Last week, just in time for Earth Day, the carcass of a grey whale washed ashore here in Seattle with a stomach full of human trash: a pair of sweatpants (grey), surgical gloves, discarded duct tape, assorted pieces of plastic, two dozen plastic bags, and a golf ball.
The moment I heard about this, I was submerged in a feeling of pure wrongness. A kind of overwhelming awareness of how deeply we are sinning — yes, this agnostic uses that word advisedly — against the world.
I don’t know why this happens so easily when it’s animals that suffer from our wrongdoing, rather than humans. One of the reports from the Lebanon War in the early 1980s that most affected me was of militiamen shooting into huge flocks of migrating storks just for sport. Another was the image of an old man sitting outside the ruins of his bombarded Beirut home, holding a leaking plastic bag of water with a single goldfish in it. Nearly thirty years ago, yet I remember these relatively minor incidents precisely.
But why should I respond so viscerally to these reports as against the vast toll of human death and injury and misery in this morning’s paper — and yesterday’s, and the day before? Do I really care more about animals than humans?
I know, I know, slaughter of the innocents and all that. But I think it’s something far more invidious. In the face of so much misery inflicted by humans on each other in the name of God or nation, tribe or race, land or greed, the mind is always tempted to switch off. All that misery becomes part of the “cotton wool” Virginia Woolf talked about in “Moments of Being” — the vague, amorphous cloud of non-experience, or of experience refused. Then something happens like the grey whale with a stomach snarled by duct tape and we’re not prepared for it. It breaks through our defenses and “bam” — there’s a moment of real being, a sudden awakening to reality. And at last, a decent, human reaction: that overwhelming sense of wrongness.