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Absences

As a child I spent summers sitting up in the bow pulpit of my father's boat, mesmerized for hours by the water, by the depth of the water and the shadow of the boat and the sun filtered through the cloudy bodies of moon jellies, of the dark patches where the gusts of wind dwelt, by the little fish inches from my toes, by the larger fish pursuing them, by the harbour porpoises pursuing them, by the seals on the rocks and the spruce trees on the tiny islands and the diving cormorants, the terns and the gulls. I found a squid washed up and took it home in a dixie cup; I ran the dinghy aground on mudflats crowded with lobsters. I was suffused with the never aloneness of the ocean and I dreamed about it at night. I still do. About the winter when the Pilot Whales came into the harbour, about the breaching Humpbacks and the morning sitting on a friend's deck when we could hear the Minke Whales snoring in the bay. Though I have never met one, the Blue whales and the Right Whales and basking sharks and wobbegongs were and are as real to me as flesh I have touched, and I remember crossing the causeway to Cape Breton and seeing the sword fishing boats fighting those huge shining bodies while the uncaught school leapt around them furious, shattering light with their harder light.

We brought the ocean home in plastic pails and paper cups: periwinkles and crabs, zooplankton and herring roe, all to meet the same dismal fate, to turn to stinking goo in children's bedrooms, though we told ourselves we were doing our best, that we would return them in a day or two. We couldn't, we loved them too much, we only knew love as possession and we killed them with our barnacle grip. We knew it didn't matter. It was only the beginning of the end then, the cod fishery was still a mythic thing, the ocean was full, more full even than we were of ourselves.

Last week we made a trip to Haida Gwaii, and I had the opportunity to think about the ocean I knew during the hours on the ferry crossing from Prince Rupert. This other, bigger ocean and this older, bigger me, and the extinction that occupies everything.

It's possible to look at the sky and not see a lack. The sky is still full of itself even when the birds have fallen out of it. It's possible to see two or three songirds where just a few years ago were tens or hundreds and years before that millions, and still to say here are birds. Not as many as there should be, but here they are. But two birds do not make a flock.

A sky without birds is still a sky, it was a sky long before birds ever evolved, it will be long after the end of the Anthropocene. A fishless ocean is still an ocean, even a suffocating ocean, an ocean that dissolves the skeletons of its children. A mother is still a mother if her children die.

I thought these things as I sat on the deck of the ferry, and remembered whole months of my life as a child when I spent so much time on the water that I staggered on land. I looked for whales and for birds, and I settled in and watched the waves, and let the wind fill my mouth with salt water, and I thought about how to paint about missing so much and so many. And hours into the return, suddenly all around the ferry were Humpbacks. It seemed miraculous. It seemed as though I had wished them into being. There is so much to grieve this summer; more every year. And there are still whales.

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