Summer Solstice is one of my favourite times. There is SO MUCH DAYLIGHT; a side effect is that I remain awake much longer than I would any other time of year, and somehow it works, operating on six hours of sleep. Sunlight is so much better than coffee.
But it occasionally catches up with me, and Sunday night found Sweetie & I trudging through a back trail to one of our favourite, semi-secluded beaches for a campfire and junk food binge. (The cleanse isn’t going perfectly, it’s a work in progress, but not a failure.) The rationalization: we were too damn tired to cook anything real over the campfire, we just wanted to sit beside one, make s’mores and stare at the ocean, which sometimes is exactly what the soul needs.
You know who else knew this? Steve Irwin. In his wife Terry’s book “Steve & Me” she talks about Steve heading out to make a fire whenever a problem weighed on his mind. I think it was his sort of meditation, a way to quiet his mind and body, one of the only ways to get this guy to slow down for a while.
I’ve been thinking about Steve a lot. I didn’t know much about him before he died, I just remember his show and his enthusiasm for all life. After he died, a friend of mind dressed up as Steve for Halloween, in khakis with a picture of a sting ray taped to his chest. He spent the evening running around the party shouting, “Crikey! I’m dead!” My irreverent inner teenager appreciated the dark humour, but my heart rejected it. Before I knew much about Steve, I knew he was so much more than a joke.
After that Halloween, I started reading about Steve. I learned a lot about crocodiles. But I don’t think I became an out-n-out fan of Steve Irwin until I read his wife’s book, and got a glimpse of their history, their love, their life’s work to fight on behalf of the creatures on this planet who can’t walk into our courtrooms to speak for themselves. I think I’ve read “Steve & Me” ten times, and I’ll probably read it another twenty times in my life. I just admire them both so much.
One theory I developed after reading “Steve & Me” was that Steve was an animal communicator too. When he was a kid, he handled deadly-poisonous snakes and spiders with deft skill and calm. He intuitively knew how to handle animals. He spent ten years living almost entirely in the backcountry of Australia with no one but his dog for company. In my neck of the world, traditional First Nations shawman walk into the woods, alone and completely naked at the beginning of a ten-year survival and spiritual development test. Those who return from a decade of solitude in the wilderness carry with them a special connection to the spirit world, and become spiritual advisors and leaders for their people.
When you immerse yourself in nature like that, you can’t help but learn how to talk to your environment, and the creatures in your surroundings. Steve understood them, he respected their experience, and he loved them.
When either Sweetie or I find ourselves thinking about someone for several days, it’s not unusual for this person to pop in from the spirit world. On this Sunday evening, Steve came in.
“Hey, guess who’s here? Steve Irwin,” I looked back at Sweetie as we hiked the trail.
“Yeah, he’s telling me the whale fundraiser thing is a good idea, that it’s really important.”
This is why Steve came in for me, at this particular moment. I was thrilled by a recent article in Reader’s Digest of all places:
From the article:
It all came to a head this past February in Vancouver, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—the world’s largest gathering of scientists—when a small group of scientists and ethicists presented what they hoped would be a paradigm-changing proposal to a packed room: “The Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans.”
“We affirm,” reads the declaration, “that all cetaceans as persons have the right to life, liberty and well-being.” They have the right, the declaration continues, not to be slaughtered, not to be held in captivity, not to be owned or exploited or removed from their environment. The declaration sparked national and international coverage, most of it positive, some critical and some quizzical. “The important thing,” says one of the authors, Atlanta-based Emory University neurobiologist Lori Marino, “is that people are taking it seriously.”
The declaration is, of course, nonbinding, so the real test will be whether the group can get the project endorsed legally. They hope to bring the declaration before the UN. As part of another effort, Marino and some of the signatories are also working with an organization called the Nonhuman Rights Project, which is preparing to litigate its first cases and break through the legal wall that currently separates humans from nonhumans. “We want to argue for whale common-law status—to actually use a dolphin or whale as a plaintiff,” says Marino. “We think we can find a jurisdiction where a judge would be open to hearing this. The science is on our side.”
This makes me so happy.
When I was about 10 years old, our family went on a trip to Marine Land. I remember two things about Marine Land: the deer at the petting zoo, and the orcas. The deer ate from my hand, a delightful experience to be so close to these enchanted, spotted, antlered little creatures. The orcas performed their two or three shows daily, splashed the audience in the front rows, and pretended to “kiss” a girl who was having her birthday. I had a great time.
When we got home, I sensed my mother’s sadness. She explained to me that she had thought the whales would have large pools to relax in away from people, outside of the performing pools. When she realized that these animals are doomed to spend their entire lives swimming circles in a pool fully exposed to the public, with nothing at all like a natural habitat in which to retreat, she felt such sorrow for those whales.
“Imagine if you had to spend the rest of your life living in our bathroom. You have everything you need to live in that bathroom, and I would bring you your food. But you are not allowed to go outside to play, you can’t run around, and three times a day I give you a hula hoop to jump through while other people watch and clap.”
That was enough. I lived a sheltered childhood. That was the first time I understood the concept of cruelty.
We never went back to Marine Land.
When Sweetie & I moved out to Vancouver Island three years ago, I saw whales in their natural habitat for the first time. These animals are intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful and complex. Not that an animal needs to have these things to be entitled to basic freedom from exploitation, it’s just that there is so much conventional science and studies over decades demonstrating how similar cetaceans are to us humans. Yet to many, they’re “just animals” and humans are the ones with the right to capture these creatures in the wild, transport them thousands of miles across land, confine them to a tiny swimming pool and sentence them to short, stressed lives. Orcas in captivity live a fraction of the lifespan they live in the wild. Dozens of animal communicators have written about connecting with orcas in captivity, and they all say the same thing: Set us free. Just set us free. We could never forget how to forage for food. We could never forget how to be whales. We are in touch with our families still, we want to return to our home in the ocean. Set us free. Set us free.
When I spend too much time thinking about all the screwed up things humans do to each other, the animals and the planet, it makes me feel hopeless and depressed. Usually, I protect myself from the news I don’t need to know, and I focus on the good things being done in the world, and the day-to-day choices I can make to contribute to a better world. I can’t take on the guilt of things that are beyond my control, out of my reach.
So when I read this article in Reader’s Digest, I decided I wanted to send some money to help the whales. I decided to do a fundraising reading day and to donate the proceeds to World Wildlife Fund’s adopt-an-orca.
I don’t have a date for this yet, so I’ll do another post when the date is set. At the time, I was just playing with this idea, and then Steve came in:
“IT IS SO IMPORTANT! SO IMPORTANT TO DO EVERYTHING YOU CAN TO HELP! THIS IS A GREAT IDEA – DO IT!”
Once we had Steve, he kept us company the rest of the evening. I was so tired, I could barely keep up with what he was saying. He came in speaking very quickly and so loud! He’s so enthusiastic, so passionate. He was speaking so quickly that I had to ask him to stop until we’d set up the fire.
“Steve, if you want, you can help me get the fire going.”
“RIGHT! THE THING YOU’VE GOT TO REMEMBER ABOUT FIRES –“
“Ack! I can’t take in your words right now, I’m so tired! I need to have the fire in front of me to understand what you’re saying.”
So the next moment Steve shows me a silent movie in my head of him sitting on the ground, legs splayed apart, knees bent, starting a fire from tiny kindling in the sheltered space created between his legs. He showed me how he controls the air flow to the new fire by raising and lowering his knees, to create a little flue to the hearth. Neat trick.
When we reached the beach, Sweetie and I split up to gather firewood. Steve pointed out this piece and that piece, the largest, driest, densest pieces of driftwood on the beach. Then he pointed to a semi-damp tangle of seaweed and seagrass on the beach. Odd, it didn’t look like kindling, and it was wet. But I grabbed it anyway.
Then I returned to the beach for kindling, and Steve insisted we were taking much too long. “JUST GRAB ALL THAT IN YOUR HANDS AND GO START THE FIRE!”
Okay! Knowing that kindling is the critical beginning, I just grabbed a random handful of little sticks and twigs from the beach and went back to start a fire with maybe ¼ the kindling I’d usually need.
“RIGHT! NOW GRAB IT LIKE THIS!”
Steve showed me his hand, gripping a bunch of tiny sticks in his fist so they made a little bundle. I imitated him.
Then he showed me the wad of semi-damp seaweed, and instructed me to place it in front of me, damp side down.
“GRAB A FEW O’ THOSE DRIED HAIRS!” So I plucked some of the dry sea grass from the bundle, just like plucking hair. I stuffed it into the end of the bundle, as Steve showed me.
“NOW! LIGHT IT ON FIRE!!!”
This was said with such enthusiasm, I think that starting fires was one of Steve’s favourite activities. JUST LIGHT IT ON FIRE! I’ve never received such an instruction when starting a campfire.
I flicked my lighter and held it to the end of the fire bundle. It caught immediately. Wow!
Carefully, I placed the burning bundle on top of the damp wad of sea grass. The wad seemed to do something, keep it out of the sand, allow air to circulate, I don’t know, but the fire bundle burned brighter. Immediately Steve had me placing large sticks on the bundle, something I never would have done. I was taught to gradually increase the size of kindling and build the energy of the fire. Not necessary, apparently. Not with Steve’s help.
It was one of the easiest fires I’ve ever built, with the possible exception of reviving an abandoned campfire from the still-warm coals. And it was fun.
Steve sat on the log by the fire for most of the evening. I tried to think of things I wanted to ask Steve Irwin. I can’t remember what we talked about now, I’ll have to ask Sweetie to chime in on that. What I remember the most is the fire, and Steve’s enthusiastic instruction, LIGHT IT ON FIRE!!!
You can say that about a lot of things, really.