By: Easton Smith
Whales can sing to each other across oceans. Their sound waves refract in the changing depths and temperatures of the water, which increases their speed and reach. The deep coo of the sperm whale, the loudest animal in the world, can be heard for more than a thousand miles in these “deep sound channels”. These whales push their immensity through expanses of pressured black water in solitude, hundreds of miles from their own kin; alone, but for the calls of their distant lovers.
And us humans, we can also speak across the ocean. But first we had to learn to ret the hearty hemp plant into fiber and weave that fiber into fabric for sails, to chop and shape trees into vast vessels. Even then, we had no deep sea channels and it took us weeks to travel one thousand miles. It wasn’t until we started digging up the fossilized remains of long dead whales and algae and began burning them in furnaces to stir mighty propellers that things sped up. It only took about two days for the Titanic to travel one thousand miles. Finally, with modern sonar technology, we have caught up with the whale and can ping across the ocean almost instantaneously. The ocean is now filled with our screams.
The whales can no longer hear each other. The low hum of their song can only travel a few miles before it is interrupted by some ocean liner, some fishing ship whose engine vibrates at the same low frequency. Our sonar disorients the whales, they get lost and sometimes aren’t able to feed. In some cases, sonar causes acoustically-induced hemorrhages in a whale’s’ ears, and they become so disoriented that they wash ashore to die. The small fraction of whales that have survived 300 years of human hunting, less than ten percent for some species, they get to live out their lives next to a highway, right by a noisy intercom, in a constant fire drill. In our effort to make the world smaller for ourselves, we emptied it of such largeness.
I learn about our silencing of the whales when in the desert one night, as Kate and I look at the stars. I don’t know why it is this that makes me cry, when so many other facts related to humans’ shitty neighborliness don’t. I feel beached on a shore of such facts, but most of them just feel like grains of sand. This one, it feels as weighty as the whale, as deep as their hum, as devastating as all of those stars disappearing.
I am in a truck with a man I have never met before. We are on our way up to an activist gathering, and I am picking his sandy-hair-covered brain about his past. He is typical of these men that I meet in trucks going some place in the Southwest: he has lived many lives, and each seems to have changed him just as much as was required for him to survive, and no more. He has molded himself through direct bodily experience, rather than contemplative, abstract reflection or adherence to some moral code. He knows that he should be doing something about the environment because he has walked on the environment, enjoyed its sights, sounds, and temperatures. He knows that certain races work harder than others because he has hired them, season after season, to put up and pull down christmas lights. He knows the name and conservation status of the white tailed prairie dog because he has seen so many while hunting, which is also when he learned to call for elk as he does out the truck window with some frequency. He is full of the contradictions of a man who takes life as he finds it, one day at a time, and doesn’t bother to second guess himself by trying to put it all together into some coherent, seamless picture.
His descriptions of some thirty-odd years of life are matter-of-fact, clear, unmurkied by doubt or emotion. Recently, he spent many years living with his wife out of a truck, rock climbing every day and traveling the country. Explaining this raises not the slightest excitement in him. Whether by accident or by design, he has nearly perfected this masculine equanimity. And this begs out of me some intrusive desire to dig into him. I ask towards some deeper places and notice his occasional sighs and pauses, the way that he stares longingly into the desert. I try to wade through his ocean of anecdotal stories to find a soft, sandy place to dig in my feet, to find some root of emotion hidden in the opaque waters. My direct queries are fruitless at first, but after about an hour I finally toe some different sand, some riled up part. The topic is banking.
The banking system is controlled by an elite cabal of super-rich and powerful families, he explains assuredly. The federal reserve is actually a private bank, he explains hurriedly. There is a whole web of interrelated, secret schemes by powerful individuals that keep us confused and oppressed, he explains hotly. Explanation animates him, as if his words bring life to his theories and the charisma of the telling will undo the injustice of it all. He lays it out for me as if I asked, as if I were asking with a very big grin, every minute and half, that he tell me more. He moves too quickly, masticating his own words before they can leave his mouth. He pontificates with the sudden appearance of a single emotion: excitement. It’s not just banking, but also vaccines, 9/11, the food industry, international relations, and a whole litany of other conspiracies that compete to be told. He has transformed from a curt, stoic man who has his own, humble opinions into a zealot for the cult of obscure truths.
I offer small affirmations and probing questions out of politeness and because I have been fringey enough in my life to know the pain of a conversation partner’s empty pauses and blank stares. I listen actively until, exhausted, I sit quiet through his screed. My final reticence seems to remind him of something, as he trails off, mumbles an apology, and joins me in silence. After a few seconds he states, back in his deadpan, that he knows he takes it too far, he even lost a marriage over all this stuff. I should respond quickly to ease the tension left in the wake of his admission, but I fear eliciting another tirade, so I let these words pool up in their own emotional vulnerability. We both look out the window at the desert cliffs, and a scant sense of shame fills the silent truck.
In 1875, a “scientific English gentleman,” Mr. James Wickham, released two whales into the Great Salt Lake. A team spent two years capturing the whales off the coast of Australia, then had them shipped to San Francisco, where they were loaded onto a train (in tanks of seawater) and shipped to Salt Lake City. The two 35-foot whales were dumped into the salty water (the Great Salt Lake is five times saltier than the ocean), caged in by a large, underwater fence. With a single purposed ferocity, the whales swam right through the fence and within “twenty minutes, they were out of sight and the chagrined Mr. Wickham stood gazing helplessly at the big salt water.” A team spent days tracking the free roaming whales across the 75-mile long lake. They finally found the couple months later, and they had amassed a pod of whale babies that numbered in the hundreds. “The scheme is a surprising and complete success and Mr. Wickham has earned the thanks of mankind.” So goes the story from a June 24, 1890 article from the Utah Enquirer.
The grandchildren of these two whales, perhaps they were Sei Whales from the Australian coast, could be swimming in the happy shallow waters of the most eerily magical body of water into which I have ever dipped a toe. But they are not. Even if the whales were blessed by Salacia, god of salt water, to be able to withstand the heavy salinity of the lake, and even if they could survive a strict diet of brine shrimp, the very story of the whale-scheme is itself likely fallacious. The Utah Enquirer was a reputable enough publication, but the article was written fifteen years after the supposed incident, and there are no other accounts of Mr. Wickham’s venture to be found in any other newspaper or history of the Salt Lake Valley.
But it’s true, too. True as a legend kept alive through its telling, like whales themselves will one day be kept alive only in our wild imaginations. And it takes little of my wild imagination to conjure their extinction as I look at pictures of the thousands of whales that, just in the last few years, washed dead on beaches. Last year, 337 Sei whales were discovered rotting, sprinkled across the remote Southern coast of Chile. It was the largest mass Cetacean stranding ever recorded. Evidence suggests that toxic algal blooms from rising ocean temperatures killed the whales at sea and their bodies sailed together towards us in a knot of death and warning. There are only an estimated 80,000 Sei whales left in the world, making this single event an extinction of .04% of their population, which for our species would look like three million humans dying in a single crisis.
The whales will all die in my lifetime. I am not sure of it, but it seems likely. And if there is a mass extinction of the whales, I would like to believe there will be a few left, unknown and undisturbed, living on brine shrimp, enjoying the therapeutic qualities of heavy salinity, and calling to each other across the seventy five miles of the Great Salt Lake. Of course, then I would have to believe that the Great Salt Lake isn’t evaporating at a faster rate than it is filling due to overuse of its tributaries. To believe anything pleasant seems to require the willful suspension of one truth or another.
In the silence of our drive I contemplate the organization of this man’s life. He seems to have devised for himself an unagitated existence. He lives acutely in the moment, stopping at a whim to spectate elk and deer in the binoculars. His candid speech and quick judgements reveal a juvenile trust that I, a stranger, will not be judging him. I see him open to the world, ready to grapple with and be changed by whatever thing he encounters. Until, upon that mention of banks, he furiously closed off in a moment of psychological transformation.
The silence is filling at first, taking all of the space in the cab, leaving no room for a single word. But the drive is over three hours long, and eventually casual observances of the scenery bleed into casual conversation. I have difficulty floating at the casual, so within minutes I am gently asking him about his history with conspiracy theories. He explains that it all began with studying the economy on the internet after the 2008 mortgage crisis. But once he began, the gravity of the online forums pulled him in and the matter of his life disintegrated in that black hole. I have been a drug addict, and as he speaks I hear a familiar wash of guilt and hunger. He retreated into his basement, desperate for more intricate, more outrageous, meticulously constructed truths. It was all he could think and talk about. He stopped climbing, stopped working. His wife left him. He lost everything but his brother, who explored the catacombs of internet back pages along with him.
Now he has rules about when and how much he can use the internet. He is trying to piece his life back together, and to talk about other things. I try to respect this by eschewing politics, economics, current events or anything else that one could conspire about. I try. I focus on my own life. But I make the mistake of mentioning something about racism, and before I can say another word I am interrupted. “I have a theory about that”.
He drives back into it, and I sit astounded and disturbed. It’s easy to dismiss his theories as absurdist amalgamations of anecdotal evidence and historical coincidences, but then again, history is full of stranger truths. It’s not the veracity of his claims that irk my insides, make my skin feel tight around me as I sit in the passenger seat. It’s his eyes, round as a secret masonic seal, his attention, as scattered as the official story of the building seven collapse; it’s his gasps for air between sentences that frighten me. He went picking truths without a basket to hold them, and now he is trying to juggle them all at once while also demonstrating their quality and consistency from every angle. He is fumbling all over. He is highly emotional, trying to piece together a thousand piece puzzle on a table that is too small. Every time he moves to a new part, a corner of the puzzle falls to the floor. He mistakes the distraction and offense in the face of his onlooker as a violent demand to pick up the pieces and try again. There is no satisfying end in his quest for a complete truth.
We don’t get to choose which stories make us cry. In our atmosphere of constant information flows, certain truths couple off with our emotions without our consent. From this union our so-called beliefs are constructed more through the mindless shedding, than thorough investigation, of every other truth. At least this is what I have seen.
I grew up in close proximity to conspiracy theories, to full-grown adults who would bear their teary eyed testimony to a blonde, blue eyed Jesus Christ, who even after dying on the cross went to the Americas to preach to the historic peoples of these continents, some of whom were cursed with their dark skin by God himself. A story that explains white supremacy and the mystery of the soul, all at once. I have been in my share of activist meetings where someone interrupted the speaker to explain to us all how the Newtown massacre was a false flag operation. A story that explains the phenomena of random, brutal violence and government corruption all at once. I myself have often felt the tug of the real story, the secret truth, the final, complete narrative that relieves the discomfort of doubt. That drive is present in me now, as I eschew every deviant thought trying to wrap this essay up nice and tidy, clean, genuine and powerful.
The first point of the essay is: there will be errant threads and dropped pieces as I try to get to the second point, which is: my yearning for story, myth and even naive optimism is not the same as a drive for explanation and truth. I want whales in the Great Salt Lake, not because it completes the picture. It does nothing for our concrete world. It makes the death of the oceans more bearable to me, that is all.
I need an arsenal of false beliefs before I can turn my eyes towards the truths of the world, which are already so numerous and terrible that I don’t need to dig beneath the surface for new ones. I don’t need to find out who did 9/11 to see how it was, blatantly, without conspiracy, used to stoke the old fires of racism and to rally the will for endless war and perpetual insecurity. I don’t need more truth, I need more stories. They are songs from far off lovers in a sea of The Real and without them I would be as fraught as my friend at the wheel.
Truth doesn’t set us free, I don’t think. It can just as easily drive us to our basement. It’s not the statistics of oceanic collapse that motivate me. It’s the thought that since whales can live up to 90 years, there are a few out there who might remember a time when all they heard in their vast, dark homes of the sea were each other’s songs.
Between his espousing of theories, my driver mentions that he has been working on writing, trying to get all of his heavy, complicated thoughts onto paper. As we stop along the road at one point to pee and look at the Book Cliffs, he lends me his notebook. He is self-conscious about his writing abilities, but his boyishness pervades as he proudly points to a short piece that stretches from corner to corner of one page, but doesn’t spill past it by a single word.
In this page he describes a desert hike: the species of every animal and plant he passed, the fierce satisfaction of moving his body through the landscape. His narrative says nothing about the Rothschild family or vaccines. He is, on this page, that man of contradictions and humble observation. At the end of his hike, he sits basking in solitude until he hears a ruffling, a conversation, the yells of teenagers at play. This group settles in near him, disrupting his sanctuary. His last line is a lament. If I remember correctly the words are, “those who think they are alone are the loudest.” I read the line and I think of him, screaming his theories at the windshield in the car. I think of lonely humans, yelling from the pulpit, scurrying across the ocean surface in ships of great importance. And the whales below, the loudest animals on earth silenced by the cries of the most lonely.