For Love of Orcas: An Anthology
Edited by Andrew Shattuck McBride and Jill McCabe Johnson. Wandering Aengus Press, 2019. 178 pages. $20.
Last year, when an orca (killer whale) known as Tahlequah carried her dead calf for 17 days and a thousand miles around Puget Sound and nearby waters, the public and media worldwide were riveted by the spectacle. The event brought renewed and fervent attention to the endangered orcas known as the Southern Residents; these fish-eating whales have been in trouble for years, principally due to the decline in the region’s chinook salmon but affected as well by noise, disturbance, ship strikes, and pollution.
“For Love of Orcas” grew from the story of Tahlequah and her calf, as a way for poets and writers to bring even more attention to the plight of the whales and to larger issues about caring for our planet and its creatures. Co-editor Jill McCabe Johnson writes in her introduction, “This book is not a how-to for saving the planet. Instead, it’s a reminder of the complex and exquisite beauty surrounding us. Our hope is that readers will care enough to coalesce and bring our interactions with and effects on that beauty back into balance.”
As with any anthology, the selections here are varied and uneven. Ninety-two poets and writers, mostly from the Northwest, are included, some more than once. A few contributors are scientists as well as writers. A few are activists. Poetry greatly outnumbers the short prose pieces. Alaskans are represented by the late Eva Saulitis, former poets laureate Peggy Shumaker and Ernestine Hayes, and Fairbanksan Daryl Farmer.
There is and has always been debate about whether art can also be political. The famed writer Toni Morrison spoke emphatically about this: “The best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.”
Not everything in this volume is great or even mediocre art, but it is all heart-felt, genuine expressions of human concern for the world in which we live. Likely because the impetus for the book was the one whale and her dead calf, references to Tahlequah (also known as J35) abound, with the same details repeated again and again. The rawness of the event surely influenced emotions and the urge of so many to respond in words of grief, guilt, loss, and outrage. If there’s a surfeit of earnestness here, maybe that’s what’s necessary to drive change.
More complex and language-rich selections are presented by writers with deeper connections to orcas than simply having watched them from a boat or shore (the most common experience shared here.) These also invite readers into questioning and conversation, as opposed to instructing and admonishing. They include two pieces from the scientist-poet Eva Saulitis, who spent decades studying the orcas of Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Both are excerpts from her book “Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist.”
One of these, “Halfway Down an Alder Slope,” perfectly captures the joy of careening down a hillside to nearly leap into the water among orcas; it ends with a naming: “The killer whales are called aaxlu, tukxukuak, agliuk, mesungesak, polossatik, skana, keet, feared one, grampus, blackfish, orca, big-fin, fat-chopper. Whale killer. From the realm of the dead. Orcinus orca.” The second Saulitis excerpt, “In the Tlingit Language,” discusses the dilemma of scientists who love what they study but, also, need to be intrusive in some of their research. “And the more we know, the longer we stay, the more we care, and caring, like anthropomorphism, is tricky ground for that detached creature, the scientist.”
Another prose piece, “Dio,” by biologist and writer Paula MacKay, brings fascinating new information into the orca discussion. MacKay accompanies researchers training dogs to detect orca scat so that it can be collected from the water and analyzed not just for diet but for other health indicators. We learn from this that analyses of hormones collected from hundreds of Southern Resident orcas indicate a 69% pregnancy failure rate.
Other work here might be appreciated for other types of witnessing and for finding beauty in our troubled world. Several poems don’t mention orcas at all but celebrate salmon or the natural world that contains salmon, orcas, and humans. Others angle in at our connections and responsibilities from sidelong directions or arrest us with startling imagery.
For example, the poem “Landscape with No Net Loss” by Jenifer Browne Lawrence speaks with the voice of someone working at a river’s mouth with survey tools and cables. “Longfin smelt change direction midair, belly-slap/to avoid the Chinook or shake loose eggs/or just for the hell of it, who knows, we are all/bouncing off one body and into another.”
Another poem, “Interlude,” by Tina Schumann, merely suggests the two whales with its imagery of “spark and falter,” “ignition and idle engine,” comparisons of music to lapping water and “this small body and the painting of a body.”
The impassioned work in “For Love of Orcas” makes clear that orcas hold a special place in human lives and imaginations. These animals, identified as individuals by their markings and relationships, elicit concern and compassion, even love, as no mussel or candlefish or any other marine species smaller than a whale ever will. That is something to celebrate.