Whales: Sovereign Wheels of Earth

July 1, 2015 Roger Payne

The following is an excerpt from Among Whales by Roger Payne as he explores the contrast between humanity’s angular nature versus the cyclical lives of whales, positing that whales are sovereign wheels of Earth and are the manifestation of the true benefits of mind. Reprinted with author’s permission.  

In human lives, straight lines figure prominently. When there is no natural boundary like a river or a coast, we often make the boundaries between our nations with straight lines. We set up states and towns the same way, as well as the borders not just of our properties but of the subdivisions within them, the fields, the gardens, the pastures, the woodlot, etc. We are now discovering that our ancient ancestors incised straight lines, ‘lay lines’, in the earth. Our natural tendency is to plow and plant and harvest in straight lines.  We stretch our fences straight though this gives us fits in enclosing the rising and falling landforms that they cross. The lines in our architecture are for the most part straight, as are the lines in most furniture. We mount sculptures on square bases and we cut the edges of our books and magazines and newspapers straight and frame our paintings with straight lines.

We are glad when someone ‘straightens’ up the room or ‘straightens’ out some terrible confusion in our lives. We admonish our children and our politicians to ‘straighten up’, and we speak of making progress by sticking to the straight and narrow and admire someone because they are straight with us. In many instances there is no reason why we could not get along just as well with curved rather than straight lines. Indeed we often do: we have curved as well as rectangular place mats. The same is true of carpets (but in both cases straight ones sell much better). In a few cases circular wins out with us over straight. For example, we prefer circular to square plates, blows, glasses, and cups. This may once have been appropriate, given the way glassblowing and pottery wheels work, but with modern techniques this is no longer an important consideration. One is forced to conclude that there is often no rhyme or reason for this aspect of ourselves; we seem simply to be truly in love with the straight. Although much of what we do follows curves or cycles, we are in general a most angular species.

So much of the lives of whales is cyclical, or annular or cycloidal. They live in cycles within cycles within cycles. The motion experienced by a whale being borne inside an ocean swell is circular. The bigger the swell, the bigger (and slower) the circle through which the whale’s entire body is passively carried. The migratory routes of many whales (eg. Bowheads, right whales, and humpback whales) seem to be curved paths more than simple oscillations back and forth along a straight line. When whales view the sky from underwater it is visible through a circular window above their heads, beneath whose center they are always inescapably located (the skylight above them like a kind of halo that won’t dislodge – I refer here to a halo of light, not one of sainthood). When a whale in mid ocean lifts its head above the water to look around, the horizon is a circle (just a larger one) in whose center the whale is always exactly located. And no matter how far it swims in the open sea, a whale can never get out of the center of it’s circular horizon. (Of course, the acoustic horizon of a whale is the same). There is for whales also, as for all life, the daily cycle of light and dark, the yearly cycle of warmer and cooler, and the lunar cycle that affects the tides and is super-imposed on an annual tidal cycle of springs and neaps.

When you add to this the endlessly recapitulating songs of humpbacks, which keep cycling back over and over, and add to this the roll of the sea, and to that the whale’s visits to the depths and returns to the surface, and to that the annual (and annular) migrations, and the lunar waxing and wanings… you see that much in the lives of whales is somehow a cycle that returns and completes itself. Indeed it is from the circular motion of a whale rolling at the surface to breathe that whales derive their very names. The word ‘whale’ is believed by many to derive from the old English word for ‘wheel’ – the idea being that when viewed from a boat or from shore, a whale breathing at the surface looked, to our unlearned ancestors, like a wheel revolving slowly in the sea.

I like the image of a whale as a giant wheel turning the sea. To me this finally makes sense, because it offers a concept commensurate with the grandeur, resplendence, and dignity of whales – not just a wonderful merger between symbol and reality but a fittingly gracious concession to the idea that maybe it is whales and not we who are the sovereign wheels and cogs of this planet – the inerasable manifestation of the true benefits of mind. If you think me overboard in this matter, realize that it is whales, not we, who would most impress a group of alien tourists visiting Earth from other worlds on a Cook’s “Two-week Holiday Package Tour”. After all, when you visit a deer park, it isn’t the squirrels you remember.