Aaron M. Moe

Assistant Professor of English at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame

The Ecopoetics of a Bowhead Whale

Bowhead WhaleEcocritics often emphasize the ways in which a human writer infuses his or her language with material vestiges of the nonhuman world. John Muir, for instance, allows readers to hear the sounds of the forest when he describes his experience climbing a tree in a windstorm:

The sounds of the storm corresponded gloriously with this wild exuberance of light and motion. The profound bass of the naked branches and boles booming like waterfalls; the quick, tense vibrations of the pine-needles, now rising to a shrill, whistling hiss, now falling to a silky murmur; the rustling of laurel groves in the dells, and the keen metallic click of leaf on leaf—all this was heard in easy analysis when the attention was calmly bent. (Muir)

Like the sounds of the forest, the language booms, hisses, vibrates, murmurs, and clicks, and through the onomatopoeia, Muir epitomizes the notion that a writer can use language as a form of echolocation.

The ecocritic Scott Knickerbocker gives this process the name of “sensuous poiesis”—the “process of rematerializing language specifically as a response to nonhuman nature” (2), and he explores this dynamic in the works of several human poets.

It is time, though, to extend such poetics to other species, such as the bowhead whale. Recently, I read David Rothenberg’s Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound. Rothenberg spends a couple of pages documenting the ways the bowhead whale integrates the myriad sounds of creaking and groaning ice into the whale song (194-96). This is a form of “sensuous poiesis,” for the whale has rematerialized his repertoire of song as a response to non-whale nature. Rothenberg highlight how the whale vocalizes the song while swimming many miles in darkness, surrounded by ice. Like human ecopoetics, the whale’s song seems to be a form of echolocation as the ritual of vocalization cultivates a sense of place—especially as the song is shared amongst conspecifics.

In a forthcoming article, I discuss this further, but I needed to get this out as a blog. The rhetorician Kenneth Burke has established the notion of “terministic screens,” that is, the ways that language becomes a framework for selecting one reality and deflecting other realities. The ecopoetics of a bowhead whale selects a reality that extends the poetic tradition beyond the human sphere.

I can’t not think of the poet W. S. Merwin’s “For a Coming Extinction” and the “bewilderment” that augments as we grapple with the responsibility of driving other animal makers—along with their songs, their cultures, their rituals, their ecopoetics—into oblivion (304-5).

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966. Print.

Knickerbocker, Scott. Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2012. Print.

Merwin, W. S. The Collected Poems of W. S. Merwin. Ed. J. D. McClatchy. 2 Vols. New York: Library of America, 2013. Print.

Muir, John. “‘A Wind-storm in the Forests,’ Chapter 10 of The Mountains of California.” Sierra Club: The John Muir Exhibit. 2012. Web. 11 Jan. 2012.

Rothenberg, David. Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound. New York: Basic Books, 2008. Print.

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