Farewell, Whole New Time

The grapevine reports that to the springtime beach has come a remarkable castaway: a dead whale. To find it, I just drive into the next town, go to the beach, and look up and down the surf line. About a mile away I see what looks like a black-hulled trawler wrecked on the beach.

In the sea such a creature is impressive. But one gets mainly glimpses: the top of a head, a rolling back. Up close, walking alongside its massive contours, it seems surreally revealed, as though here to herald some message, some annunciation, an oracle.

This is a fin whale. The world's second-largest animal, fin whales can reach about 90 feet and an estimated 80 tons, and can live up to about a century. This one is about sixty feet long. (The closely related blue whale, reaching a little over 100 feet, is the most massive animal known to have ever lived. Hunted to near-extinction, it's barely hanging on in the Antarctic, recovering strongly in the east Pacific, elsewhere now very rare.)

The whale's hulk lies on its port side, marooned past the last high tide line. The waning moon and weakening tides will leave it there quite a while. But I know the people here won't allow this. The nearby homes are too expensive to share the beach with such a wonder. And, the stench will become unpleasant. Full decomposition will likely take us through the summer. Bikinis and decaying blubber -- not the image this place is marketing. Bad for business.

So I'm sure the fire department and police will soon intervene; rope off the site; place someone officious to prevent people from doing something stupid to themselves or, maybe worse, the carcass; allow biologists to open a cavernous portal and explore, measure, assess, perhaps reveal; and eventually bury it.

But not yet. For now it lies in state with a certain fitting dignity. I circumambulate the corpse freely, unaccosted and unopposed. Under the wide sky and with the backdrop and soundtrack of the immense sea whence it has just come, it is both in and out of its element, natural and unnatural.

Its tar-black skin is calico-patched with pink sand-abrasions from the surf-swells that pushed it aground. The huge pleats of its distendable throat, looking like the lapstrake hull of a wooden vessel, run halfway down its body. Its mouth bites a bulldozer's wedge of beach sandwich. In life, this Jonah-gulping throat ballooned like a pelican's pouch, engulfing a swimming pool of water, fishes, and krill. Then its unspeakable tongue would strain water through the mouth-rimming brush of baleen, concentrating entrapped hordes into a satisfying swallow.

Living fin whales don't lift their tail flukes above water. Here the tail lies in full view, pitched at a 45-degree angle. Reddened with the bruise of burst blood vessels, these flukes span about twice my body length. The left fluke has furrowed a gouge in the sand like the rudder of a ship run aground. On the landward side, sand has built up against it; on the seaward, the swirl of waves receding has dug a little hollow. The tailstock, run into the sand like a skeg, connects the hull-like body with the massive blades of its propelling tail flukes. That stock seems sturdy as a tree trunk, but the linkage bears the sleekness of motion, attenuating to a wedge above and a wedge below, like a double-edged splitting maul for shattering water as the whale swims. Or swam.

The whale's blowhole is slammed shut like a deck hatch. Its left pectoral fin lies embedded in the sand, its right -- about as long as I am tall -- dangles high and dry. The sun is throwing a lifelike highlight onto its open eye. That rather tiny-looking eye is about the size of the circle you can make with your thumb and forefinger. The rigid eponymous dorsal fin is pinked with the slough of loosened skin.

Blood and fluid oozes from a wound near the base of its pectoral fin, as though the percolating corpse is just another leaking tanker. Formerly, whales were the world's wells, civilization's chief source of oil, and we pumped the sea nearly dry of them. We appear to have learned little of whales and nothing of oil. The Japanese cannot get beyond their blood thirst, nor we our oil addiction, and in each case it comes down to nothing more than a matter of national prides hung perversely on things that ought be utmost shame.

The average Yank uses twice as much fossil fuel as the average Brit. Compared to 1970, we in the United States use half-again as much energy, increased our paved-road miles by half-again, upped our vehicle-miles-driven by more than 175 percent, increased the size of our average new homes by half-again. In 2007 the U. S. was burning over 20 million barrels of oil a day, about the same as the industrial behemoths Japan, Germany, Russia, China, and India -- combined. God bless us indeed.

I notice the whale's got a bruise across its back, and a gash near its eye, possibly from its battering grounding.

Whales die. All things die. But when a whale biologist arrives, she examines the oozing bruise and pronounces trauma; a ship has done this.

This makes it a death less easily accepted. We stand here in our encounter with an ancient being simply because the ancient being has encountered us first, and tragically.

Indeed, the entire world has encountered us. Geologists place time on Earth into great bins and drawers called eons, eras, epochs, and so forth. These mark times when the planet changed its marquee. Each time the theater of life has opened the curtain on a new act -- such as the first appearance of cells, the first multi-celled organisms, the first animals with shells -- and also each time it has brought down the house with mass extinctions, catastrophic meteors, and cycles of ice-ages, it has left a playbill in the rocks. All these ages later, geologists have named and labeled the boundaries of these inter-nested bins and boxes of time. They name the last ice ages as the Pleistocene Epoch. They call the time after them, starting roughly 12,000 years ago, the Holocene, meaning 'whole new time.' It includes all of civilization. And "whole new time" may be an understatement.

This scene is so full of contrasts that one feels some immense transition arriving on the sea-breeze. Here lies this great and awesome beast, this time-traveling messenger of travail. Several Shinnecock Indians from the nearby reservation arrive and begin singing and chanting. In earlier times, Indians pursued passing whales. Now they grieve their passing. Soon come a phalanx of school children being herded over the dune to gawk and horse around, and a couple of dogs that begin barking at the enormous corpse. From the beachfront mansions, to the metallic gleam and the glint off windshields of arriving cars, to the kids let loose from school, minute by minute, more and more people flood the shore. I stand regarding the whale, listening to the surf and watching the dune-grass shudder. And before long, and even to the cause of death itself, people so dominate the scene that their overwhelming numbers transform the enormous creature that has convened us from monument to amusement.

And in just this way a funny thing has happened on the way to the future. In the year 2000 a Nobel laureate suggested that the Holocene is -- finished. Human domination has so changed the world as to constitute a new epoch: the new time of humans -- the Anthropocene. The suggestion surprised many. Geologists are debating. Can it be so?

Has the time really come when people are the dominant force on the planetary surface? While the idea of the Anthropocene remains debated by people, to this whale it might have seemed obvious.

Adapted from: 2011. The View From Lazy Point. Henry Holt Co. New York, winner of the 2012 Orion Book Award.

References and Further Reading:

U.S. consumes as much oil as other industrial behemoths combined: U.S. Energy Information Administration at: http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/country/index.cfm?view=consumption. Also: the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (available online), and Worldwatch Institute's annual State of the World, W.W. Norton, New York, contain statistics on resource use.

Resources since 1950s: Speth, G., 2008, The Bridge At The End Of The World, Yale University Press, pp 1-3. See also: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

The Anthropocene: Crutzen, P. J., and E. F. Stoermer, 2000, The "Anthropocene," Global Change Newsletter 41: 12-13. See also: Zalasiewicz, J. et al., 2008, "Are We Now Living In The Anthropocene," Geological Society of America Today available online.