The Cetaceans


What do they think of with their enormous brains,
Our brothers the mammals who went back to the sea?
Comparative anatomy explains
In the light of man’s conjectural family tree,
That several of the many cetacean strains
Could well be more intelligent than we;
A pity we cannot meet them and discuss
Such things and ask them what they think of us.

True, they have nothing very much to show
For all that cerebral armature and gear;
But we ourselves, we recollect, were slow
To learn to chip flint, fashion bow and spear,
Though given so many millennia ago
Brains fit to rival Einstein or Shakespeare;
It took us twenty centuries or more
Just to discover what a brain was for.

And they, perhaps, even yet are not aware
That brains exist, much less what they can do,
Which we, unlike them furnished with a pair
Of busy hands and scalpels, never knew
Till yesterday. Nourishment of the hair
As the brain’s task was Aristotle’s view;
And Aristotle’s day is but a span
Behind ours in the history of man.

But if no porpoise, whale or dolphin yet
Has built a gadget to explore the land,
Or toiled at the invention of a net
To catch himself a human and expand
His knowledge or his power, maybe we set
Our sights on the wrong course to understand
Or judge the use of an intelligence
Which may have flowered in quite another sense.

Their thinking could be much more like the sea
In which it formed, as ours is of the shore:
Ours definite, purposeful, analytic, as we
Surmise our future from what went before,
Theirs by a fluid environment set free,
Elusive, flowing, untrammelled to explore
The whole of being, and from it to express
Tides of an oceanic consciousness.

For we are fenced by hopes, desires and fears,
By individual purpose and design;
We analyse space by miles and time by years;
They, with no need to measure or define,
Ignore what we call science; we could find theirs
Unbounded as the waters which align
Contours of every coast and bay or cape
Though ocean knows no frontiers and no shape.

A mind clairvoyant and ventriloquial,
Able to echo each least voice that occurs
Yet able to reach out and encompass all,
Each galaxy spinning, every mote that stirs,
All minds responsive to its cosmic call
Reverberant from the whole universe:
Could we conceive of such transfluent powers
Beyond the grasp of one-way minds like ours?

Such crude imaginings surely miss the mark.
Lost in the human, how could we hope to guess,
By what improbable surmise in the dark
Unravel the mystery of their otherness?
As well share soul with octopus or shark
And probe their primitive modes of consciousness,
Or translate wordless minds to human speech,
Or bring ourselves to that archaic beach

To whose warm tides so long, so long ago
Some hesitant ancestor of mammals crept,
Drawn there, perhaps like whales to die, though no
Memory of the sea survived except
What draws us still to its oblivious flow:
Faint intuitions which all flesh has kept,
Tides in our blood which urge all equally,
Some towards the shore and others towards the sea.

Why else should they so often, as people say,
When seized by a mysterious urge to die,
Leave the high seas and swim into some bay
To ground themselves among the shallows, and why
When towed back to deep water, straight away
Do they come back to be left high and dry
By the next tide and perish on the sand
Unless old memories drive them to the land?

Perhaps the solid earth they left behind
For the wide waters, haunts them in their dreams
In their wet purblind world and crowds the mind
With fantasies of woodland slopes and streams.
Could they recall the deserts as a kind
Of hell? Or have they ancient myths whose themes
Are vengeful gods who banished them to the sea
From which their souls return eventually?

There in the landscape of such visions they roam
The meadows of their earthly paradise,
And there at last from wandering each comes home
To his own plot — a thing the sea denies —
And what, as denizens of the trackless foam
Unused in the long lapse of centuries,
They lost, their spirits resume, land limbs at last
Still as vestigial bones in flesh held fast.

And there, those former hands and feet restored,
Their spirits at that blest metamorphosis
Break into dance upon the springy sward.
While from the mountain, to complete their bliss,
The half-remembered gods they once adored
With hands like theirs to touch, with mouths to kiss,
On feet like theirs with welcoming tread advance
And greet their souls redeemed and join the dance.

Yet these are human fancies, after all,
Built on our myths of supernatural powers,
Eden and Heaven, Redemption and the Fall.
Such myriad years divide their minds from ours,
Imagination cannot breach that wall.
Our alien worlds erase as time devours
What common memories might have been a base
For fruitful intercourse between each race.

One thing, at any rate, we can surmise:
We think in terms of shape and colour, but they
In the dim waters have less use for eyes.
They live by sound; by sound they find their way,
Speak to each other, and their re-echoed cries
Warn them of perils and help them find their prey.
And they have music: We have recorded the strong
Cadences of the hump-back whale’s strange song,

And of the right whale too — strange songs indeed!
Yet they create, it seems, as humans do
And it is art not instinct serves that need.
Each year some singers compose the songs anew
And the rest follow the composers’ lead.
As in our world, the genius of the few
Provides unceasingly, from age to age,
Renewed delight, a growing heritage

Of song; and such invincible harmonies
Can fill the vast Pacific tract entire
From shore to shore and then return with ease
Caught and swelled by that tremendous choir,
Each adding new motifs, new felicities,
Sheer from Kamchatka to the Land of Fire;
And could, indeed, make the whole globe resound
With the re-echo of that mighty round.

Since they have speech and listen and reply
— Test of real language from its spurious shell
Of animal signals and mere mimicry —
And would learn ours, as far as we can tell,
It would seem natural not to deny
Them fiction and fancy and poetry as well,
Though poems of their experience of the sea
Might be strange as their music seems to be.

They should have poems of life and death and love
Such as all creatures able to think and feel
Would have, of mysteries: the stars above
Or what the unplumbed ocean deeps conceal;
But what of man? What could those poems be of
But senseless slaughter, of implacable steel
Hurled by beasts mad for train-oil or for food
And seven oceans boiling with their blood?

Yet still the dolphins seek our company
Unmindful of that blood so cruelly spilt,
Play with our children in the surf, while we,
Unable to control our rankling guilt,
Hunt them with our harpoons. In every sea
In goes the murderous weapon to the hilt
And cold greed, more effective than blind hate
Drives them all to extinction soon or late.

Well, lack of company other than his kind
May prove man’s tragedy. In his last despair
Of love and free companionship of mind,
He shouts for answers an unanswered prayer.
The gods his hopes implore turn deaf and blind;
Probing the void he finds nobody there;
And rival strains to his on land, we know
He had exterminated long ago.

And so, too late perhaps, since in the past
We killed all minds that might have matched our own,
Now we turn desperately to this last
Cradle of kind and hope from the unknown,
Outcasts from life, self-doomed to be outcast,
Crying: “Comfort us, speak to us, say we are not alone,
Cherish us in the wilderness we have made
And where we wander unfriended and afraid.”

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