A Salute to the Angels of the Sea, the Whale Sharks (commentary)
Commentary by Cyril Christo
“I salute you ancient ocean. Answer me, ocean do you want to be my brother? wrote Lautreamont, whose incantations about man and the nature of evil in The Songs of Maldorar from 1869 are astounding even today. But even one of the most radical poets of the 19th century, who died at the age of 24, could not have dreamed of what humanity is doing to the original matrix of life on earth, the blood plasma of the world’s oceans. Amazingly most Americans still do not feel global warming is much of a threat to their world. America with its legion of gas and oil consortiums, and climate change deniers leading the world’s industrial pollution, is a major culprit in the melting of the Arctic ice and Greenland which will impact every facet of our lives. As the world’s great bully entranced with “gadget gods” and our profound fixation with technology, we are running roughshod over the life force of this planet. That is not what manifest destiny was intended to be. It is with the challenge of the future and hope that we can steer this nation of fools around, that I brought Lysander, our 10 year old, to witness and be astounded by one of the cardinal and most marvelous sights on earth, the whale shark, the largest fish and the biggest shark on earth.
It is very life affirming to be humbled by giants and occasionally to swim with a mind much older than one’s species. It was an encounter with a rapturous monster and one humanity had better hold on to, for the whale sharks and the other fish and whales of the sea are the carnal immune system of the seas. They are the gentlest of giants and their food is microscopic in size, they eat algae and copepods, too small to be seen by the naked eye. As the oceans warm what on earth will happen to the countless trillions of these small beings that feed the giants of the oceans? The sharks their immense white spotted, 30 feet long bodies grace the waters like an alien and remarkably docile angel of the abyss. Dogs and bees kill more people yearly than sharks. The whale shark is the personification of coherence we can only dream of.
Lautreamont’s rhapsodic and poetic musings and imagination are relevant here because at the time of his writing Darwin was sharing his thoughts on evolution with the world. Lautreamont was no naturalist or scientist but he reached into the far recesses of the subconscious, generations before psychoanalysis and Surrealism. Lautreamont envisaged God as a giant rhino marching through the streets of Paris. What would he say of today’s pachyderm apocalypse? He saw into the depths of the human animal and envisaged sharks as the denizens of a more perfect world than ours. Having seen into the murkiness of the human soul Lautreamont wanted to seize the carnal truth and honesty of other species that kill only to survive. What would he have said about the tens of millions of sharks killed every year for soup in Chinese and Asian markets. Indeed what would he have exclaimed about the whale shark if he could have seen one or ridden on its back as our Mexican guide used to do as a child? Indeed what would Lautreamont say about the human species today if he knew that this year, 40% of the world’s corals could be bleached by the ignorance, and pollution of our planetary civilization.
In a few weeks time, Paris the adopted city of Lautreamont, will decide whether the nations of the world will come together, finally, to decide the future climate of earth. It is no coincidence that France gave humanity the rights of liberty, equality and fraternity and that Parisians will barricade the streets until a climate treaty is in hand. They will fight for a French Revolution for the world’s climate. If the whale sharks and their brethren are to survive this century, if the oxygen from the phytoplankton of the world’s oceans is to allow us to breathe, then Lautreamont’s city will have been the impetus. A radical young man who swam amidst the cruelties of the human experiment, dreamed of creatures from the bathyal blue, generations before Cousteau. Voluntarily or involuntarily, industrial civilization will be forced to temper its ways.
Swimming with the whale sharks is swimming with perfection, grand odalisques of the aquatic world. They are pageants of perfection, near stillness and undaunted quietude frame their being. The Indonesian onslaught on their rainforests has also taken a toll on the whale sharks of the western Pacific where reefs have been dynamited for fish. We dream of life in outer space, almost desperate to make contact with something other than ourselves, while in the forests of the sea, bewildering muses entrance us with colors and life forms unique in the universe.
Lautreamont urged us to dream less of the afterlife and other worlds and the other sects and religions that separate us and to concentrate on the waters of earth. He wrote,” It is not necessary that you think of heaven, it is enough that you think of earth. Are you tired of living, you who have just been born.” Indeed our adolescent species was born just a few hundred thousands years ago. And in the last 50 years we have convulsed the life force of the planet. I was told by a former elephant hunter who hunted the giants of land, the elephants, but only to survive, that we had been given a gem called earth, ““Then why are we destroying the gift of nature?”
Lautreamont once wrote that “all the waters of the oceans are not enough to wash the stain of a single drop of intellectual blood.” The Paris summit may be our last chance to turn the ship of humanity before it collides with the reef and wreckage of the human experiment. The grand glaciers of Greenland are melting into the sea. The melting ice caps could, sometime in the future cause our society to become a world wide Titanic. Do we have the heart and not just the intellect and will to change course? A few years ago Lysander walked on the ice sheet of Illulissat stunned by the white infinity of snow. Tropical fish have even recently been found not far from the shores of Alaska. Soon the entire convection current of the world could be turned upside down. The seasons are in convulsion and the “beasts of the apocalypse” are upon us. Without the other beings of the world, without the sharks and rhinos and tigers and frogs and birds, there will be no foundation for the human species. Last year, marveling at the super-moon he exclaimed, “ We have landed on the moon, but we haven’t landed on earth yet!”
We swam with the whale sharks to reaffirm the meaning of life. The drought that is upon us world wide is one of a lack of care and meaning and it cannot be filled with the language of ciphers and statistics and algorithms and business transactions which suffocate the human spirit. In Paris, maybe this time, humanity will finally free itself from the shackles of an abject anthropocentrism. Maybe with the lyrics of the song of our time Love Song to the Earth, we will finally realize that some of the best “things” in this world are not human and we will save those others as if our souls depended on it. When we were with the whale sharks, dolphins danced around us in unison as one, seals came up to us and gazed at us through the munificent pageant of a species as one. Maybe finally in Paris we can come together as a species, as one. That will be the best legacy our species is capable of in this time.
In turn, we might just be able to save ourselves, if we really want to. As Romain Gary once wrote in his masterpiece on the elephants The Roots of Heaven,” On an entirely man-made planet, there is no room for man either.” If we learn the lesson this time around, the children of the next generation will thank us and be able to cherish what is left of “heaven’s poetry to us,” the life force of this big blue marble in space.
Cyril Christo is a photographer and film-maker. He has been interviewed previously on Mongabay, including Butchering nature’s titans: without the elephant ‘we lose an essential pillar in the ability to wonder’, Ten years after Lost Africa: a retrospective on indigenous issues, and Predator appreciation: how saving lions, tigers, and polar bears could rescue ourselves.