“And God created great whales, and every living creature that moves, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:21)
Of all the earth’s creatures, few deserve the description of “awesome” as do whales. Counting among their kin the largest creatures that have ever lived, whales exist in a world that remains mysterious and remote, as most of the specifics of their comings and goings in the deep are fully known only to themselves. Furthermore, though both the history of their exploitation by humans and the contemporary attention to stewardship at the ecological scale reminds us of their vulnerability and need for protection, from Biblical times to the present, tales have been told of whales rising from the depths to upend the boats and expectations of men upon the sea. Indeed, even today, part of the thrill of whale watching is the implicit knowledge that the creatures’ sheer size and physical power carries the possibility of danger to those who dare get close to them in the whales’ own element. We know that despite their reputation for gentleness, they are not tame, or ultimately “safe.”
The “great whales” of the King James Bible then, are well-suited to be emblems of the complex way we engage with the created world and with its Maker—the way we desire to know both the world and the Lord, are fascinated by their mystery, are both drawn to and repulsed by the knowledge that there resides so near us power that is beyond our control. So over the next few weeks (not quite a BioLogos “Whale Month”) we’ll look at several different creative responses to whales as embodiments of the persistent mystery of Creation, beginning today with poet Sørina Higgins’ account of a few minutes of fleeting intimacy with feeding whales.
At first glance, Higgins’ poem “Humpback Whales” seems to give a straightforward story of the experience of whale watching from a small boat—of drawing close, but not too close, to a pod of humpbacks—in order to experience the mixture of fascination and fear that is ‘awe,’ rightly defined. But almost from the beginning, Higgins gives clues that her meditation is about the creatures not merely as things to look at, but as a kind of speech to hear, corporeal words bearing witness to their speaker. In the third line we begin to see the imagery of speech and language emerge—the whales becoming the very mouth of the sea, forming the circle of a “yawn” that makes “vowels” in the sea.
But what kind of language can this be? is it law, or instruction, or story? And is it the whales’ own story they’re telling, or something else? In the second stanza Higgins describes the spouting humpbacks as blowing off “spumes / in great inspired huffs.” In her choice of “inspired” she literalizes the root meaning of breathing in air, but also connects that meaning to the more mysterious and spiritual sense that “to be inspired” is to receive meaning and wisdom from outside oneself. In the next line the whales are arcing through the sea in “unconscious curves.” Together these words raise the question, if there is divine meaning in these creatures and the course they inscribe in the world, are they, themselves, aware of it? Do they see the meaning the poet (or biologist) sees in them, or is it the peculiar task of Adam’s race to listen intently and then to speak for the creation: interpreting its speech back to the creation itself, to our fellow men and women, and ultimately back to God whose language is written in the world?
There is no definitive answer given here as to what the whales “know” themselves, or whether such interpretation by us is possible. Instead, as Higgins moves into the last few lines of the poem, she collapses the word and the world into a single phrase: the whales become a “rhyme-and-meter topography of terror.” The “rhyme-and-meter” are the stuff of poetry, of course, and applied to a topography—a landscape whose contours are mapped out precisely because it is mute and does not tell its own story—we seem on the verge of an affirmation of the power of interpretive speech, but for that last word: “terror.” With that word and the following description of the creatures as “Sweet and menacing” come a reminder that the physical creation retains its ability to bring us up short, a recognition that we will not demystify the world merely by understanding its workings.
So how do we synthesize these two parallel lines of thought and imagery in Higgins’ “Humpback Whales”? Perhaps the poet is helping us see that the reason we are so drawn to what also makes us afraid—especially when awesome power is wrapped in a fearsome and fluid beauty—is that we innately recognize that there is One speaking to us through such moments of tension and delight, one who also defies easy categorization and refuses to be confined by our expectations. Perhaps, like poetry, the natural world as given to us by its Creator is not so much a declaration as it is an invitation to keep looking and keep listening. Perhaps the point is not the specific vowels that are uttered, but our growing trust in the One who speaks through all things, whose word goes out in all the earth.
by Sørina Higgins
Distant black snouts like mammoth mussel shells
loomed into view beneath a speckle flock of bright white gulls.
The pod drew ponderous circles, great vowel holes
in the yawn of gray bay-water under clouds.
They rose and blew off spumes
in great inspired huffs,
rolling their boat-long bulk in huge unconscious curves:
warm-blooded, deep-water, rhyme-and-meter topography
of terror. Sweet and menacing, in a single glide,
they ignored a little open tin can
packed with waving, shouting bipeds.
Having other messages to bring, they moved on.
From Higgins’ book Caduceus, ©2012. Photo also courtesy of Higgins.
Sørina Higgins is an adjunct faculty member in English at Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published one poetry chapbook, The Significance of Swans (Finishing Line Press) and a the new, full-length collection entitled Caduceus (David Roberts Books). Her poetry and other writing has appeared in several journals, including Comment, Radix, Stillpoint, Relief, Studio, and Windhover. She is the Book Review Editor of Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal, a staff writer for Curator, and blogs about the arts and faith at www.iambicadmonit.com/blog. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina and her husband live in Kutztown, PA, in a home they built themselves.
Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.