Why is this great? Writers wade into the world to witness it in all its dimensions, then remake it in the hieroglyphics we know as words – marks we use not just to describe, but to create meaning. Words can tie a single moment to the greater arc of time, can paint a picture not just in the eye but in the mind and the heart.
Yet there are times when no word seems enough to describe the reality in front of us or the emotion within. That chasm frames the four-word utterance – as much a prayer as a question – by marine researcher Deborah Giles as she watched in wonder and heartbreak as a mother orca mourned her dead calf. For a week and counting as of this posting, Tahlequah, also known as J35, carried her female infant’s body through the vast waters of the Puget Sound, diving to retrieve it whenever it slipped from her grasp. Her resident orca pod – their numbers declining from low birth rates and a lack of adequate food – swam with her as if observing a ritual.
Tahlequah’s journey is individual and unique, but the unfathomable grief of a mother losing a child is universal. Giles’ question was specific to the moment, but could be asked of too many situations we have witnessed throughout history – and that we must continue to write about in the present. Sometimes the great sentence that sits at the center of a story is really a question. And sometimes that question cannot be answered in the hieroglyphics we know as words.
(Editor’s note: The Center for Whale Research, based in Friday Harbor, Washington, has provided tireless updates on J35, and is a generous resource of information about the status of the endangered Southern Resident Puget Sound Pod. As well, the Seattle Times has published on-site daily coverage, each story including a list of reverse chronological links that create their own narrative of Talehquah’s journey, and each including quotes of emotional eloquence not often attributed to fact-based scientists. In another brief piece, veteran Seattle Times environmental reporter Lynda V. Mapes writes about the her unparalleled experience covering this drama. She, too, was moved beyond any attempt at detached or definitive statements and instead wrote this: “What does it take to dive deeply for a deceased loved one, day after day, mile after mile, each time having to decide whether to take a deep breath and do it again?”)