I saw the sea spilling its tumultuous brain this summer on Amagansett Beach, a dead humpback lying like a discarded god for which our civilization will not weep. A year ago, we swam with humpbacks in the Caribbean, astounded by their grace, perhaps the greatest nonhuman experience on Earth. And this year I was handed the bleeding vestige of a being, a young female once more perfect in space and time than we could ever be. Her entrails spilled into the waves and I wondered how our species would fare without her kind.
We now know that 70 percent of the sea birds are gone. The Northern right whale has not reproduced for the first time in recorded history and the exquisite three-feet-long Vaquita, the smallest cetacean on Earth, perhaps numbering 30, in the Gulf of California could soon be gone forever. I wonder about the species disappearing and wonder about wonder itself, a food on which our son, Lysander, was nourished.
As school starts again, what of the schools of fish worldwide? What has happened to them? Will school furnish sufficient wonder to ignite the fire of young minds so they can become warriors and ambassadors of the natural world? I wonder if experience itself, not secondhand information about history and literature from dead poets will amount to much in a severely depleted world. They say, of course you must go to school; but when the children graduate, will there still be elephants or lions? Will ice amount to much? Will experience of anything be even possible?
We feed a diet of things that happened mostly to men, wars, algebra; how to dissect a frog, but few teachers teach the essentials of a planet that is on life support, that is vanishing; where our president wants to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge when hydrates could easily be tapped and furnish 100 million homes energy for over a decade. Teach the history of now, for our century could be the last viable one ever, if we don’t wake up.
Does school teach us the essentials, which is that our economy should be based on our environment? Look calamity straight in the eye and mold a curriculum that deals with reality, both at the incomparable beauty at what is in the world — oceans, forests, our Native people — and the fragility and terrible loss of what is happening and what should be done to preserve and fight for what is left. Students are fed a diet of school textbooks, secondhand information that has little or nothing to do with what is happening on Earth now. That has to change. The world situation is too urgent.
Something new is upon us this year as California burns. I saw it all too clearly in the immense tears of a dead humpback whose family I once swam so close to, I could have transformed into a whale and drowned in the lissome light of the sea.
When the humpback songs came out in the 1960s, some thought they were the voice of extraterrestrials. I know some don’t want to hear of tragedy, but we have no more than a few years to turn the tide around. That is what the next decade will all be about.
What I beheld in the lifeless eye of leviathan, in the sad spent, eradicated bowels of a young humpback who will sing no more, whether it was plastic or a ship that killed the whale, was the decomposing carcass of our own intellect. The cetaceans, the elephants, whose carnage we helped alert the world to nine years ago, are more coherent that we can ever hope to be. The humpback’s song we once heard live, like a symphonic overture to the blood of creation, cannot be matched by the pale sounds of the human chorus, for we are but an upstart and reckless race without equipoise.
Our entire economic system is a lie. It is time we found our ballast; money grubbers of all kinds, visionless politicians, greedy venture capitalists, so-called developers and hedge funders, take heed. I saw your face melting like the dawn of catastrophe in leviathan’s eye.
Cyril, Marie and Lysander Christo will soon release their 10-years-in-the-making feature documentary on the future of the elephant, Walking Thunder, and are working on their new book, Lords of the Earth: The Entwined Destiny of Wildlife and Humanity.