Like so many people I was really moved by the pictures of sperm whales washed up on beaches at Skegness and Hunstanton this last week. One picture (left) moved me profoundly – the two enormous whales, captured as though nestled into one another in a final embrace, their huge levered mouths open as though at the end of a final long exhalation, their small grey eyes caught in a kind of eternal look of surprise. And all around them ordinary people picking around their sheer size, looking utterly insignificant by comparison.
Huge numbers of people travelled out to see these amazing beasts. Some were similarly moved and awed by the spectacle. Others took the inevitable selfie. Jeremy Vine tweeted his disbelief wondering what the world has come to when out immediate reaction to such an awe inspiring sight is to trophy the event by taking a photo of ourselves in it. Perhaps he is right. But I am left wondering what drew people out onto the sands to cry, to wonder, to experience the spectacle of two dead beasts.
I suggest three reasons
We experience a kind of transcendence when we are confronted by an experience so strange, so overwhelming, even mysterious. This is fascinating when any number of documentaries or online material can give us access to footage or imagery of a sperm whale. But there is of course nothing like experiencing the real thing. Witnessing these beasts in all their utter size and scale is a zoological equivalent of going to space, or standing on a mountain with the Milky Way streaking above our heads. These are transcendent experiences. And for all science’s ability to explain them and tell us what these are, we still experience them as something akin to a spiritual experience.
These monsters of the deep remind us that we are connected to the rest of creation in an incredibly integral way. That connection, intrinsic to generations of humanity has been stretched and stretched by the powerful forces at work in the world over the last few hundred years. Perhaps the tide is turning with movements emphasizing the disconnecting practices of our supermarkets, tourism, and our urban way of life. However, for vast numbers of our majority city dwelling population it is not just whales that are a mystery in our experience, it is the local beach, the farm where our milk comes from, the bees that pollinate our fruit trees. When people cry at the sight of whales dead on a beach they express the unfelt grief of a society for a relationship with nature that has been utterly broken.
- The deep
The whale has a long cultural and literary history. Whales capture our imagination, they symbolise something profound for us. They stand for everything overwhelming, beyond us, frightening, dangerous. And they emerge mysteriously and fleetingly from that chaotic swirl of the sea, which despite our progress, remain very much that uncharted and undiscovered territory which we have yet to truly master. Old maps used drift off into uncharted areas ‘where there be monsters’. Nothing has really changed. The sea, the deep, is still a place of darkness and mystery which from time to time throws up reminders of our frailty and finitude.
And the thing is that the deep, its chaos, its darkness, its propensity for producing forces that are beyond us, is critical for our thriving as human beings. Our thirst for control, for bringing everything ‘down to size’, in our grip, under our command, is ultimately unhealthy. There is an appropriate smallness to our place in the universe, the forgetting of which has the propensity to make us very unpleasant indeed. The famous whale story of the Bible is the book of Jonah where the ‘great fish’ is provided by God to save Jonah, thrown from his ship of convenience, as he sinks into the chaos of the sea. Three nights in the dark and skanky belly of this great beast is exactly what Jonah needs to reset his own particular version of hubris and renew his relationship with God.
Whether you believe in the literal truth of Jonah’s whale or not, the lesson of Jonah is that our growth as human beings sometimes requires precisely those places that we would rather not connect with at all. The darkness. The deep. The belly of a whale. But connect we must if we are to kick the habit of growing too big for ourselves, grasping too much false control.
The whales of Skegness and Hunstanton of course were very real indeed. They were super-real. Almost supernatural. But perhaps that is a rather apt word to use. In their unnatural dying, on the sands of an English beach, they offer us a needed reminder of the depths of life, physical, spiritual and eternal, we are rapidly losing touch with.