Monday, August 13, 2018

Poems of the Week ~ The Whale Heard Around the World

Many of you have heard of the mother orca, Tahlequah (J35), who carried her dead calf on her head for 17 days and one thousand miles, near Victoria, B.C. The calf was born in a spot where effluent from fish farms pours into the ocean, and she lived only a half hour. We followed Tahlequah's grief-stricken journey with aching hearts. Ken Balcomb, of the Center for Whale Research, who has followed her journey closely by boat, surmises that perhaps the calf decomposed, and she could no longer carry her.

We know that animals grieve, but the extent of this whale’s mourning has not been seen before. The mother orca used enormous stores of energy and determination, diving down each time the 400 pound calf fell, to bring her back to the surface. The pod circled around to help her; on day nine they began taking turns carrying the calf, presumably to allow the mother to feed. Researchers tracked her journey.

On Sunday, we learned the calf was returned to the sea, and the mother swims on. But the problems which created this tragic story continue. And the whales' message to us is clear.

This pod of orcas are telling us as plainly as they can that we have destroyed their habitat. Over-fishing, pollution and disease caused by fish farms along wild salmon migratory routes, warming seas and boat traffic all impact the southern pod's survival.

We have just learned that the Fraser River, a key starting point for the salmon migration, is now deemed  to be too warm, which will also impact the salmon spawn.

Lack of salmon results in orca miscarriages; two-thirds of their pregnancies have failed between 2007 and 2014. This calf was the first live birth since 2015. 

“She (Tahlequah) is a symbol of what we are doing wrong,” said Barbara King, the author of “How Animals Grieve”. This is such a large part of our grief, knowing we humans are responsible for the devastation of ecosystems across the planet.

(I can't believe the government is still dragging its heels on legislating fish farms onto land! And is proceeding with a pipeline no one wants.)

There are only 75 orcas in the Salish sea, (near Victoria, B.C., the southern tip of Vancouver Island.) Researchers are now trying to save a four year old orca  named Scarlet (J50), in the same pod. Her ribs are showing, and she is exhibiting lethargic behaviour. She is the size of a two year old, and in the past two weeks has been showing increased signs of distress. 

On Saturday Scarlet was darted with antibiotics, and First Nations are approaching with a boat loaded with live salmon in hopes of feeding her. Feeding a whale in the wild has never been attempted, but  they feel time is running out for this youngster.

J50 and her mother J16

Our hearts breaking, some of us wrote poems about Tahlequah and her calf. When I asked Toni and Susan if I might feature their poems, Susan said she would only if I would include mine. So here we are: poems of heartbreak. Mother Orca demonstrates beyond any doubt that animals feel everything we feel, grieve as deeply as we do.  They likely know they are dying. I cannot imagine a coastline without them.

The grief we are feeling now is for Mother Orca, but also for the world being destroyed before our eyes by big money interests. It is wrong, and it is hard to bear.

“I’m a radical environmentalist; I think the sooner we asphyxiate in our own filth, the better. The world will do better without us. Maybe some fuzzy animals will go with us, but there’ll be plenty of other animals, and they’ll be back. Anthony Bourdain”

The moon is a peach in the sky.
The stars are sparkling grape tomatoes.
The cicadas are singing now.
They’ve emerged from their underground homes.
Watching the garden grow
in the dark of the universe.
I hear the nightly owl fluttering overhead.
With all the beauty around me
I mourn.
The orca’s skull can be seen beneath her blubber
as she carries her dead calf on her emaciated body.
The calf kept sinking as the mother
tried to push her towards the surface of the water.
So much beauty in this earth
and it is rotting beneath our feet.
The earth is an overripe peach
long past its maturity.
One day maybe we will be gone
and all that remains will be the skeletons of cities
poking through the overgrowth
with whales and deer and wolves
living in our place
roaming free and safe.

Sherry: I share your feelings, Toni. Thank you for this poem. "The earth is an overripe peach" is such a powerful line. I read the wildlife in Chernobyl is flourishing with the humans gone. There is hope in that.

Your second poem about Tahlequah shares your deep grief so powerfully. Let's take a look:

The Wake

Tahlequah carries her dead baby gently –
either by the fin or on her nose,
refusing to let go of the calf who died
within a half hour of her birth.
The mother kept using her nose to push the baby to the surface –
She is hungry.
The bones of her skull can be seen through her depleted blubber.
Salmon farms are starving a race of beings out of existence,
Tahlequah carries her dead baby,
day after day.
Her pod is helping her carry her baby
mourning the loss of her baby with her.
They communicate with each other
in a complicated language only they can understand.
They mourn in their unique rituals,
forming circles around the mother –
Like a human wake.
Like mothers holding close the mother
whose baby has died,
crooning and holding the mother close.
We are starving this race,
We are depleting this race,
We are lessening their birth rate.
We are killing a race
more human than we are ourselves
who think only of ourselves,
not caring who we kill
in our killing of this planet.
Tahlequah carries her baby gently.
The mother continues to mourn.

Sherry: Wow, Toni. I feel this despair, this truth: all of the devastation has been for money and greed. What a species we are!

Toni: I wrote this poem because the situation breaks my heart. We did this. Plain and simple. This is our fault.

Sherry: That guilt is at the heart of my grief, for certain. Along with helplessness, because governments are not doing their part. Thank you, Toni, for putting it into words so clearly.

Then, came word of Tahlequah, no longer carrying her calf, swimming with her grieving heart up the coast, her baby forever gone. Any mother who has lost a child knows the depth of her pain. And so came your third poem, the final chapter in this story, while the future of the south coast orcas remains in question.

1000 Miles Later

Seventeen days 1,000 miles later
Tahlequah has dropped her dead calf.
Perhaps she is no longer sad and has
accepted the inevitability of death and life –
Perhaps she was where she wanted to bury
her dead calf – perhaps her heart said
Let go.
I picture the dead calf slowly sinking
to rest upon the bottom on the sand
asleep and at peace at last.
Tahlequah is healthy and leaping in the ocean.
The heart can only take so much grief
before it kills you
or sets you free.
We humans saw and wept with her.
Now perhaps she is telling us to move on,
to leap with joy, to wipe our tears.
I have been carrying my dead mother
for over a year.
The heart can only take so much grief
Before it kills you or sets you free.
I am sitting on my back porch
listening to the birds singing,
taking in the warmth of the sun,
watching the clouds dance overhead.
It is time.
It is time.
It is time.

Swim free, Mother Orca

Sherry: "The heart can only take so much grief." Indeed. We have lived a lifetime of grief during these heartrending days. Thank you for swimming with Tahlequah every mile of her journey, Toni. How many times can the heart break? I am sure my heart is losing count, as the whales die off, as the forests burn, and the wild animals flee before the flames.

My flagging heart responded, when I read Susan's poem, which offers us something to do besides despair: rally our hearts and minds, put on our marching boots. A glimmer of hope, something we can do, midst the grieving.

"See Me" by Lori Christopher
Used with permission, 
©Lori Christopher


           Dis ease hit all poets simultaneously.

Perhaps, we thought, the cure was writing depressing
poetry so no one could think we were untouched.

Though we did little else.  We couldn’t imagine
what else to do beyond words, letters and protests—
that is, not until Orca whales carried their dead.

Carried their dead for days and weeks and maybe years,
carried them so everyone could see, like open
coffins forever, saying, See? We won’t keep this
out of sight.  Look.  Look at my calf.  Look at your crimes.

See my community carry me when I’m tired.
And then it came to us: We could carry objects
more real than metaphor and signs.  We could carry
our dead outside our laden emotions.  We could
sanctuary and caravan, though we’ve lost

very little—not yet—but when the poor are gone
and the powerless fall silent, who will be next? 
This is an old song, one the whales are carrying.
Songs without words.  Living beings objectified.

Let’s lift up death.  Refuse to bury it.  Insist
on sight and smell. Press home. Ease on down the road.
We don't want wizards  We want hearts, minds and courage.

Sherry: "We want hearts, minds and courage." How I love that! The whales are telling us as clearly as they can, without actually carrying placards, that these, indeed, are our crimes. That is the heartbreak, the guilt, the near-despair. Your poem reminded me: we also have hope, and can ACT to insist leaders do the right thing, or we will vote them out.

Susan: The only other time that I know of that the mother of a victim had such a mix of grief and rage that she held the body up for all to see was in the 1950s when, against all precedent, the mother of the butchered Emmett Till displayed his mangled body in an open casket. Her choice -- and media reporting it with pictures -- boosted the civil rights movement.

My poem draws the two together and, I hope, amplifies community support for this action. I know that protests due to death and martyrdom are not unusual. But display of the beloved's dead body raises the power ten-fold. You may remember Marc Anthony carrying Caesar's body into the marketplace and pointing out each knife wound. He drew mob behavior from the fickle crowd. I don't ask for mobs, but empathetic and reasoning crowds who won't hide the only things that climate-change deniers and environment exploiters might take as proof. We must change human behavior on a larger scale; nature is begging us as part of the family of earth.

Sherry: So well said, Susan. What is left of my tattered old heart broke over this whale. My poem was written out of my despair. A friend noted that this only adds to the trauma, and to also write about what we can do, in response. Good point. I did so, at the end of this feature. Truly, the fate of the earth rests in our human hands, hearts, minds, voices- and votes!

We start out whole,
losing pieces of ourselves
along the way
and then reclaiming them.
That is the journey.
I am collecting the last few bits,
before I fly into the light.
I pick them up:
ah, there you are!
and add them to my pack.

When I return,
I will change my shape.
I will be cattails,
standing dry, bent and broken
at the edge of the dried-up pond.
I will be wolf-pup, 
peering fearfully
from my den,
knowing, to survive,
I must elude
Earth’s biggest enemy:
the predatory Two-Leggeds,
and they are

I fear
I will find a planet burning,
humans and animals
on the run.
I will be Tree,
gasping for air,
a sudden irradiation
as the orange tongues
lick greedily at my corpse.

I will be deer,
fleeing the flaming forests.
I will be mother orca, holding 
my dead newborn calf 
above the water
for seventeen days, grieving,
unable to let her go,
saying to we humans:

See! See what you have done!

I will be grief itself,
watching the world I love
burning itself up.

As I am now.
As I am now.

Sherry: Well. That came from my first grief, as I shared Mother Orca's mourning for her lost child. The whales will disappear from the news but not, hopefully, from our consciousness. I think of the moment when she, finally, exhausted, must have had to let her calf go. It is unbearable.

My plan is to keep contacting our local, regional and national officials to clamour  for legislation to assist our planetary survival, and stop the destruction. I see other countries stepping up. Let's bombard our representatives with the changes we - and Mother Earth - need so badly. There are things we can do individually as well. They may seem small, but if billions of people do it, it adds up.

Thank you, Toni and Susan, for your heart-stirring poems about Tahlequah.  They have touched our hearts.

What We Can Do :

Implore your local, provincial / state, and national representatives to:

* move all fish farms onto land, away from salmon migration routes
* regulate and limit fishing to restore the salmon population
* prohibit the dumping of effluent / waste / pollution into the ocean
* legislate stiffer reduction of CO2 emissions
* increase carbon taxes at all levels
* make the largest corporate polluters, rather than taxpayers, pay to clean up their own     messes; make them pay their fair share of taxes
* stop the Site C project
* no pipelines ­- oil dependency is a dead-end street - and a planet-deadening one
* develop clean energy systems, which will create jobs

Other countries are taking  steps very effectively to address climate change. In Beijing, soldiers are planting millions of trees to counter air pollution.  In  Germany, all new cars are mandated to be electric by 2030.

North America, one of the worst polluters, is lagging far behind. 

Individually, we can do a great deal in our home communities: clearing streams, cleaning beaches, planting trees, banning single use plastic, not buying / objecting to over-packaged goods, living mindfully. Reduce, re-use, recycle. Pay to offset carbon emissions when we travel. Switching to a plant-based diet is one of the most effective ways of lessening CO2 emissions. We can join First Nations as they protest pipelines and salmon farms.

We can use our votes to support politicians who support action on climate change, and not vote for the deniers. Good luck to us all.


Ken Balcomb, The Center for Whale Research, and the article in the Seattle Times

A good article and petitions you can sign :  The Native Daily Network

A video of the ailing whale J50 is here.


  1. Politicians don't give a damn. If one is seeking power and wealth, being an unfeeling son of a bitch is an asset. And so, we always see short term greed trumping any kind of compassion or care for the natural world, a world we ourselves are part of and dependent upon. I see no hope, really. Everything, including living things, are seen merely as commodities to be consumed. It's unbelievably depressing and wasteful, with no end in sight.

    1. I have always been an optimist, trusting the transformation of consciousness would occur in time. But the level of greed and awfulness that is going on right now has finally discouraged me. I have to trust in Mother Earth now, to rid herself of the affliction we are, so she can breathe again. Sigh.

  2. I'm overwhelmed! Breathing deeply, gasping for air. After Orca Mom let go, I realized I'd been holding my breath. Thank you for including my poem with yours and the 3 by Toni and the drawing by Lori. This reminds me of a memorial service where people stand and testify. I would hear more willingly if poets wish to respond.

    Thank you for gathering these, Sherry. So much Love.

    1. I would love to hear more - much more - from any poets wishing to weigh in........Lori asked me to send her a link when this posted. I did, she has seen it and says it is wonderful. It is - heartbreaking, yet heartening also, to know that people care so much. And many, many do. We just have to get them all to the polls, as well as expressing themselves to their elected officials. By the millions.

  3. Thank you Sherry for this sad but awakening post. The poems broke my heart. I've been busy with my own life's challenges lately, and that's no excuse to forget the earth's grief. I am ready to renew my commitment to do more to raise awareness and resist the greedy.

    1. Thanks, Myrna, for taking time to read and to care. You know this mother orca's heart as well as anyone can. Wishing you and yours continued recovery.

  4. Thank you for listing the resources to go to to help the earth and its creatures. But I will be honest, I have no hope for them as long as humans are in power.

    1. I know, Toni, and it has never been more clear with six hundred forest fires burning in my province, California in flames, pipelines being rammed through. I think that is why this small whale's expression of grief moved us so.

  5. Even so, for the sake of the young people of the world, I have to believe we can still elect leaders who care more about planetary survival than being re-elected, who will make the tough decisions that must be made. It may be late, but there still is time, IF legislation addresses climate change SOON.

  6. I am sitting here mouth agape, tears falling. I had not heard about this tragedy, the latest of many. I would love to be positive, but I am with Toni on this one. Thank you all for these incredible poems.

  7. Thanks for reading and caring, Sara. This whale has touched hearts all over the world. I ache for her, for her calf and her pod.

  8. Thank you so much for this impactful, heartrending and edifying post, Poets. Sherry, Toni, and Susan, your beautifully rendered pieces are stunning in their informed and empathetic affinity for these noble and majestic creatures. Lori, your artwork is breathtaking!

    I have seen whales in the wild, many times. It is spiritual … words fail. I am at a loss to understand why so little is being done to return that which was and is theirs, back to some level of habitability, in order that they can live free and in good health.

  9. Wendy, I have seen them up close and yes, it is spiritual. The wisdom in those ancient eyes sees right through to one's soul. They are intelligent enough to know they are endangered. I think Tahlequah was trying to express her distress directly.

  10. I've been to 'Tahlequah' space. I have no more words to express for this awakening feature Sherry. My tears. All poems by our dear poets and your words moved me to tears.

  11. This mother orca has touched so many hearts. I hope increased awareness will result in help for the whales. We need them.

  12. Such a heart-breaking situation. I love the passion in all the poems and hope for change

  13. I'm staggered, shocked, horrified, deeply grieved.... I don't know if Tahlequah's ordeal was reported in Australia. I do know I saw nothing about it, and none of my friends has mentioned it, who would have been weeping about it had they known. I first knew anything of it when I readToni's 1.000 Miles Later on her blog only yesterday, and learning then only the end of the story did not get the full awfulness until I read this post just now. Marvellous poems from all of you, and so very necessary. Among all the ways you suggest of taking action, would you consider sending your poems to your local newspaper's Letters to the Editor column? (Treating them not as literary effusions which might not get published at all, and if so few people might read them, but as passionate expressions of opinion in the public interest.) And if they don't get printed, are there public notice-boards in your town where they could be displayed? How about sending them in letters to your Government representatives? (Toni, you might include your whole series.) They are such powerful, urgent pieces.

    1. I actually share the despair many of you have expressed, and the opinion that the sooner the planet gets rid of us the better off she and all other life forms will be. However I think we can still do a lot to make things better even while we're on the way out, and that it's incumbent on us to do what we can with whatever is put in front of us, whether it's petitioning the Government, refusing to use plastic bags, taking salmon to a starving young whale, etc. And to do the next thing after that the next day, and so on. We might not always succeed in every one of these individual instances, but I think it's worth the attempt. Likely there will be no more Orcas soon, but hopefully conditions can be improved for those there are, while they are. And similarly for other life forms, even our own. (Obviously we are damaging ourselves too by our destructiveness of everything around us.)

      OK, climbing off soapbox now ...

    2. Good idea about sending the poems further, Rosemary. I had thought of that. I submitted mine to Poets Against Kinder Morgan, the pipeline builders. Poets are gathering to read their protest poems. But to reach the general public, we have national newspapers and i might send mine there. Also a clean energy friend of mine urges us to hold a vision of the world we want and, rather succumbing to the darkness, add to the light. Just as you say, doing what we can.

    3. Thank you, Rosemary, for these responses which reveal that we should get these poems out there.

  14. This is a beautiful feature showing the love of a mother and the concern of the pod and the sympathy that the featured poets and others have shown for the world and its survival. We are seeing all over the world the abuse of the natural world by humanity for hundreds of years which is now coming to a climax as even the climate is being severely affected by our stupidity. Our blindness in waste management and the use of plastics will surely affect us too. Meanwhile those making the money assume they can skip of to Mars when the time comes. If only they'd go now so we could mend and restore the Earth again without profit and waste ruling the world.

  15. Yes, the whole world is in despair. The leader in Washington is only a symptom of us. So much that protects, has been rolled back. Nothing can live in a polluted world. So many tragedies in this beautiful world....Yes, the whale mother broke my heart. And we are to blame. Thank you Susan, Toni and Sherry for the beautiful poems about this tragedy. It seems we learn nothing....

  16. We learn slowly, or in catastrophe. That catastrophe is already here, in warming seas, floods and forest fires. We are slow to grasp the full extent.

  17. Such wonderful writings shared here! Toni, Susan, Sherry- such powerful poems. This situation seems to have touched many. May it be a wake-up call. Sherry, you put such a lot of work into this feature. An important article - not only because of the poetry but because of the information shared as well. I am glad that so many have read this!

  18. I am too, Mary. I submitted my poem as part of a demonstration of poets against the pipeline. Today i read the Lummi Nation delivered salmon to Scarlet by a pipe, so the orcas dont become dependent. They may do one more boat load. No way to know if Scarlet got any of the fish. I am glad there is now awareness of their plight.

  19. a polar bear does not understand climate change, that global warming is keeping the fishes away from its usual hunting grounds, so it is starving, and we see its skinny body limping on an ice floe, instead of the once majestic animal we know.

    a whale does not understand plastic, so it swallows the plastic debris with the food it usually seeks, and one day it is too sick to swim anymore, and its dead body washes onto a beach, its open mouth choked full of the poison.

    Just right after i read the heartfelt poems and article here, i came across these 2 photos and video in my phone. it seems it is happening very often now. sometimes i wonder if it is already too late to turn the tide. :(

  20. A heart wrenching story and one we keep seeing because here we refuse to do what is right, not convenient or for money as is the usual M.O. These poems each evoke deep emotions. Thank you Sherry, Toni and Susan for your words.

  21. Beautiful work on the saddest subject I can imagine. Yes, we did this. We have to make it right.

  22. Thank you, friends, for your compassionate and aware comments. I am so sad for the polar bears........their plight is desperate.


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