Conversing with Whales While Dreaming and Awake

February 18, 2016 Elizabeth Oriel

Conversing with the More-Than-Human World in Dreaming, Waking Experience, Poetry, and Conservation:

An Eco-cultural Multi-Arts and Academic Research Project in Iceland

Our control and domination over the natural world is part of a delusional and alienated stance, preventing us from recognizing other species’ sentience, agency, intelligence, emotional and communicative capacities. Our conceptions of possible communications across species are limited by the positivist approach of western science. Certain dreams of animals, some scientists say, communicate across the perceived lack of a common language between species. These dreams alter ways of thinking, conducting research, relating to more-than-humans, and extend arenas for communicative avenues across species. We explore interspecies communications in various artistic and scholarly venues in Iceland.

Conversing with Whales While Dreaming and Awake comprises five inter-related projects: two academic research studies, a poetry performance piece, a documentary film, and a cetacean conservation project.

  • One research project asks how dreams for Westerners may be spaces of interspecies communication, and what cultural traits or constraints are present in these spaces. We interview Icelanders about their dreams of more-than-humans, with emphasis on dreams of cetaceans, to understand what meanings they draw, what communications if any occurred, and how the dreams impacted their lives.
  • In the second but related research, we ask Icelandic interviewees about their waking experiences in which other species or aspects of the landscape seemed to reach out, to communicate and what meanings are drawn. The central questions for this project are: how does the world communicate with us, what meanings are connected to these experiences within Iceland and within other cultures, and what inner states may be more conducive to these interactions with other beings of sentience and sensitivity?
  • The poetry project emerges from these two research projects and incorporates elements of the dreams and experiences shared. The poems will be performed in Iceland.
  • A documentary film will present the work on dreams and waking experience, will incorporate the rich mythology, folklore, and literary life in Iceland, and offers our work to a broader audience.
  • Finally, our goal in all this work is to conserve and protect the lives of whales and other species from human activities, including the whaling activities that continue in Iceland despite the international moratorium. We will partner with an Icelandic marine protection campaign.


Why in Iceland?

We have three reasons we choose to situate these projects study in Iceland. Icelanders are unique among westerners, not only in their relationship with the natural world and invisible forces at work in nature, but also in their view of dreams as a bridge to hidden forces and realms within nature. In Norse mythology, humans are intertwined with other species and forces, and these perceptions are still alive to some extent within the cosmology of present-day Icelanders. Oral traditions and storytelling that connect humans to landscapes and other species continue to thrive, despite the distancing that literacy brought to most western cultures. Icelanders also continue to practice whaling despite a global ban. We know of no studies that look to dreams to examine the ways killing whales impact the culture and individuals.


Summary of Research Projects

What meanings might you draw from a dream in which a whale leads you through a labyrinthine oceanscape? Do you wake with a sense of a communication across the perceived species and language barriers? Is the whale a real being to you, or does it represent part of your internal psyche? What do you make of an event in waking life when a dragonfly circles your head many times, or a roadrunner stops and stares into your eyes for minutes? These waking experiences can feel dream-like, and their meaning is to a large extent culturally-constructed, emerging from how one views the self and others. Are these dreaming and waking interactions valuable to us as modes of communication across species? Do they reveal possibilities for relations with the more-than-human world that reflect greater commonalities than we acknowledge? Can these dreams and waking experiences mediate a relationship to more-than-humans that may equalize humans and others, allow for a multi-species culturalism, and alter the human-dominated approach to all other life forms? Certain cultures provide a framework for understanding and valuing these experiences as aspects of communication and relationships that other cultures deny.

Lacking the perception of common languages with animals, Westerners tend to draw sharp perimeters on possible messages and shared meanings with other species. This perception is, to a large extent, culturally-constructed, such that direct experiences, communications across species, bonds, and knowing the other in an equalized manner are hard to access. Cultural historian Morris Berman calls this cultural lens a “unitive trance” of our times, in contrast to states of immanence described by anthropologists in indigenous cultures that offer more direct experience and communication with other animals, plants and natural systems. Indigenous people tend to view landscapes, other species and even aspects of the landscape as possessing sentience, mind, agency, and abilities to communicate. Within animist traditions, the human mind resides not within the brain, or even within the person, but extends across species and is a unified aspect that makes interspecies communication possible.

As western concepts of animals enlarge in recognition of intelligence, agency, emotional complexities and culture, the avenues for communication across species remain narrowly drawn, within reductionist approach to self, other, language, and natural systems. We explore these communications across species with a broader lens, both in waking and dreaming within Icelandic culture, with an emphasis on human/cetacean interaction. We choose to explore these themes in Iceland, where connections to landscapes and natural systems and even to hidden realms of the natural world remain alive and influential, in contrast to other western cultures. Icelanders also possess a unique approach to dreams, viewing them not as expressions of psychological, internal processes, but as sources of knowledge about the world, as bridges with hidden realms, and means of communication that prompt actions and new understandings (Heijnen 2005).



Our group of collaborators is diverse across artistic, scholarly, activist, and academic arenas, with strong research skills in both human and more-than-human centered work. We are: David Abram, Arne Naess Chair for Global Justice and Ecology, University of Oslo; Laura Bridgeman, cetacean advocate and activist; Toni Frohoff, a cetacean behavioral biologist; Anna and Nico Hudak, documentary film makers based in Berlin; Sonia Levy, a visual artist whose work involves human relations to cetaceans in Iceland; Tema Milstein, Communication Professor at University of New Mexico; Elizabeth Oriel MSc, a conservation biologist and social scientist; and Em Strang, a poet and editor of Dark Mountain Journal.

Photo credit Moyan Brenn