Last summer I took a ferry across Puget Sound to Friday Harbor, Washington, to visit Jim Nollman. The wind whipping over the sound was cold, and I was glad for the warmth of Nollman’s truck when he came to greet me.
Nollman is the head of Interspecies Communication, a nonprofit organization devoted to establishing a dialogue between humans and the other inhabitants of our planet. I’d long been intrigued by his attempts to communicate with whales through music.
As we pulled up to the house he shares with his wife, Katy, and his daughters, Claire and Sasha, the first thing I noticed was his garden: a beautiful mosaic of rocks, herbs, flowers, and vegetables. Clearly he attended to it with love. We spent the afternoon in a small cabin by the garden, talking about whales, music (including a recording Nollman made of “Froggy Went a Courtin’ ” with a choir of turkeys), gardening, the experience of grace, and the breaking down of barriers between art and science.
Nollman’s goal, I discovered, is to change people’s perceptions about how we relate to nature, and to explore a way of life that is less destructive to the environment. He sees communication with nonhumans as a potential catalyst for such change. “I sometimes believe,” he writes, “that acknowledging a consciousness and a conscience within nature actually holds the last, best hope for a humanity seemingly bent on destroying this fair earth.”
As I spent the night in Nollman’ s cabin, listening to the wind rustle the stalks of his garden, I thought about how a true conversation between humans and nonhumans might alter the environmental mess we’ve created. On the return ferry ride the next day, I spotted a group of orcas (often inaccurately called killer whales), and watched their fins glide above the sound’s smallish waves. At first, only a few people noticed the black triangles slicing the water, but before long virtually everyone was leaning against the railings, straining to see this bit of nature amid the floating styrofoam and miniature oil slicks of the heavily traveled waterway.
Nollman is the author of three books: Dolphin Dreamtime, Spiritual Ecology (both from Bantam), and Why We Garden (Holt). He is currently at work on The Wild Heart, a narrative account of a canoe expedition into arctic Canada to encounter beluga whales. He is also self-producing a CD titled What the Dolphin Said. For more information about Interspecies Communication, write to Nollman at 273 Hidden Meadow Lane, Friday Harbor, WA 98250.
Jensen: It’s hard to pin down exactly what you do. How would you describe your work?
Nollman: Much of what I do is an attempt to break down artificial barriers — such as those between art and science — by granting artists the kind of open access to nature that our culture usually reserves for technicians.
I’ve organized the sort of outdoor expeditions you might expect from National Geographic, but instead of bringing along a bunch of scientists carrying instruments, I bring artists. Together, we try to imagine what field biology would be like if it gave up using the collection of information to justify its existence. We try to imagine a science not dependent on the preposterous notion that its practitioners are objective — as if a human being could be neutral, or would even want to be, given the current state of our relationship with nature. For example, on a trip to the MacKenzie Delta of arctic Canada, one of the three artists I invited spent the whole time assembling fragile constructions from found materials, like beluga whalebones. His intention was to mourn the loss of animal habitat there.
Jensen: But what good does that do? Does it prevent habitat loss?
Nollman: What does art ever do? It alters perceptions; in this case, perceptions about what humans can do to respect a place. Making a whalebone mobile might seem futile, but the act of mourning a dying species has merit. When that artist’s work was considered by Inuit whale hunters, some got angry, others were confused, and still others thanked us. Canadian whale bureaucrats, on the other hand, were all annoyed.
Too many engineers, scientists, and politicians — and I’d include most leaders of the conservation movement in that last group — think art is a fine subject to dabble in, but of no value in the real world. I think artists in New York City are mostly to blame for art’s marginalization. The art establishment is too self-indulgent, too enamoured of shock for shock’s sake, too obsessed with urban alienation. Art isn’t just urban, or even modern. I think every environmental-education course should add some basic art history to its reading list. Maybe then environmentalists would start to comprehend what was once understood in every culture in the world: that art has the power to inspire, lead, teach, propagandize, and especially alter perceptions. Protesters, biologists, and environmental lobbyists need the input of artists if they ever hope to inspire people to revere nature on its own behalf, so we need more artists to start mourning the loss of habitat. Because, ultimately, the environmental crisis is a crisis in human perception. The job of artists has always been to help a culture perceive the world anew.
For instance, I spent five years bringing people up to the Arctic to interact with beluga whales, who, of all nonhuman species, seem to possess the clearest rudiments of true language. I wanted people other than scientists and experts to have access to these beings. In one place I went, an expensive, high-profile, government-sponsored scientific project was monitoring the belugas’ movements so as to better regulate the native people’s killing of them. What these scientists were doing was driving individual whales onto the beach with motorboats, and then using electric drills to punch holes in their backs in order to affix radio collars. We later learned that the batteries on the collars lasted only a few weeks, and the whales weren’t even going to migrate for another month. So the whole project was actually just a test run to occupy time until better batteries were developed. Yet this project was duly written up and filmed and touted as “providing us with vital information about whales.”
In a sense, this project — drilling holes into the backs of whales — is the centerpiece of humankind’s intellectual relationship with beluga whales, and a microcosm of our relationship with the environment. Of course, the project doesn’t exhaust the extent of our interactions with beluga whales. We also kill them off with industrial pollution, and yank baby whales from their mothers so the babies can spend the rest of their lives swimming in circles in oceanariums. Native people kill them with rifles from motorboats as an expression of aboriginal culture. And we write children’s songs about how wonderful they are.
Jensen: So your trips protest these kinds of relationships with whales?
Nollman: Yes and no. I don’t believe protest is a very good long-range tool for changing people’s minds. People have to really want to change, which is why those of us who love beluga whales or salmon or big trees need to come up with new tools for affecting people’s hearts and minds. Certainly, my writing and speaking about my trips contains elements of environmentalism and polemicism. But the trips themselves are pretty low-key and varied. And please understand that I could just as easily dredge up other examples that would portray a different image of my work. It’s what anyone makes of it: mystical, scientific, tragic, comic, minimalist, surreal, and so on.
Here’s an example of my approach to protest. On one trip, a woman was attacked by a cougar. Thankfully, she survived the encounter. The cougar shouldn’t have been anywhere near our camp; she was there only because her natural habitat had recently been destroyed by logging. Instead of writing an antilogging polemic in response to the event, I wrote a story about the deep sense of loss the woman and the rest of us in camp felt after the cougar was shot over our objections.
Jensen: In what sense do you consider your work scientific?
Nollman: Everyone who participates in one of my trips, or who engages the natural world in some other way, ultimately becomes a student of the relationship between humans and animals. Is that science? I don’t know. When someone monitors the way orcas relate to whale-watching boats by counting the whales’ respirations per minute, we don’t question whether it’s science. But if I told you that we anchored a boat in a bay for six consecutive summers, played music into the water every night at ten, and recorded the musical interaction with the orcas, would you call that science? One biologist expressed great interest in what I was doing, but lamented that my experiment wasn’t replicable, which in his mind put it beyond the ken of scientific method. I took his lament as a compliment. As some jazz musician once said, “I never play the same note twice.”
Over the course of that experiment, I learned that it wasn’t “the orcas” singing with us, but rather two particular orcas, a mother and a son, who came around almost every night. The mother was well known in the area for her friendliness and curiosity around humans. The son was an inspired soloist whose vocalizations sometimes reminded me of Charlie Parker.
Jensen: What tools do you bring along on your explorations?
Nollman: I always bring a blank book in which to jot notes about the trip. I also do a few pen-and-ink drawings. And of course I bring three or four musical instruments, both acoustic and electric, so I can play music with the whales or dolphins who inhabit the places I visit.
I suppose playing music with whales is the activity for which I’m best known; but it wasn’t always whales. I first publicly played music with animals when Pacifica Radio commissioned me to record music with turkeys for a two-hour taped concert to be broadcast during Thanksgiving dinner.
Jensen: What instruments do you play?
Nollman: Over the years I’ve collected several acoustic instruments that either float or can be played underwater. My favorite underwater instrument is dolphin sticks, which have ridges along their length. You bang or rub them together to produce a series of clicks. They were invented by Australian Aborigines, who played the sticks to attract dolphins, because the dolphins brought fish with them. More often, I play electric guitars through an underwater sound system that allows me both to listen to the whales’ music and to transmit my own. I like to think of the sound system as a telephone line to the whales.
Jensen: What, precisely, do you do when you play music with whales?
Nollman: To start with, there are some rules I insist upon. I stop my boat some distance from the whales. That way, there’s no harassment involved. They have to come to the boat if they’re interested; I never chase them. I often play when I can hear the whales but not see them. About half the time, the whales eventually appear around the boat. I never transmit at a volume louder than that of a small outboard motor, because whales perceive their world primarily through sound, and I don’t want to gum up their environment with the aural equivalent of a spotlight shining in their faces. They say that before motorized boats came into existence, some of the big whales could hear each other across entire oceans. If they want, orcas can vocalize at the volume of a rock concert. Of course, they tone it down when they draw near one another.
During the six summers I spent playing music with a pod of orcas off the West Coast of Canada, I worked with literally hundreds of musicians and nonmusicians; I thought it important to give a wide range of people access to the sound system. We even let children bang on synthesizers and shake rattles. And for three summers in a row, we invited Tibetan lamas to chant their prayers.
Last summer I worked with humpbacks, who stun entire schools of herring by singing at them. Maybe singing isn’t the right word to describe a noise that knocks out fish, but it sure sounded beautiful, like angels crying. With the humpbacks, I banged on an Irish drum on the deck of the boat, without any amplification — I mean, how could I possibly match their intensity?
For a few years, I joined a German expedition to work with pilot whales off the Canary Islands. The boat’s owners were getting set up for a long-term interaction with whales, and they invited me on board to teach them some basic rules and techniques.
Jensen: What did you play for the pilot whales?
Nollman: There were a lot of percussionists on those trips, so I often played a simple James Brown riff, or a reggae bass line — something syncopated with big spaces between the notes. I cued the drummers not to fill in those spaces. That way, the pilot whales had their own opening in the musical fabric. The ultimate goal was to get the whales to join the band. After I left, the organizers got a reggae band on board. I heard a recording, and it was absolutely uncanny the way one pilot whale would fill in a single space in each measure. Reggae has a very complex rhythm — it’s difficult even for accomplished human musicians to get right if they haven’t tried it before. When I hear things like that recording, I know the whales are very creative beings. Sometimes I think they must have an intuitive grasp of mathematics to play such music with us.
Recently, during trips to Okinawa and Alaska to work with humpbacks, I’ve been playing Indian ragas, which were developed to interact with birds. There’s a continuous drone to ragas, and the melodies are uniquely conversational. I would listen, then play a snippet of a melody. The animals would listen. Then I’d stop, but keep the drone going, and the animals would vocalize. I’d answer but never try to copy them exactly. I might copy the whale’s inflection but shift the tone by half a step. Musicians often try to mimic the whales, thinking they’re communicating, but never realizing that the whale would probably be making the same sound even without the music.
But, once in a blue moon, we communicate with the whales in such a meaningful manner that I experience a sense of grace. That’s what communication with nonhumans is really all about. When that communication happens, no matter how subtle it is, whether or not it registers on tape or film, I feel as if I’ve been blessed. It is the greatest blessing of my life, and, in some way, it is the same experience that I see lying at the heart of religion.
I’ve always felt that the purpose of religion is not intellectual — to explain things about the universe that we can never really know — but sensuous: to help us put ourselves in situations where blessings can occur. When that happens, the universe suddenly feels less frightening. We all need this experience, whether we find it through religion or through playing music with whales.
Although our culture tends to roll its eyes at the idea of communication beyond words, those experiences are our saving grace.
Jensen: Your most recent book is about gardening. Do you feel the same communion with your broccolis and snapdragons as you do with whales?
Nollman: As I said earlier, my work is about helping transform the way our culture perceives the natural environment. In that context, whales and dolphins are a strong metaphor; a biologist friend of mine refers to their power as “the lure of the megafauna.” But no matter how popular cetaceans are, they remain far removed from people’s daily lives. Gardening, by contrast, is the way most people touch the earth. I’ve been an avid gardener for years. Many people who garden consider it the most creative act in their lives. That’s the main impetus for my book about gardening.
Though I’ve had many interesting experiences with whales — a lot of joy and laughter and intellectual stimulation — never have those experiences reached the deep personal and spiritual level I’ve attained with my garden and the whole of my local environment. Working with dolphins is exciting because they’re so smart, but what I’m talking about has less to do with intelligence and personality as we define them than it does with getting to know the neighbors, human and nonhuman. It is close to what we mean by communion, but I like to think of it as a middle ground between communion and communication. Although you can have communication without communion — our entire culture is based on it — you cannot have communion without some form of communication. It is in this middle ground that I experience blessing.
My intent here is not to color this relationship with a magical aura, as happens too often with dolphins, but to make this sense of blessing much more mundane, to make it a normal part of living, an extension of weeding or planting. For example, my family just returned from a three-week trip, and even though someone took good care of the garden while we were away, the plants looked listless when we got back. But after our first day home, the plants started to perk up, and by the second day, everything was back to normal. This happens all the time: the plants seem to know when we’re here, and to be more healthy when we’re around. For at least an hour every day I walk around the garden, and stop and stand in front of the plants. I don’t know what it is I’m doing while I stand there, but I am convinced that this presence, this connection — this communion — is why the plants look better when we’re here.
Jensen: How do you verify something like that?
Nollman: Who cares? I love such seemingly irrational observations. They are more than just an article of faith; they become real to me. I know my garden perks up when I am around, just as surely as I know that the baseball cap on my head is made of linen.
The sense of blessing comes when I surrender to this notion, which defies the industrial explanation of our world. Although our culture tends to roll its eyes at the idea of communication beyond words, those experiences are our saving grace. I believe most people understood this before we became so dependent on machines and jobs and the frenzied pace of modern civilization.
Jensen: Science seems to have commandeered empiricism — the reliance on direct experience for knowledge — by restricting what types of experience count. You might notice your plants looking sick when you return from a trip, but your observations are considered “unscientific.”
Nollman: That accusation becomes a trap for anyone who tries to describe such phenomena. How does one marry the spiritual and the empirical without coming across as a charlatan? It’s very difficult. I don’t know if any writer will ever succeed completely.
But that’s one of the dangers when you operate outside the mainstream: you can expect to be marginalized. You can’t worry about it; you just have to keep on trying to communicate what you perceive, which in my case is a different way of relating to nature. I’m always striving to develop my vocabulary for describing it, to discover new metaphors, new means of communication to help people understand what it feels like to be connected with nature in this way. The next step — becoming connected themselves — is up to them.
But let me add that, to continue in this work for so many years, I’ve had to learn not to take any of it too seriously — especially myself.
Jensen: Industrial civilization is causing the greatest mass extinction in the history of the planet. I have a hard time taking that lightly. What is the danger of taking such topics seriously?
Nollman: The concepts we’re talking about are already off-putting enough. Indeed, they’re threatening to some people’s basic ideas about how the universe works. I want people to give the possibility of this kind of communion a chance, because it’s so incredibly heartwarming when it happens, but if I push it on them, they won’t hear it. Other people who talk about the same basic idea — such as Rupert Sheldrake, Thomas Berry, Terry Tempest Williams, Terence McKenna — have assumed different approaches and guises to enable them to communicate meaningfully. As a musician trained in theater, I like to keep my own approach nonpreachy, yet awe inspiring, and music works well for this: if a guitar player and a beluga whale are creating music together, then you just hear it. I don’t like to come on too explicitly. Some people are sure I’m doing science, while others see me as an environmentalist or an animal-rights advocate. I’m all of the above.
Jensen: Speaking of how these concepts are threatening, in Why We Garden, you quote Michael J. Cohen: “How convenient to conceive mud, water, and stones to be dead; to decide that other life has no consciousness, pain, or equality. What an incredible alibi we have created to soothe our guilt over killing for profit.”
Nollman: If the earth is dead, then it feels no pain. If the earth weren’t considered dead, we couldn’t build the Empire State Building, because we couldn’t bring ourselves to hurt the planet so much just to make a big building. So the entire culture is based on the belief that the earth is inanimate.
I often have to move around topsoil in order to make my garden beds. At times I have been unable to take the earth from a part of this land because I feel I’d be making a wound there. I’m not saying this in a precious way. If I take the topsoil away, nothing will grow in that spot; that’s a wound.
Some of the builders on the island where I live are undergoing similar philosophical, spiritual crises brought on by that sense of wounding the earth. There are many wealthy people moving here who want “environmentally correct” houses — but they want them built out of yellow cedar with no knots in it. Clear yellow cedar is nearly extinct now in the United States, because it comes from old growth. So the builders are going to Canada to get it. But it pains them to destroy what’s left of the old-growth forests in North America.
None of this could happen if our culture didn’t view the earth as dead, inert, a mere source of raw materials. We often think of animals the same way. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military trained dolphins to inject exploding carbon-dioxide cartridges into Vietnamese divers. That is clearly against the dolphins’ nature. Those dolphins were treated as objects, which is to say, as dead matter. It was another example of the human willingness to evade truth by permitting the ends to justify the means.
Jensen: When people write about human-nonhuman communication, the question they generally ask is “Can nonhumans communicate or not?” I think that’s the wrong approach. A better question is “Are humans capable of listening?”
Nollman: We need to make a distinction between listening and hearing. I think I listen better than many people, but I still don’t hear very well. I have a lot of friends who are able to actually hear the natural world. Still, whether or not we hear, listening is important.
I’m not sure it’s even possible to listen to the natural world if you live in the inner city. So I’ve always lived in rural places, where it’s easier to listen. If other people considered listening important, then maybe we could use that as one criterion for rethinking our cities.
In any event, until we start to listen to — and, I hope, eventually hear — the natural world for ourselves, nonhumans will be regarded as objects. Just the act of trying to listen can change a lot of our perceptions about nature. Listening to the land instructs me in how to live on it without harming it. If other people learn to listen, then maybe they, too, will live this way.
Jensen: Are some people just naturally better able to hear than others?
Nollman: I have a story that relates to that. Years ago I interviewed a dolphin trainer in New Zealand named Frank Robson, who had become known for his ability to teach dolphins tricks without giving them food or visual cues. Think about that: it’s almost impossible to imagine. He said he did it through mind-to-mind contact, although a skeptic would likely say he was giving unconscious visual cues. Anyway, the point is that, although Frank was really good at what he did, there were some days when he couldn’t connect. He soon discovered a pattern: on those days, the dolphins were ignoring him in favor of certain members of the audience; consistently, these members turned out to be preadolescent girls. Because the dolphins were both male and female, Robson thought they couldn’t just be sniffing female hormones. Something else had to be going on, but he wasn’t able to discover what. Because of his experience, I’ve always felt that maybe I should be involving more girls that age in my own expeditions. We are all more able to hear the natural world when we are young. Later in life, we lose some of that ability; it gets trained out of us. Perhaps those girls were still able to hear, at least a little bit. Robson was unique because, at seventy, he could still hear.
All measures of intelligence are human based, so humans always come out on top. Worse than that, a specific type of human being comes out on top: a male, so-called civilized human being who builds the Empire State Building.
Jensen: You mentioned the possibility that Robson could have been giving visual cues. That reminds me of the Clever Hans story, which has always upset me.
Clever Hans was a horse taught by his owner to answer math questions by tapping his hoof. It appeared that Hans could multiply, do square roots, and so on. When the horse was subjected to rigorous tests, however, it turned out that Clever Hans was picking up on unconscious visual cues — for example, noticing when his testers relaxed. The conclusion drawn, even today, is that because Hans couldn’t find the square root of 169, he wasn’t clever. But this conclusion discounts the significance of the horse’s ability to, read the emotions of his questioner. Now, given the choice, would you rather have a friend who is able to read and respond to your emotions, or one who can find the square root of 169?
Nollman: I had exactly the same reaction to that story — what an incredible thing for that horse to be able to do!
Jensen: It’s all about defining intelligence. Many people claim that dolphins are the smartest animals. But by what definition?
Nollman: Exactly. Dolphins are certainly the smartest at being dolphins, but they’d make totally incompetent earthworms. Actually, I’ve found that all measures of intelligence are human based, so humans always come out on top. Worse than that, a specific type of human being comes out on top: a male, so-called civilized human being who builds the Empire State Building. Now, dolphins are exuberant, playful, curious, and ingenious, and they pick up on tricks quickly. Maybe those are signs of intelligence. Then again, dolphins are also often unafraid of humans, despite the fact that we slaughter them during tuna fishing. Maybe that’s a sign of their stupidity; I don’t know.
I like to consider the big picture of a functional planet in defining intelligence. In that light, humans are the smartest species at making tools and machines, but we’ve used this incredible talent primarily to control our environment and to increase our population beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, which is detrimental to the very fabric of life. Contrast this “intelligence” to that of earthworms, who build all the world’s soil, providing nutrients for many of the world’s plants, and thus for many animals, including ourselves. Earthworms never overpopulate. They even sacrifice a small percentage of their population to feed the songbirds whose tunes wake us up every morning. That all seems reasonably smart to me.
Jensen: In Why We Garden, you mention the Anishinabeg word pimaatisiiwin, which you say is “vaguely translated as ‘the good life’ ” and refers to “the sensibilities a people acquire through the continuous inhabitation of a place.” You quote Winona LaDuke: “Pimaatisiiwin is what we are to strive for, as individuals, as families, as communities. Implicit in pimaatisiiwin are two basic tenets: cyclical thinking and reciprocal relations.”
Nollman: I’ve lived here for eleven years, and grow as much of my family’s food as possible, so I work intensively with the land. I feel I’m finally getting to know it. We’ve had a lot of rain this spring, and almost everyone I know wants it to be sunny. I’m the oddball who wants rain. The plants love the rain. And if it keeps raining people won’t water their lawns and gardens and further lower the water table. More to the point, though, intimacy over time allows me to begin to understand the different ways plants respond to weather conditions. The raspberries don’t grow some years. This year they’re growing well. So now I know they grow well when we have a wet spring. On the other hand, the roses are very yellow, which means they may not like so much of this legendary Northwest rain. Over time, I weave together these pieces of information, and begin to make informed judgments about what plants work here and what plants don’t.
I see myself as experimenting with the way human beings should live. Growing your own food in a verdant place, where you don’t have to listen to cars, is one way. But of course that’s impossible for most people.
Jensen: Clearly, industrial civilization is not sustainable. There will be a crash. Most of the activists I know are just trying to make sure that some doors remain open. If the salmon are still around after the crash, for example, then that door is still open.
Nollman: The death of the salmon would be a great tragedy. But it’s not the metaphor by which I judge all else. Myself, I try to imagine how my kids’ kids will live. Everybody should spend a few moments each day visualizing the day-to-day lives of our grandchildren.
Jensen: Near the end of Why We Garden you write, “We must learn to nurture the ground that sustains us. Root and nurture. This is the trees’ fundamental message. It is, in fact, every plant’s message.”
Nollman: To root in one spot. To know it and care for it. To me, the most important kind of activism is local activism: being tied to the land upon which you live.