Years ago, before Tim and I were about to become parents, we planned our ‘last’ wilderness adventure. In the days before questioning the carbon spent on air travel, we flew to San Diego and took a 90-foot fishing boat down the coast, amongst the Pacific swell, to Baja California and into the St Ignacio Lagoon in Mexico. In the late 1980s, this wild place had just been declared a refuge zone for whales by the Mexican government and tourist boats were limited in number each year. By 1993, UNESCO made the Lagoon a World Heritage site. It is one of the few places in the world where Grey whales breed and rear their young before their daunting journey back north to the Arctic.
A mile wide and 14 long, we entered the lagoon through its narrow mouth with treacherous sandbars and swirling currents. There were no other boats there and not a soul was on the bleached shores. For five glorious days we moored up and went out on small skiffs (12-foot metal dinghies) around the bays or landed on beaches with our biologist guide to explore the flora and fauna of this ancient land that had been inhabited since prehistory.
Encounters with whale friends
Here we learned about desert plants, climbed dunes and even came upon the decaying hulk of a Grey whale. Already pregnant, I was caught between the fascination of its enormous, incredible form (they can grow up to 50 feet long) and the too pungent downwind whiff of dead sea flesh in great heat. I was expressively sick!
Remnants of the indigenous human population were evident in huge mounds of oyster shells. They were the remains of generations of oyster fishermen and feasts on the beach, monuments to the abundance of the ecosystem. As the sun set, flocks of pelicans, the ‘Mexican Air Force’ we called them, would fly past in formation and signal the end of another extraordinary day.
Twice a day, we would go out on skiffs, dinghies with small outboard motors and explore the lagoon looking for ‘friendlies’, Grey whales who were likely to seek our human company. This fact alone is extraordinary. Up until 1960s commercial whalers and then fishermen were still slaughtering these magnificent animals and their babies in the very lagoon we were so privileged to explore. They fought so hard they were named ‘Devilfish’. Once the California Grey whales were estimated to have a population size of 76,000-118,000 individuals, three to five times larger than exist today. Their Atlantic cousins are extinct and their eastern Pacific cousins, who migrate the route between the Sea of Okhotsk and southern Korea, are today officially listed as critically endangered.
Out in the skiff, we would hear the primeval sound of great whales surfacing, breathing out and be showered by the fishy spray from their blowholes if they passed close enough. They ‘spy-hop’, supporting their huge bodies with their tails on the bottom of the shallow lagoon and look out over their surroundings. Were they looking at us? Was I being anthropomorphic?
I got the reputation for attracting friendlies and soon the crew let me drive the skiff when we went out. In that vast and ancient place, we would drift to the sounds of blowing whales and the call of birds. Whales would spy-hop all around us and swim tantalisingly near, so close we could almost touch.
Merging with a mystery
Then late one day I was again at the helm and a mother allowed her inquisitive calf to come close to inspect us. The baby, about 16 feet long, came in so close that as it dived clumsily under the boat, its tail clipped our bow and we nearly capsized. The calf was obviously fascinated by us and came within touching distance. The mother too came to the bow where I was sitting. She raised her head above the water and one eye looked directly at me, just heads apart. As I looked into the great being’s eye, time stood still. I knew in that moment that I was in the presence of a consciousness more ancient than anything I had experienced before. I was witness to the vast intelligence and presence of the wild. It was gentle, curious and had no interest in harming me. From that moment, my life irrevocably changed. The deepest part of me had merge with a mystery. I was awoken.
My experience is not unique. Thirty years later, I learn that Eleanor O’Hanlon had exactly the same experience in St Ignacio Lagoon. It prompted this wonderful book that takes us to the land of Whale, Bear, Wolf and Horse, describes us the path of the shaman and a good degree about biology, indigenous cultures, mythology and travel adventure as well. It’s a delight of a book, beautifully written and full of insight. My very core is touched by it. It is a precious pearl formed from the grit and pain born from a great love of nature, a deep connection with the wild and the desire to protect and preserve it at all costs. I want to read and savour every word and give it to all my friends.
Afterwards, I came home and gave birth to a daughter who, from a young age, was able to pick up wild birds in her hands, commune with wild creatures and the genus loci, the spirit of place. Quickly, permaculture came into our lives and we began our strange and compulsive journey to share its wisdom and wonders with the world, however improbable it may have seemed at the time.
Looking back, I have no doubt that my encounter was one of those moments in life when a person is literally stopped in their tracks and shown an opening to another world. As I recall the experience, I am moved by love and reverence for an ancient intelligence that still swims in our oceans. Through the wonders of Nature and our capacity to see through the ‘Eyes of the Wild’, we can connect with universal consciousness. All we need to do is open ourselves and listen. ‘Diversity is holy. The dazzling play of relationship within the diversity of form is the expression of the inherent sacredness of life,’ as Eleanor puts it. From this realisation will come our ability to live in harmony with the sacred diversity of all life and that will be our salvation.
Maddy Harland co-founded and edits Permaculture magazine – inspiration for sustainable living and Permanent Publications.