A fish probably doesn’t think much about water, because it knows no other medium. However dolphins, unlike their water-breathing brethren, live in two different realms: the lower regions of water and the upper regions of air. Humans, with our smaller brains and prehensile thumbs, also straddle the two realms of water and air. We also drown if held under water for too long. Humans and dolphins need to rise out of the ocean (the birthplace of both our species) in order to grab a breath and continue living. If a dolphin becomes entangled in a fisherman’s net she will drown. If a human male, wandering in a field somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan, out to buy some milk for a younger sibling, is swept up and labeled an “enemy combatant” and then interrogated too vigorously using the US-approved technique of “water-boarding”, then, like the dolphin held down by a net, this young, not-yet-a-man will also drown. It’s something both our species have in common: we both need to be free to come up for air when our bodies are crying out for life.
But dolphins know these two realms of existence in a far deeper way than humans ever can (perhaps that’s why humans had to invent Heaven above to complement our earthly home below). Unlike humans–who have only explored small portions of the birthplace of our species–dolphins truly live in two realms and are completely dependent on both. Not only do they need to come up for air several times an hour, but also—as presented in the film “Free Willy”, dolphins, including Orcas, cannot remain out of the water for very long without succumbing to heat stroke and skin lesions. Their lungs need air and their bodies need to be immersed in salt water.
I sometimes try to imagine what the life of a whale or a dolphin might be like.
So I imagine a narwhale, that unicorn of cetaceans, in the dead of winter. Narwhales don’t migrate south to Florida when the Arctic ice closes over. They don’t have prehensile thumbs to fire up a chainsaw to cut a hole in the ice, when winter builds a roof of ice over their heads. They live on the other side of the looking glass, and the man with the spear is a shadow moving on the other side of a mirror, as is the polar bear waiting patiently at the edge of the breathing hole.
When I imagine a narwhale—choked off from the realm of air, as bitter cold closes off his breathing-hole–I imagine him embarking on a perilous journey into the unknown. He must swim under the ice in the hope that an opportunity to take another breath will come before the end of his life. He is not a dolphin sentenced to die in a fisherman’s net. He is not the Pakistani human being water-boarded in order to save democracy. He is free to undertake an immense journey.
He is on the edge of his world, perhaps guided by a distant chord. Is it the hint of light in the water miles away? Is it an inner flowering of certainty? Does a gigantic act of faith blossom in his being as he sets out—his whole future dangling from a thread beneath the next hole in the ice? Inside that swimming body, I wonder how the world looks. Is there a sweeping intelligence, alive to every nuance of light, every bubble, every stirring of current? Does a sense of the inevitability of life’s closure peer into his mind, as the burning in his lungs starts to rise in pitch? Perhaps he is living out the New Testament injunction that, lest we give up this life we cannot gain a greater life, and then suddenly he finds himself swimming in that greater life.
Now every bubble in the ice above is an emissary of a greater realm and the light shining into his world is chanting another name for water. Gone now the panic, the scrambling after one more breath. Now there is only the present moment, exploding with the light of a thousand suns. Whether the future holds the black carcass of a narwhale, his horn banging silently against an unforgiving ceiling of ice, or whether it holds the joyous reunion of air and gasping lungs, there is now only this world of water as it opens into a greater realm.
And human language holds no word for that kind of water.
Michael Gray, 01/22/14