For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.
-Leonardo Da Vinci
There is something deeply compelling about the fantastical: the ideas, the possibilities, the inhabitants, of a world that is so like ours yet alien in ways both exciting and unnerving. It fires up our sense of wonder, and a kind of nostalgia for the childlike ability to see magic in the mundane.
The idea of the Garden of Eden, a place of perfect peace and harmony between God, man, and nature, is fantastical. What does “perfect peace” mean? What does that look like? How does that even work? Eden imagery, for people of predominantly European descent, usually evokes a single moment: the one right before man breaks union with God. The world of Eden is frozen for our reflection. It is fantastic, we think, that lions and lambs and turkeys coexist without fear. It is fantastic, we wistfully say, that the world here is sunny and unbloodied. Wouldn’t it be fantastic, we think, if the world was more like this again?
Well, what if the world did retain some vestiges of Edenic harmony? What if the magic is still in the mundane? What would that look like?
The people of the Arctic and Hawai’i have a pretty good idea.
Scientists are increasing interested in studying the Arctic peoples who have a rich cultural history of communicating with whales and other animals. Their anecdotes, like that of Harry Bower, Sr. are fascinating.
Harry Brower Sr. was lying in a hospital bed in Anchorage, Alaska, close to death, when he was visited by a baby whale.
Although Brower’s body remained in Anchorage, the young bowhead took him more than 1,000 kilometers north to Barrow (now Utqiaġvik), where Brower’s family lived. They traveled together through the town and past the indistinct edge where the tundra gives way to the Arctic Ocean. There, in the ice-blue underwater world, Brower saw Iñupiat hunters in a sealskin boat closing in on the calf’s mother.
Brower felt the shuddering harpoon enter the whale’s body. He looked at the faces of the men in the umiak, including those of his own sons. When he awoke in his hospital bed as if from a trance, he knew precisely which man had made the kill, how the whale had died, and whose ice cellar the meat was stored in. He turned out to be right on all three counts…In his final years, he discussed what he had witnessed with Christian ministers and Utqiaġvik’s whaling captains. The conversations ultimately led him to hand down new rules to govern hunting female whales with offspring, meant to communicate respect to whales and signal that people were aware of their feelings and needs.
What can we take away from the experiences of the Arctic people? One, they support theories that animals have an acute awareness of self and their relationship to “other.” Two, man and animal have the ability, on some deep level, to know each other and communicate that knowledge. Three, that man and nature have a hierarchical relationship, but one that is rooted in deep humility and respect for what each can, and should, offer the other.
Farther south, in tropical waters, the Hawaiian people have their own rich tradition of understanding and cooperating with the natural world. Nowhere better is this tradition expressed than in their creation mele (song), the Kumulipo.
The Kumulipo, composed before the arrival of European explorers, is breathtaking in it’s comprehensive and scientific understanding of how nature works harmoniously. The song speaks of the creation of all things-male and female-and how for every life in the sea there is a counterpart on land that guards its purpose:
Seaweed and grasses
Man by Waiololi, woman by Waiolola,
The Koeleele was born and lived in the sea;
Guarded by the Ko punapuna Koeleele that grew in the forest.
A night of flight by noises
Through a channel; water is life to trees;
So the gods may enter, but not man.
Like the traditions of the Arctic peoples, the Kumulipo expresses the Hawaiian understanding of reciprocity and its centrality to life. There is an awareness of self, of the “other;” we give generously and take with a profound humility for the gift that is given.
Both of these cultures beautifully express how man and the natural world can reclaim a bit of the fantastical. More importantly, they are living invitations to do more than just reflect on a frozen moment of time. They invite us to generously give now, to humbly accept now, to live now, as we were first created to do.