Whales: beyond bumper-sticker chic

Two mornings after the Makah Indians killed their first whale in more than 70 years, I lie on my stomach in a tidepool near my home on the California coast. Groping far under a ledge, I find what I am looking for: a hefty abalone, more than a handspan in length.

I work my pry bar under the mollusk and pop it from the rock. It is my third of the day, leaving one more before I'd reach the legal limit, but I decide I've had enough - one for myself and one each for two neighbors.

Like the Makah with respect to their whale, I would probably survive without this abalone. But it connects me with the wild in the ecosystem that is my home. For people tied to a particular place - as the Makah are, as I have chosen to be - it is a relationship that enriches and anchors our lives.

This connection invites inhabitants to restrain their consumption so that the gifts of nature might perpetuate themselves. In fact, the Makah ceased their pursuit of gray whales in the 1920s, a quarter-century before industrial nations stopped hunting them as well.

Since the Makah took their whale last week, their culture has come under intense scrutiny. Observers note the modern ways adopted by the Makah - using a gun to dispatch the whale, giving chase in a motorboat, washing down chunks of blubber with Coca-Cola.

Rather than deconstructing Makah culture, we would do well to inspect our own. Most of the Makahs' critics would have us believe that whales are for viewing, not eating. They suggest the tribe forgo whale hunting in favor of other pursuits, including a whale-watching business.

On one level, theirs is an understandable reaction to the view that treats nature as a commodity, recognizing no limits and converting nature into profit as quickly as possible. This value system pushed whales to the brink of extinction and gave us clearcut forests and the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The look-but-don't-touch position, however, is perilous. It's powerful to encounter whales in their element, but to define watching them as the only legitimate interaction leads to a slippery slope. What else in the wild is just for watching - deer, chanterelle mushrooms, blackberries? Each is as beautiful and sacred as a whale. Humans draw sustenance from other organisms and have an impact on the wild if only by dedicating land and water to agriculture.

Partisans of the for-eyes-only view separate themselves from the biosphere that supports us all. They treat nature as a peep show, not a drama in which they play a role. Even now that gray whale populations have rebounded and the mammals have been removed from the endangered species list, "Save the Whales" adheres to their minds the way old bumper stickers cling to cars.

The Makahs' hunt symbolizes a third way: nature as our very context for being. The gray whale is one of several edible creatures at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula that together make possible a way of life. The Makah can take one for food, knowing their action does not threaten the whales and the web of marine life to which they belong. They might agree with the deep ecologists' credo that all living things are connected, but they don't exclude themselves.

Humans, too, are part of the great chain of being, whether we are predators on the ocean, or prey in grizzly country, or inadvertently nourishing a mosquito in the woods. The fact that we are sentient beings does not exempt us, any more than it exempts the whales.

Back home, I saut the abalone in butter and garlic. With each bite I am reminded that Homo sapiens continues to be welcome on this planet. To accept that welcome, we must embrace our role as respectful participants in nature, not as its masters nor as couch potatoes tuned to Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom."

*Seth Zuckerman covers the Pacific Northwest for the Tidepool online news service. He lives in Petrolia, Calif. where he is active in watershed restoration.

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