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.
Filed under: Animals, Ecofeminism, Environmental ethics, Environmental psychology, Folklore and Oral Tradition, Our Earth and Ourselves, Stories, worldviews | Tagged: Ecofeminism, Environmental psychology, inter-species experiences, seals |