Saturday, February 22, 2003

Why Orcinus?

A lot of readers have been perplexed by the name I gave this blog. I've been promising to explain, so here it is:

I conceived of this Weblog primarily as a journal for getting down in print, and sharing with the general public, a lot of the information I have in my source files. These files, as I think you'll see as we go along, cover a pretty broad and eclectic range of issues and histories, many of them intertwined.

Of course, some of my common subjects will be in the areas about which I have written, or am writing, books or articles: the extremist right in America, white supremacy and its history, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, hate crimes, domestic terrorism, and the Oklahoma City bombing. Sometimes I'm going to post on Native American issues. At others I'm going to post on the Sonics and Mariners. I might even write about child care. And sometimes it will be about killer whales, known by the Latin name Orcinus orca.

See, my primary beat, through a long string of different newsrooms, has always been the Pacific Northwest. My family goes back here several generations, and I've never left. I like to write about the people and the landscape and the connection between them. That includes the politics and the culture, as well as the journalism, since that's the field in which I've worked for the past 25 years or so. I've never been comfortable with provincial writing that only sees the Northwest as an isolated region; I've always understood that the region has its own place in the world, and so I like to write about the broader national issues that resonate here and have their own connection here as well. My idea has always been to connect the world to the Northwest and vice versa.

Along the way, I hope to use the journal to participate in the kind of spirited debate that one encounters in the 'blogosphere.' I have observed that much of the common posting style in many blogs is quick and snarky, and I think you'll find this blog's style is not exactly the opposite, but close. My posts can be long. If you want quick hits, I only occasionally do that kind of thing (mostly drawn from some of my more interesting news connections). People who read this blog generally have to kind of like sitting down and reading. I know that's going to limit my audience, but I'm not doing this to draw a gazillion hits a day.

So, why a killer whale?

It has mostly to do with the fact that ultimately this is a personal journal, and I want the blog's identity to reflect not only the Pacific Northwest, but also my own personality, and the kind of style of writing and journalism I do. Orcas fit.

Now, I'm not going to get all crystal-healing-groovy on you here, but in addition to many histories of the West I also have read a lot of Native-American religious studies and oral histories over the years, part of having worked on a number of reservations as a reporter. (One of my great-grandmother's cousins was John G. Neihardt, the sometimes-discredited author of Black Elk Speaks; after reading the nasty things Sherman Alexie wrote about him, I'm a little reluctant to claim him, but hey -- at least the interest seems to run in the family. Heh heh.)

At any rate, many Native American religious systems feature the belief in spirit animals, a creature who represents our inner natures. They believe everyone has one, and often the purpose of a spirit quest was to encounter this animal. I sometimes like to fancy that if I have such a thing, it is an orca.

Of course, I know this really is presumptious on my part. Spirit animals are supposed to reveal themselves to you, and I can't say that an orca has ever communicated with me in any fashion other than giving me a once-over. More to the point, I'm not Native American. Though my grandmother Rose is supposed to have a large dose of Native ancestry, which she won't talk about, and which none of us have ever successfully tracked down. My Mom says it's Cherokee, but nobody really knows for sure. Let's face it -- I'm about as white as an Idaho boy can be. I was blond until I was 37 or so, and could probably still pass for Aryan at the Nations. Pretending I have some connection to Native Americans would be like pretending I have natural rhythm. Not. Besides, also among my ancestors are those who made their fortunes by more or less stealing Indian lands. And I never went on a spirit quest, except for maybe that time that I ... oh well, better not talk about that. Youthful exuberance, you know.

Anyway, I spend a lot of my free time these days sea kayaking. It's a nice thing for a 46-year-old married guy with a fast-growing 1-year-old to get into. It's wonderful exercise and even better mental and spiritual therapy. I especially like hanging out in the Puget Sound in the summer. And the "peak experience" in a kayak, even more than a long rewarding paddle to a remote spot in the San Juans, is encountering orcas in the wild.

Orcas can be surprising creatures, appearing in all kinds of waters, pursuing all kinds of prey. The local resident orcas are almost strictly salmon eaters, while the transient orcas who prowl in and out of Puget Sound are known to pursue nearly anything, seals and sea lions included. Moose and deer that swim between islands in the Vancouver Island/British Columbia archipelago have been known to disappear under the water when orcas are present.

They do not, however, mess much with humans. In fact, even though they sit atop the oceanic food chain, and are actually some of the most vicious and powerful predators in the world, the only time they have been known to attack humans is when they are being held captive. And even that is rare. There was one recorded accidental attack on a surfer, who evidently was mistaken for a seal and promptly released after a chomp on the leg. They seem, if anything, rather curious about us.

This is one of the incredible things about encountering them in the wild. They are huge creatures, weighing up to 13 tons, but extremely graceful, and powerful and precise swimmers. In a stationary kayak -- it's important not to paddle into them, not to harass them, to rap on the hull of your boat so they know your location, and to simply let them come to you, if they're going to -- they will glide gracefully under and around you. If they do stop, they'll spy-hop up and examine you. Believe me, you know you've been looked over when an orca does it.

So having a killer whale as a spirit animal is an entrancing thought to me. In fact, I'm sure it's outright wishful thinking. I wish I could be just one ounce as cool as an orca.

Mind you, I don't have much patience for the crystal-healing crowd who hang out in the San Juans and anthropomorphize orcas. It takes the whaleness out of them. Orcas need to be respected for being the uniquely amazing creatures they are. They are incredibly intelligent, but it's not a human intelligence, and trying to think of them in human terms loses the point.

Let me tell you a little about what we know about the orcas who populate the Puget Sound. They have been some of the most carefully studied marine mammals on the planet, and have given us an amazing window into their world.

There are about 80 of them currently residing in the Puget Sound. When I first started studying them, about 10 years ago, there were nearly 100. They are in serious trouble, which is why you'll find me writing about them from time to time here. To learn more about what you can do to help, start out at these Websites:

Center for Biological Diversity

The Orca Conservancy

The Orca Recovery Campaign

Orcas have entirely matriarchal societies; their social structure is built around the mother of the family. The males, which are the larger and stronger and clearly the chief hunters, will spend their entire lives with their mothers. They generally live about as long as humans, though the females live longer. The matriarch of the J Pod, the largest of the Puget Sound pods, is nearly 80 years old.

'Killer whale' is actually a misnomer -- though they certainly are prolific, efficient and ruthless killers, they are not whales. They actually are the largest member of the dolphin family. And like their smaller cousins, their intelligence is legendary. They have huge brains; indeed, their cerebral index (the size of the brain proportional to the body) is larger than a human's.

They also have an extremely sophisticated form of communication. It's probably not appropriate to call it a language, at least not as Steven Pinker might define it, but it's close. Of course, they have extremely sensitive sonar capabilities (that big melon atop their heads is a sound sensing device) but their communication seems to be a separate thing: a concatenation of clicks, whistles and chirping songlets that imparts a seemingly broad range of information. Sometimes, according to one researcher I know, these take the form of long-distance "sound bubbles" that appear to capitalize on the considerable sound-transmitting power of water.

Scientists have of course not come close to decoding this communication, but they have been able to observe patterns and learn a great deal about the whales from this alone. For starters, they quickly determined that the Puget Sound residents had a completely distinct "language" from that used the transient orcas who also ply these waters. (Subsequent DNA tests determined they had not interbred in several thousand years.)

Moreover, they also determined that the Puget Sound residents were closely related, both in "language" and genetics, to the resident "northern population" orcas who frequent the waters of between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. However, they also appear to observe a sort of "border" (north of the Fraser River) which the two populations never cross. If they interbreed -- and genetic samples suggest they do -- then it probably occurs during the winter, when many of the pods of both northern and southern populations head out to the open waters of the Pacific west of Vancouver Island, where their activities are entirely mysterious.

The rest of the year -- from late spring, through summer and into the autumn -- orcas can be found in all kinds of waters around the Puget Sound. (The J Pod in fact historically has remained in the Sound year-round, but in recent years as the fish population has continued to decline, that pattern has changed, and they have been spotted in various coastal waters during the winter as well.) In the summer especially, when the salmon runs are still reasonably healthy, they will appear, sometimes in huge "superpods" the sight of which will make your jaw drop: The orcas romp and play, and the sight of successive breaches, as they leap out of the water and come crashing down on their sides, can be a life-changing experience.

But more likely, if you encounter orcas, it will be in pods of about 7 to 15 orcas. And though some locales are better than others for seeing them, they really are capable of appearing just about anywhere they feel like.

They'll surprise you that way: Just popping up, sometimes just briefly, sometimes longer. It can be a little startling. But it's always something you're glad you experienced.

That, in a nutshell, is what I hope for this blog: It plies all kinds of waters, and pops up in all kinds of places. I hope it's intelligent and thought-provoking. I hope it surprises you. I hope it makes you aware of the bigger world around you.

Of course, I also don't mind playing off the popular image people have of orcas, either. You know: They're big. They're friendly. They're nice. Playful. Even polite. It takes a lot to make them angry. But if you fuck with them, they have a lot of big teeth and will bite your ass off and swallow it.

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