In our January 1992 issue, we published Jim Nollman’s account of his trip to Alaska to help rescue three gray whales trapped in an ice hole.
Nollman is the founder of Interspecies Communication, an organization devoted to promoting dialogue between humans and wild animals.
Standing in line at the FirstAir ticket counter in Ottawa, on my way to the high Arctic, I’m chatting with an engineer who’s traveling to an ozone monitoring station on the remote west coast of Ellesmere Island. He asks me if I’ve ever been to Resolute Bay. “Not much of a town,” I remark, “but beautiful once you get out into the country.”
“There’s no country up there,” he responds curtly. “It’s all barren land.”
Mounting an expedition to the high Arctic can be a crapshoot. The ability of any foreigner to get a solid commitment over the phone from a bush pilot or a local guide is limited. There are only a few qualified guides with a boat or a ski mobile or a dog team, or with a gun to protect visitors from polar bears. A day trip out on to the ice pack can cost a thousand dollars. Commitments are made with the best of intentions, but when a better deal shows up, a guide never forgets that his season is less than six weeks a year.
But money doesn’t always talk. One year, all my expenses covered by Big Bucks Media, I traveled to the Arctic seeking whales, but the belugas didn’t show. Another time I went to the Arctic after an advance man had negotiated with the local native association for access to a well-known beluga habitat. Unfortunately, the native association never told the advance man that the place we intended to visit was actually controlled by the trapping association. We nearly got ourselves killed for trying to find whales where we weren’t wanted.
There are other factors to consider. Ice conditions can change in a moment. A wind blowing from the wrong direction can wipe out the best-laid plans for an entire season. During one year’s expedition, the six members of my crew spent four days camped out on the floor of the airport in Resolute Bay waiting for the fog to lift.
I’ve never gone to the Arctic and been welcomed with open arms. The locals are wary of foreigners in general, and especially wary of those who arrive to attempt something strange. And let’s face it, I’m usually up there attempting hands-on communication with whales — but not for a film or a research project. Though I may film the encounter, what I’m really seeking is what Terence McKenna calls “a seamless archaic union with nature — a sense of integration sometimes best left unmediated by images, unarbitrated by language, sometimes unknowable through acculturated notions of self and other.” Whatever it is, neither the image nor the intent fits the reasons why most foreigners seek access to wildlife.
There’s some irony here. Though many white people believe that the idea of communicating with whales comes from Native American tradition, local Inuit call this impossible nonsense. Shamanism is dead everywhere in the Arctic I have visited, replaced by a fundamentalist Christianity that works hard to censure animistic ties to nature. I don’t mean to imply that local knowledge about the land has vanished. It is still there, and it can still be a mesmerizing experience to listen to a native guide read the ice conditions the way you and I might read a book. But this is a practical knowledge born from hard experience and bound to their survival in harsh conditions. Living as they do in the shadow of the modern macroeconomy, the Inuit’s relationship to wildlife and the land today is that of a hunting culture stripped of its original esteem for the sacred in nature.
I no longer visit the Arctic wearing my intention to communicate with animals on my sleeve. When I need to describe my work more plainly, I prefer to say little and instead demonstrate my high-tech underwater sound system. Electronic wizardry and one-of-a-kind musical instruments lend an aura of credibility to an exercise that otherwise makes no sense to them. But the locals still want to know: is this tourism? Is it science? It isn’t environmental advocacy, is it? I tell them it’s an art project. I believe it is an art project.
Nevertheless, many locals interpret my communication work with whales as an affront to their way of life. I must be doing it for political reasons. After all, communicating with whales also suggests redefining relations with animals. It conjures up a friendly whale, an intelligent whale, a compassionate whale, a musically precocious whale. My desire to interact with this whale gets interpreted as an ethical challenge to the Inuit’s birthright to kill whales for food. Even as I attempt to redefine relations with animals through an essentially benign activity, the locals redefine interspecies communication as the enemy of any hunting culture.
I return to the Arctic each summer, to be buffeted all over again by innuendo. And though I survive each summer without scars, I always suspect that the next summer may not be quite so serendipitous.
But if it feels so unsettling — both physically and psychically — why do I insist upon returning? The answer is easy. As much as the animals who live there, it is the land itself that draws me back again and again. It is immense, wild, free, risky, unfathomable. Sometimes I feel chosen: the roving ambassador of a nonexploitive mindset; a member of a subculture otherwise unrepresented in this place; the only human visitor to an entire quadrant of the planet who is not bent on taking photos, shooting animals, drilling for minerals, studying the decline of native customs, monitoring missiles, or other anthropocentric forms of ecological disaster.
Instead, I go there to experience the intelligence of the Other, in this case, the beluga and narwhal, who talk to their pod mates and who may even talk to people when the field isn’t tainted by centuries of killing.
Talking to the Other seems a difficult path even when attempted with dogs and cats in the comfort of one’s own living room. But traveling onto the ice pack, where polar bears are near neighbors? Trying to communicate with whales who spend 90 percent of their lives underwater? I admit it: I sometimes feel a bit crazy that this is actually my goal. After six trips to the Arctic I have not yet talked to the Other to my satisfaction.
Financing these trips is a challenge. Fishing for environmental grants usually gets me nowhere. Ideas like “seeking the Other” are meant to suggest that the environmental crisis is a crisis of perception. But I have found that perceptual transformation is regarded as a luxury by the large environmental foundations who prefer to focus their funds on crisis management — the necessary task of applying fixes to the degradation that is occurring everywhere these days.
I have been more surprised that a project that uses music to communicate with whales has also proven largely unacceptable to the art foundations. Without meaning to sound pompous, interspecies communication is a sacred art. As such, it does not fit the established, largely urbanized definitions of either art or artists. On the other hand, recognizing the Other as a neighbor (rather than as a metaphor) may demand a more dangerous transformation in individual consciousness than even the wildest avant-garde performance art. There are no products to hang on walls or show in theaters. This is not a performance that is usually documented except by writing about it. Although music lies at the core of the experience, it’s not any special kind of music. It’s not precisely art or science or activism or mysticism. It falls through the cracks.
And yet the money always arrives on time.
Western culture continues to destroy almost every trace of contiguous wilderness on the entire planet until there is almost no place left for us to walk for more than a week without running into some reminder of human conquest.
My 1992 Arctic expedition was to be the most humble one yet — just me and a friend. Our jumping-off point was the tidy Inuit village of Ikpiaryuk, located on the remote northern tip of Baffin Island. My partner, filmmaker Doug Nelson, had already been up there for two weeks, shooting interviews with native elders for a film about a community of subsistence hunters and their relationship to dwindling whale populations. The plan was for the two of us to spend a week at a native hunting camp, day-tripping by boat out to the ice pack, where I would snorkel with narwhal and beluga whales under the ice. Doug wanted to film it. I would write narration for parts of the film.
Narwhals fascinate me. They possess a brain as large as a human’s. They make so many different kinds of sounds that some scientists suggest their vocalizations might be a language. Their long, spiraling tooth is one origination of the myth of the unicorn. A symbol of virginity, the unicorn prompted medieval knights to dedicate their lives to seeking the divine beast in hopes of attaining sacred union with the holy Virgin Mary. As a modern reporter who writes about the potential sacred union between humans and nature, I was on a crusade to one of the few places on earth where I might meet narwhals.
But Doug telephoned two days before my departure, vaguely hinting that the social climate had abruptly changed. His veiled warning prompted me to pack more than just boat gear. I filled a large backpack with everything I would need to live on my own, on the land, for up to two weeks.
When I arrived in Ikpiaryuk in early August, I was informed that the original trip to the hunting camp was no longer an option. The ice conditions had changed. The offers of local help had vanished. I learned I could hire a boat and driver for a few hundred dollars and be shepherded out to the ice pack, to live nearby (but probably not with) an Inuit family whose tents were pitched right on the edge of the floe, where a thousand narwhals were congregating. I was warned that the very unseasonable winds might continue to blow and eventually push the ice a hundred miles offshore. The boat might not be able to get through to retrieve me after two weeks. No one needed to add that there was an excellent chance I wouldn’t be able to return to town until I could walk there myself — sometime in mid-October when the ocean finally froze over. I would also need a gun because the floe edge is where the seals are; where the seals are is where polar bears are. I declined. Whatever I had hoped to learn from the whales would have to wait for another year. Circumstance was now presenting me with a perfect opportunity to explore the land I found so fascinating.
Baffin Island is wilderness on a scale I have not experienced anywhere else, even in Alaska. Looking due south, I was told it was more than five hundred miles down the coast to the next village. Perhaps that’s the reason people who visit the high Arctic find themselves continually scanning the horizon, as if wondering about the unknown that lies over every crest. The area south of Ikpiaryuk has long been called “the friendly Arctic,” mostly because polar bears are rarely sighted inland; I would not need a gun. One local assured me that hiking solo would be a test of my character because “a good soul will never be injured by wild animals.”
Doug and I were ferried thirty miles down a fiord, deposited where a river fell over a series of one-hundred-foot waterfalls before entering the ice-clogged ocean. Multicolored sandstone cliffs rose abruptly from deeply incised canyons. Entire mountain ranges were clothed in wildflowers. The land wasn’t what I had expected: no miles of uninterrupted gravel, no basalt, no peat. Instead, it seemed rather like southern Utah during a cold spell in March.
I spent the first several days taking long day hikes up on to the plateau — sometimes accompanied by Doug, sometimes alone — acclimatizing to the wind, the twenty-four-hour sunlight, and a temperature that hovered around thirty-five degrees. Then one afternoon the boat returned for Doug. I spent the next nine days hiking alone across a hundred miles of the northern tip of Baffin Island.
Walking alone through a wild land, our perceptions soon alter. We begin to experience the earth anew, know the very place we stand as the source and locus of our own rediscovered wild heart.
I have long suspected that to learn the lifestyle of an indigenous people we must journey alone into the land they inhabit and dwell there until we lose some significant portion of our own busy, acculturated mind. By this process we do not attain an intellectual understanding of the other culture. Rather, we begin to live the original connection that once united all people to the land. Walking alone through a wild land, our perceptions soon alter. We begin to experience the earth anew, know the very place we stand as the source and locus of our own rediscovered wild heart. As time passes in solitude, we start to sense magic in this new-found vitality. More time passes. The magic turns commonplace. But now the commonplace itself feels distinctly different: we never take it for granted. We begin to live as aboriginal dwellers on the land.
There is another side to this. It has always seemed sad to me that only by getting away from our own culture can we hope to reintegrate our art, spirituality, and work with a sense of place. Yet Western culture continues to destroy almost every trace of contiguous wilderness on the entire planet until there is almost no place left for us to walk for more than a week without running into some reminder of human conquest. I feel elated that there is nothing here capable of pulling me back to normalcy, away from my own wild heart.
This is my eighth day alone. My material needs, my sense of cleanliness, my notions of entertainment, nourishment, beauty, and warmth, and my budgeting of time and movement are all altered. Although high-tech camping gear keeps me warm, dry, and mobile, nonetheless, I feel like an animal. And now, as if blessed, I am being followed by two ravens. Whenever I sit down to rest, they announce my location to everything that lives there by letting loose with a loud ruckus. Then they politely disappear, only to rejoin me an hour or two after I start walking again.
Fractured sandstone landforms rise and fall in every direction. There are no trees to deaden sound, and the deep, resounding thuds of falling rocks fill the air with some regularity. Hiking twenty miles up the Adams River toward its source, through a wide valley of yellow poppies, pink heather, and ground-hugging willows, I stop to stare at the little orange-and-gray butterflies that show themselves only on windless, sunny days. A half hour passes in a moment. It’s warm today, probably forty degrees. A lone Peary caribou appears, an ungainly prehistoric creature standing no more than four feet tall at the shoulder, but whose head sprouts a rack of heavy, four-foot antlers.
“Sit on the ground and they’ll think you’re small,” the game warden in Ikpiaryuk had told me. “Hold your arms above your head like antlers and they’ll think you’re another caribou.” I do so, and the bull soon wanders within a hundred yards of me. Wonderful eye contact. I play “Greensleeves” on a clay ocarina cast in the form of a turtle. Though I do not hunt caribou, I feel I am learning to know the animal as the Inuit hunter does. Playing the ocarina is my bloodless technique for attaining union with the land and the animals. The bull slowly moves forward, pauses just fifty feet away. But then I make a mistake. When I raise a pair of binoculars to my eyes, I spook him. The caribou bolts up a steep ridge in twenty seconds flat. I follow, but it takes me twenty minutes to top the same ridge. I am greeted by a grand view, thirty miles to the horizon in every direction. But no caribou. And no trees. No sign of any living creature.
The wind comes up. An avalanche of boulders thunders somewhere unseen. I hike off the ridge and soon come upon a comfortable lee in a rocky, dusty, dry wash of a canyon, the gouged-out remains of a retreating glacier. Walking along its floor, I chance upon the complete skeleton of an arctic fox, all bleached white bone except for the face, which is still covered in bits of fur and ends in a black, shiny nose with two distinct nostrils, looking quite unreal attached to all that bone. When I pick up the skeleton, the skull falls off. I place it to my forehead as if trying on a new hat. I am a mask maker by aspiration. I cannot resist stuffing it into the bottom of my backpack.
Sitting beside the fox skeleton, I brew a cup of Earl Gray tea with dry milk and honey. This is the most lifeless, stony piece of ground I have ever encountered, not even a bit of lichen to decorate the flattened stones. For an hour I sit there, doing nothing, then I start the stove again to brew a second cup of tea. Finishing it, I pull on my pack and walk up the sides of the wash to the main plateau. Looking down on the wash, I can hardly remember being there just a moment before. After a week of walking, short-term memory takes a leave of absence, my mind honed down to keep track of just a few key objects, processes, and desires.
I sit down on the edge of the plateau and stare into the tiny canyon. There is no wind here, although I can hear it rustling and shuffling a hundred feet over my head. I wonder if sounds like these offer a hint at the origination of our belief in angels. I take off my pack to prepare dinner. The ravens make their noisy appearance and then disappear. Off in the distance, I notice a bright red object draped on a rock like somebody’s old abandoned wool blanket. A sign of humanity! I gobble down the crackers and provolone and walk over to investigate. It’s a patch of thick, mahogany-colored moss.
Beneath an overhanging ledge of the rock, a lemming is staring up at me. He has been caught shopping for food too far from his burrow. Beaver-like incisors bared, he threatens to attack. But I am too tall to be intimidated. Soon recognizing my unwillingness to be coerced, the lemming starts trembling like any thoughtful being who senses its own mortality. I start talking to it in the soft nonsense syllables of Dr. Doolittle and sit down at a distance to let it retreat. His behavior changes almost immediately; the war is over. He takes his little beady eyes off me and starts chewing stems and gathering seeds.
Looking up, I’m startled to notice the same bull caribou now accompanied by two cows and two calves. They are dining on the tundra just beyond the immediate field of boulders. Apparently they have been watching me all along, but it’s only when I stare back that they trot off a few hundred yards before dropping their heads to browse again.
I return to my pack and stare into the wash again. Another long moment passes. Just as all my days here have been broken down into a series of such accumulated moments, so my love for grand views and striking cliff faces has also been replaced by a heightened awareness of smaller vistas. I delight in the lichens, revel in the tiny, purple flowers that grow in the deepest shade at the most severe elevations, the white-on-black arctic buntings who land on my boot to take a peck, the single giant bumblebee I saw yesterday flying swiftly just inches above the ground. The gray clouds and the predominantly apricot sky are my neighbors. The dirt.
I’m tired. I climb back down into the wash and quickly set up my little windproof tent. Feeling like Mary Poppins as I pull an entire bed from a tiny stuff sack, I lay out my sleeping bag and watch it expand to full size. Lighting my stove for the last time today, I make a cup of hot chocolate and sit staring at the flat stones for another long moment as if they held the secret to the universe. The wind is picking up, starting to funnel through the wash.
A gyrfalcon appears farther down the wash, flying back and forth near the ground like a rocket-powered version of yesterday’s bumblebee. It hovers for a moment not twenty feet from where I sit. My aboriginal mind recognizes the bird as king of this wild plateau. I am a stranger to its domain although not yet a trespasser, and certainly not a transgressor. A shiver runs down my spine. I think of my friend the lemming — the gyrfalcon’s prey.
The temperature is dropping. I crawl into the tent, zip it up, take off everything but my capilene underwear, and slide into the bag, pulling the two drawstrings tight. I doze off without ever falling into a deep sleep. At some point the wind picks up, and the sides of the tent shudder violently. It feels like midnight or later. The sun is still shining along the horizon, and the tent glows bright orange, then turns gunmetal gray as clouds suddenly roll in. My eyes are open. The wind is furious. I am concerned that the tent lines will rip away from their rock anchors. Then I hear another sound as well: “hey-m, hey-m,” followed by the shaking of a rattle. What is it? Did I dream it, and then wake up imagining I really heard something? Is the dream the more essential reality? Or are the dream and the reality the same?
The noise of the tent shivering in the high winds keeps me awake for hours.
Finally the wind stops. It starts to snow. I eat a chocolate bar and then doze off. When I awake, the temperature has fallen well below freezing. My tent is frozen stiff, solid as an eggshell. The tent could rip if I try to force the zipper, so I plunge deep into my bag and wait for the sun to come over the ridge and melt the tent. Waiting to hatch from my egg, I eat granola bars and write the account you are now reading.
Nollman is the founder of Interspecies Communication, an organization devoted to promoting dialogue between humans and wild animals. For more information, write to Interspecies Communication, 273 Hidden Meadow Lane, Friday Harbor, WA 98250.