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The death of a North Atlantic right whale

Rising coronavirus cases, quiet Thanksgivings, the global push to end violence against women, natural disasters devastating Central America, Diego Maradona passing. Often, it is difficult to consume statistics and register the weight of the people behind the headlines, especially for me, hidden away in the mountains, anticipating a couple hours of skiing before I turn in for work. For some reason, however, this week when I came across an article detailing the death of a North Atlantic right whale off the coast of North Carolina, I felt inexplicably sad. Here was a huge creature, monstrous, one might say, who died perhaps at least physically, a large death.

As a child, I used to collect articles on the deaths of manatees. They were endangered then, and I had tasked myself with being their protectors, which is funny because I grew up landlocked in Colorado. The right whale is on the endangered species list and I always find the deaths of rare creatures terribly sad.

When I read the whale death headline, I was reminded of “The Monsters of Templeton” by Lauren Groff. The book opens with one of my favorite opening lines: “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.”



When the motorboats pull the monster to shore, the town, which had suspected there was a creature living in their lake, finally sees the myth in the flesh: “It looked like a carp grown enormous, with a carp’s fat belly and round eye, but with a long, articulated neck like a ballet dancer’s, and four finned legs, plump as a frog’s.”

In images I find online of the North Atlantic right whale, these creatures are otherworldly. Their solidity is almost like the dark stern of a large, imposing boat. And their tails are deeply notched. Scientists can tell the difference between the right whales by looking at the patches of white callosities on their heads.



In “The Monsters of Templeton,” the narrator recalls a moment in high school when she slipped into Lake Glimmerglass with her friends for a night swim: “We treaded water there in the blackness, all of us fallen silent in the feeling of swimming in such perfect space. … I could feel a tremendous thing moving in the depths below me, something vast and white and singing.”

I love water in all its figurations: snow, ice, fresh lake water, or even a mouthful of seawater as a wave tumbles me to shore. But I am equally fearful and in awe of what could be below my feet. This is why water is alluring to me. On a mountain, you are exposed to what is above you, you can watch it swoop down. In the water, your vulnerability is always below the surface, unseen.

Throughout the book, Willie continues to revisit the loss of the monster, but only sparingly. And finally, in the very end, readers start to realize the point of the lake monster in the book. In a scientific report released detailing the findings from the autopsy of the dead monster, we discover that, “Glimmey also had four legs and curiously articulated hands, exactly like human ones, but without thumbs.”

I think the author wants to alert us to the idea that these creatures, though otherworldly, still have hands very similar to yours and mine.

In the last scene of the book, an inebriated girl slips into the lake at night: “She looked in the person-size face of a small white monster, staring at her curiously and waving its fish tail. … The girl forgot to tread water, sank lower and lower, and the monster sank right along with her.”

The death of the lake monster made room for a new one. Unfortunately, the North Atlantic right whale that washed up on the shores of a remote island off North Carolina was a calf. It was the first recorded birth of the season and most likely died at childbirth. Most right whale fatalities are due to human intervention: changing climate, vessel strikes, fishing-net entanglement, and ocean noise. He was one of the five or six of these creatures born each year, and one of the approximately 400 right whales alive in the wild.

The death of rare creatures always needles its way in and strikes a note of discord in my body. Its vibrations rattle me more than I like to admit.

The lake monster represents an unfathomably big loss. The monster is physically large, and this particular monster was also 200 years old. When we suffer big loss, it’s difficult to reconcile the gaping hole that rips through the fabric of our lives. It’s harder still, to discern what loss means when it feels far away. Just like the thousands of deaths our country has suffered from the coronavirus may not have directly touched me, the loss of their lives washes up upon my distant shores. I feel the heft of the wave carrying them to warm sand. This is why it is paramount that we protect each other. When we fail to care for one another, we are accepting the title of endangered. It is kind, responsible, encouraging when we take small measures to protect our neighbors. These are choices we make.


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