting across the table. It’s amazing how meaningful a shared experience like that can be. I know that it’s something that will be with me for a long time.

  8. I find that in the company of wild animals many lessons can be learned. I have had a few that have influenced my future actions. While domesticated animals provide great companionship to humans, it is truly a gift when a wild animal shares even a brief moment with you. I was lucky enough to have had an experience with a wolf. While I was scared out of my mind, I somehow knew he meant me no harm. I was siting in a rocking chair outside of a cabin in Big Bear, CA grilling chicken. I believe the smell of the food brought him in to investigate. We regarded each other for a few moments. I was marveling as to the beauty and awe of this encounter. He then turned and walked back into the trees. I will forever remember those few minutes with complete clarity as I value it so deeply and consider it a rare gift indeed.

  9. This story is a good lesson to be learned. Your daughter was doing what came naturally to her. In that, the rock was returned to where it belonged. So many times, we think we know what is best, or what we want, but sometimes neither is what is needed. So often, we act because we know, and we know what we have been taught by man, or have been conditioned to believe. This is unnatural in a sense. What if we stopped thinking in the ways that we have been taught, and instead tried to act naturally, using our instincts? What if we tried to just observe, and stop changing nature to fit what we want?
    The night-mare story/legend is sad to me. In that, as a parent, I am constantly reminded by outsiders how I should control and “break” my daughter. She is a challenge to be sure, but she also is more alive, creative, and intelligent than most people I have ever met. She is strong, articulate, assertive, and healthy. Just last weekend, I was told, “there isn’t a horse that can’t be broken” and “she behaves that way because she has won”. These both were comments in regards to her choice making-whether or not to eat dinner. I found myself asking them, “why do we want to break her?” and “why does someone have to win or lose?”
    This is kind of off topic, but it reminds me that we are changing and controlling nature (and other people) in order to have dominance or convenience. It’s wrong I believe.

    I love your story-thank you for sharing it.

    • I am glad you liked the story, Erin. More about nightmare and “breaking” horses is coming in a post I am putting up by the end of the week. I think you will enjoy that as well–and keep supporting the spirit of that daughter of yours. She sounds utterly full of life and that is a gift that the two of you can share in your recognition of this!

  10. I’ve been to the coat a million times and have never had anything as magical as that happen to me…but I am going to go a million times more in hopes that I get to have at least one experience like yours 🙂

    I really liked your perceptions on giving back to the earth what it the earth’s. The whole idea of the reciprocity of gifts from nature. I’ll keep that in mind from now on!

  11. I loved those stories! I wish I had the same love for the coast. I have too many negative childhood memories involving the coast and the ocean.

    In my faith it is not a “natural’ state for animal and man to be seperate. It is not “natural” for the lion to fear me and I the lion. We were created in love and beauty to care for one another. The seal sleeping by your side is a beautiful example to me of how Nature was ment to be. I tend to be drawn to crows in my experiences. Sometimes when I am alone outside it never fails one is near by. Sometimes I speak, sometimes I don’t. But in all cases I feel a beautiful moment has happened. I wish we could see all nature as a connected circle to ourselves. We are all here because of each other and for each other. Until the end of patriarchy, I think there will always be a man-made hierarchy that keeps us seperate from the land and animals we were never ment to be apart from in the first place.

    • I really like your idea that we are all here because of and for each other, Shawna. The end of this sad and lonely hierarchy we have inherited comes with consciousness like your own.
      I think it hopeful when larger than human lives reach out to us as do your crows.

  12. I’m not much of a water person, but I do enjoy visiting the coast whenever I can. (Unfortunately, Nebraska is pretty far away from the oceans!) A few years ago, I visited Hawaii during my two-week annual tour in the military reserves. Now, I can’t swim, and I was pretty scared of the water at first, but my friends took me to a beach that had a very gentle slope out to the ocean. I spent hours on that beach, using a boogie board to ride the waves in to shore. I didn’t have to go out past my comfort zone, but I was still able to enjoy the force and beauty of the ocean. Later on, I walked along the rocky area of the shore and saw giant sea turtles! They were close enough to me that I could have reached over the rocks and touched them as they swam nearby. I would love to return to Hawaii, if only to soak in the beauty of the natural parts of the island.

    • Hi Roxanne, the midwest is a ways from the ocean in either direction! I do think there is something deep in us that resonates with the ocean. It sounds like you had quite an adventure!

  13. I agree with the thought that if we try to keep an animal under our control we will kill its vitality. I see this is in my own personal experience-with an african grey parrot I took in. I personally don’t think a bird should, especially one of that size, should be captured and taken out of the wild only to live out it life (sometimes up to 60 years) in a cage. I believe birds were given their wings so they could fly free on earth. Sam- the bird I took in is 28 years old and he lives out of a cage. Unfortunately, he knows no other life, and he plucks out his own flight feathers. I can’t help but feel sadness. I look at him, and I wonder how he can be happy. I couldn’t be. Yet, every night when he is ready for bed, he starts singing “Twinkle, twinkle little star.” That is my cue that I am supposed to go in and tuck him into bed and sing to him.

    • I know that parrots are particularly social birds, Amber. Obviously, this one has formed a strong bond with you–and now you are responsible for him and from what I know of parrot lifespans, he may outlive you!

  14. What a beautiful story. I love those connections we are able to have with nature. I liked your point about returning the rock to the place where it belonged. Sometimes we feel like if we’ve found something beautiful, we need to keep it and hold on to it so we can always remember, but that’s the beauty of the ocean and the rocks. They will always be there and your memories and the connections you make with nature are yours to keep forever.

  15. There are a few beautiful islands off the north western coast of Trinidad. Some friends of mine and I would often take a dinghy to one of these islands, Gasparee. Often, a school of dolphins would follow our little boat as we moved towards Gasparee, and at times I have reached out and touched a fin or a tail of one. Sometimes we would just shut off the engine in the middle of the ocean, and enjoy communing with them. These rare moments are some that I hope my daughters will one day experience.

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