Beasts of the Northern Wild

Stranded whalesLike 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

  1. Transcendence.

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.

  1. (Re)Connection

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.

  1. 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.

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A song of the wild

Nightingale‘There is a tendency for us to flee from our wild silence and the wild dark, to pack up our gods and hunker down behind city walls, to turn the gods into idols, to kowtow before them and approach their precincts only in official robes of office. And when we are in the temples then who will hear the voice crying in the wilderness? Who will hear the reed shaken in the wind?’ Chet Raymo

I recently invited a group of people via Facebook to come and listen to nightingales. It was on a bit of a whim. I didn’t really expect anyone else to drive an hour from where I live to listen to a bird signing from the depths of a bush. I was also careful not to guarantee even hearing one at all. Nevertheless about 12 of us wandered into a wood in north Dorset at dusk and were treated to 10 minutes of a single nightingale unfurling his full and utterly fantastic repertoire. Some of his vocal acrobatics made us gasp with astonishment, others made us laugh. It just doesn’t seem possible for one small brown insignificant bird to be able to unleash such a symphony of sound.

It really was quite an evening. Most of us had never heard a nightingale before. The faces of most of the urban dwellers we were with opened up in wonder. It was magical and utterly life-giving.

And it reminded me of why I took up birdwatching 10 years ago. A counsellor I was seeing at the time asked me about life outside of work. The reality was at that stage in my life that time for interests that had sustained me at other times had been squeezed out. ‘So why not take up something else?’ ‘What would you do if you decided to do something you’ve never done?’

So I began birdwatching with a cheap pair of sports binoculars and it was one of the best decision I’ve ever made. Perhaps the greatest revelation in this growing passion was the world that opened up to me when I began to learn the songs and calls of birds. Suddenly the background sound world of birds that lies there unobtrusively but consistently in even the most unwild of environments began to reveal its secrets. It was like learning a new language. Like switching to short wave and discovering a foreign station suddenly making sense. It was as though this dimension of wilderness that had seemed so distant had crept closer and I was party to its presence whilst others carried on regardless. It was a transforming discovery.

Much has been made of the loss of darkness in our urban world. But less has been made of the loss of the sounds of the wild in a world increasingly noisy with the drone of traffic and the roar of jet planes. A recent article however argues for birdsong to be taught in schools as a means of trying to reconnect us with a wilderness we are increasingly estranged from. This is in response to a sense that we are losing the ability to hear, recognise and appreciate the sounds of the natural world. It argues; “We are conditioning ourselves to ignore the information coming into our ears, and as a consequence we are losing the ability to engage with the environment in the way we were built to”

I agree. It’s not just that those sounds are being pushed more and more to the margins, though that is part of it. There is still an abundance of birdsong in even the most intensely built environment, indeed some birds (swifts, gulls, even peregrines) have learnt to thrive in it. It is that our senses have become dulled to the point of deafness to these sounds that were once part of the very day experience and knowledge of most people. The sheer volume of noise we encounter everyday means that our ears and brains make a choice and our attentiveness to the irrelevant noises of birds gets unlearned.

And with it something else gets lost. Something of our humanity, something of our soul, that is made to engage with the natural world. All spirituality starts with attentiveness. It starts when we lift our attention away from our little universes, stop and pay attention to something beyond us, something which doesn’t need us, something that just is. For me learning birdsong opened up a world that helped me reconnect with the wonder and diversity of the natural world that had been there all the time if only I had stopped to listen. It also helped me enhance my ability to forget myself and my petty concerns and pay attention to something else.

As the world of birdsong continued to open up to me I was constantly reminded of those words of Jesus in concluding many of his parables; ‘He who has ears to hear, listen…’. It is not that we cannot hear the call of the wild, the invitation of the natural world, the beckoning of something sacred in creation. It is simply that we have stopped listening. And when we stop listening the danger is we actually lose the ability to listen at all. I wonder to what extent along with birdsong we are losing the ability to hear other things, our true selves, others, and even God himself.