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The Extinction Epidemic Goes Local Featured

Last Thursday, after attending the day-long workshop at Brickworks about the Southern Resident orca whales, I had to make an emergency escape to Jackson’s Beach. My mind was in disarray and so were my emotions. It felt as though the SRKWs had been utterly overlooked in favor of the “stakeholders” in the room. After being derided and ridiculed because of speaking up for the SRKWs as part of the rest of the natural world that was facing extinction, I muttered something about “kissing our own asses goodbye” and headed for the door.

The day was scheduled to begin with a Tribal welcoming by Tulalip Tribe member, Patti Gobin. But the first announcement was that she would not be attending. My heart sank because her presence on the agenda was the one overt indication that the unique and sacred history of the Southern resident orca whales would be honored. Her absence set the stage for the continued absence of heart and spirit throughout the rest of the day.

The extraordinary nature of these majestic beings remained unacknowledged. Their precious place in the natural order of things throughout the Salish Sea was not acknowledged. All that they are symbolic of throughout Indigenous history was not acknowledged. And, so began the day of “stakeholder” (i.e.: human exploiter) acknowledgement. And that, I’m afraid, reflects everything that is going wrong on this planet. Life itself is secondary to profit. Whether it’s profit in the pocket or on the professional resume, it comes first, last and always.

There was science in the room about the impact of noise in critical foraging areas of the Salish Sea—but no specific reference to where. According to a scientist who was presenting, when people see maps that indicate impact, stakeholders are offended, and they get rude. It felt, in fact, as though the entire day was choreographed to support “stakeholders” and to prevent “rudeness.” The only authentic stakeholder not in the room was a Southern Resident orca whale. And that was the rudest thing of all.

There was a momentary whiff of attention to the Governor’s Task Force recommendation to suspend SRKW whale-watching for 3-5 years; but in terms of county discussion, it was swept under the waters. There was a big hurrah for the “Whale Warning Flag Project,” designed to keep boaters away from the SRKWs. To me, it felt more like a “here we are” way to attract more and more boaters into orca whale territory. Doesn’t anyone understand that the more human attention the SRKWs are given, the more human attention they will attract.

And then, when Jeff Friedman, who is both a President of the Pacific Whale-Watchers Association and a member of the Marine Resources Committee, spoke about “Requesting allocation of fish for SRKW,” my head started spinning. Diversion, duplicity and disingenuousness are such a tragic part of these precarious times. It is excruciating to watch it all unfold here in San Juan County.

The two real-science presentations about SRKW foraging hotspots and acoustic patterns were thoroughly knowledgeable. They were also conveniently presented without any reference to mitigation methods, namely: Get the hell out of their waters. Giving the SRKWs back the peace and quiet of their home waters so they can more easily acquire diminishing food resources is just too simple for credibility—and too financially inconvenient.

“What was that all about?” I asked myself as I paced the shores of Jackson’s Beach through Thursday’s sunset. The Southern Residents are facing imminent extinction—and they were not in the room either literally, figuratively, educationally, or significantly. It was a day about mitigating the inconvenience their pending extinction was causing. It was all about money—and diplomacy.

“Have a nice day. Look the other way,” is a convenient ethic for a privileged community. But it is seriously inconvenient for the environment—and for people, too. Just like it is easier to raise a couple of million bucks for an animal shelter than it is to face the awkward reality of poverty & homelessness on the island, it is easier to blame the salmon for disappearing than to focus on the human causes of SRKW extinction.

Why, at this critical point in earth and human history, is it so easy on this fragile island to ignore the consequences of our actions? Why are we not leading the way in protecting the natural world and its place in the future of our children’s lives? Why are we not facing out-loud and head-on the rapidly growing divide between material acquisition and the spiritual, ethical, emotional and psychological well-being that gives meaning to life?

As the sun dwindled its way down, I was in tears. Being on the shores of this world is where everything has always made sense, garnered hope, and offered solace. As a kid, my life was literally saved by the seashore. If I could smell salt and seaweed it meant I was outside and safe. But after the workshop on Thursday, the weight of it all in these times of extinction came riding in on the tide and took me down. After such a day of human denial in my own backyard, even the sweet sunset could not give me comfort.

The whale-watch industry could take the heroic high-road regarding saving the Southern Residents. They could lead the way—and they wouldn’t have to give up their businesses. “Save the Whales Nature Tours” could be such solace and inspiration in these disturbing times. We all live here because of the peace and quiet of-it-all. Why are we not offering that to the world-at-large? I never send my visitors out whale-watching. But if there was a boating experience that even came close to the peace, quiet and beauty that is at the heart of this place, I would be out on a boat with them.

There is a difference between wealth and money. I learned to articulate this nearly 30 years ago from our long-time resident and Nature Connect expert and author, Dr. Michael Cohen. I wrote about Mike and his work in Chapter 18 of “The Battle in Seattle.” This chapter, “The Nature Of Life--In Which Wealth Has Nothing To Do With Money," explores an afternoon workshop with Mike, who sent us out to ask nature about the difference between wealth and money:

"Somebody had a realization about being rich. "I followed the sound of a bird as it went from place to place in the woods, but I couldn't quite catch up. It was like going after money. Pretty soon I didn't even watch where I was going."

The reductive challenge we face every day in contemporary life to describe, weigh, and measure the secrets of our lives means that they lose their power, their numinous nature, their stature. "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science," says Albert Einstein. There is nothing mysterious about money but try sitting with a cedar tree for ten minutes and listening to what it has to tell you.

The truth is that nature is always restoring. Always attracting, recovering, healing. It feeds our biological and psychological ability to regenerate. And when we connect to the natural world with our reasoning, consciousness and language, together with all our other senses, we are opened up to real power that transcends the dollar.

"The more alive we are," said Michael Cohen, "the more rewarded we are by the wisdom of earth and nature, the less dependent we are on the power of money and prestige, and the less damage we do to one another and to the planet. When are we going to learn this in contemporary society?"

When indeed?

Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 27 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."

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