I took a while to read Fathoms: The World in the Whale, the debut of Australian writer Rebecca Giggs. Owing that its European publication date was pushed back due to the disparate realities of coronavirus, I’ve had my advance copy for some time. I’m glad to have been able to read it this way, to take time with the whales and everything inside them, to allow all that this is to settle: broken polythene greenhouses, giant intestinal worms and human moral reckonings.
The question that the book poses concerns more than just whales. It is demonstrative of the fact that within the whale, both archetype and, painfully, the material bodies of actual whales, is matter with which to divine the whole world. This book is an act of divination: Giggs reads the debris as tea leaves. The question asked of them is: “How should I care for that which I do not know, that which I have never met?”
Whales have answered this for us before. Fathoms deftly presents the chronology of whales as oil, of whales for whales’ sake, to the wider environmental ethic that arose from the anti-whaling campaigns of the 1970s. As a result of these campaigns, the whaling ban became the first global suspension of the commercial exploitation of a natural resource and whales became not just a charismatic species worthy of preservation but also our “paragons of green devotion”, symbols that reflect our benevolence towards the rest of the non-human world.
But our love for whales, Giggs reminds us, is complicated. As we practise compassion for this one charismatic species, the reverberations of our care unsettle those that fall outside its direct line of intent – tiny boats capsized by the torrential force of our compassion. Like the endangered butterfly whose habitat was trampled by crowds cheering a misplaced humpback as he followed a platoon of boats, amplifying whale song to buoy him along back to the open sea.
Whales are returning to us now, beached and full of plastic, as though to remind us just how expansive our care needs to become. Confronting their littered bodies, the wilderness they so recently stood for has been undermined, and with this “a kind of hope has been polluted”. How cruel that we didn’t really mean to. How tacky, the devastating repercussions of our quotidian debris. Our crisp packets in the bellies of our deities.
Whales accrue all of the toxicity from the ocean food chain. The biggest lungs take the deepest breaths, so they are especially susceptible to contaminants in the atmosphere. Their blubber is a historical record of the ocean throughout their lifetime, so noxious they are themselves toxic waste. In their magnitude they amplify that which we tend to hold in fractured dissonance. They are making us confront ourselves and that uncanny permeation which defines our era.
As well as being dazzlingly well researched and conveyed, the language in Fathoms is wonderful in that it never becomes sentimental and yet is thoroughly moving. Combining reportage, cultural criticism and poem as a call to action in the spirit of Rachel Carson, Giggs is an assured new voice in narrative non-fiction. “Blue whales are creatures so large that, when they exhale, rainbows can form.” Giggs is deft at deploying facts right when they can be felt as metaphor.
Gloriously, she presents whales as poets. In an essay on what whales say in their songs, she describes whale songs as working to give the whale an image of its surroundings via the reverberations of its voice across the space in front of it. Where else is communication dependent not only on how a word is spelled but also how it is sounded and where it can be located in space, or on the page? “Don’t we know that form already . . . don’t we call it a poem?”
Hauntingly, Giggs extrapolates that as we disturb the physical environment of whales, we change the way they throw their voices – we are in their poems now.
We need to be moved – therein the particular power of literature to expand the parameters of our compassion. Can you feel compassion for whale lice? For the fleas that live behind whale’s baleens? I’ll bet you can, reading this book. From within and in proximity to the whale, Fathoms expands also towards those that we will never lock eyes with because they are too small, too incomprehensible, too far away.
The anti-whaling campaigns gave us “a story of care that encompassed the whole world”. In the confronting fact that their lives and deaths today are so globalised, whales seem to return to give us a second shot. Giggs leads us, via whales, to solidarity towards beings not proximate to ourselves, to whom we also need to extend our compassion. The subtext of this inclusion is not only whale lice and other barely fathomable beings but “vulnerable people overseas” or, it strikes me, the relatives of strangers we pass on the street.
“How should I care for that which I do not know, that which I have never met” is a question that also inadvertently echoes that asked of us by this pandemic. More prescient for its time than the author could have imagined.