On the Language of the Deep Blue: Listening to Killer Whales
Charles Foster Travels to the Isle of Skye for Emergence Magazine
Emergence Magazine is a quarterly online publication exploring the threads connecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. As we experience the desecration of our lands and waters, the extinguishing of species, and a loss of sacred connection to the Earth, we look to emerging stories. Each issue explores a theme through innovative digital media, as well as the written and spoken word. The Emergence Magazine podcast features exclusive interviews, narrated essays, stories, and more.
In this episode of the podcast, writer Charles Foster travels to the Isle of Skye to listen to the intricate vocalizations of the eight remaining Scottish killer whales in an effort to seek out a language beyond the human. Charles is the author of more than twenty books, including Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide and Wired for God: The Biology of Spiritual Experience.
From the episode:
I talk in straight lines. My speech goes direct from my mouth to my listeners’ ears. Sometimes some of the words are snatched away by wind, but the air doesn’t mold them. It is different in the sea. A sound might be carved up or stretched or reflected or somersaulted by a plane separating water of different temperatures or salinities. The very business of vocalizing, then, charts the complexity of the medium through which the sound travels. Salt water talks back. There are no monologues in the sea. There is so much more going on down there.
So much, indeed, that it is nonsense to talk about the “language” of killer whales. Not because it might be an insult to language (and to the pride of those hubristic language users, the humans), but because it is an insult to killer whales to imply that their means of communication are as limited as ours. Language as we understand it is a small part of any organism’s negotiation with otherness.
I’m often frustrated by the inability of my language to reflect the wonder of the world. I intuit that wonder, and then language tells me that I’m getting overexcited and I ought to calm down. But I prefer to trust the intuition. I know that propositions formulated in language can’t do the job. How can I possibly describe my love for my children, my outrage at the cruelty of men, the smell of a wood fire, or the sun on the back of a gull—let alone the dance of these things with one another?
We know from our everyday experience that words fall short of the splendor; that little of our real understanding is mediated through words; that most of what we get even from a formal lecture is subliminal (perhaps communicated by pheromones, or the interlocking of auras, or whatever).
If, when I’m sitting at home in Oxford, I want to taste northernness, I put on the music of Peter Maxwell Davies. Our lives, and the worlds in which we live them, are symphonic. Nothing less than music will do to describe it. Music bypasses our cognitive gatekeepers. It expounds with a power and an accuracy that not even Shakespearean allusion can match. “But what does music mean?” ask the reductionists, hunched over their oscilloscopes. You might as well demand a word-perfect English translation of the Eroica.13
Like ours, the killer whales’ lives can be painted only in an epically symphonic way. And their communication is, in its variety, its scope, and its intensity, far more musical than verbal.
It has been suggested that in humans, music preceded language. I suspect that’s right. Language is all right for lawyers and stockbrokers (although the way they use it makes them wither fast); it is obviously inadequate as a medium for articulating the relationship with the wider world and with one another that is the essence of being human or cetacean. So to realize that essence—to be conscious; to say, “This is me, and I’m standing here, and isn’t it glorious?”—you need music.