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Stories That Sing

Simmons B. Buntin reviews Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound, by David Rothenberg

Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound, by David RothenbergOne of the myths of nonfiction is that it doesn’t borrow craft elements from fiction and poetry.  But the nonfiction that really sings, regardless of topic, in fact adopts such elements as narrative arc, dialogue, and pacing from its sister genres.  Subsequently, creative writing professors emphasize the importance of scene and story in memoir, personal essay, and even specialized articles.  “Show, don’t tell,” they say; and, “Draw in the reader through story.”

Easy enough, we might say, for childhood remembrances or non-technical subjects.  But surely we can’t rely on scene and story for scientific topics, which require a more complex vocabulary and therefore a more direct treatment?  Who wants characterization when we’re talking sub-atomic particles, for example, or—as in the case of David Rothenberg’s Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound (Basic Books, 2008)—the logarithmic range of tonal sounds made by cetaceans?

The short answer is: just about everyone.  And Rothenberg’s newest book is a prime example of how the reader is rewarded with good storytelling. 

Rothenberg’s previous book, Why Birds Sing, has been a huge success (it was coupled with a CD of bird song mixed with his world-class clarinet ensembles, just as the new book comes with a CD of jazz overlaying whale song).  I enjoyed Why Birds Sing and learned quite a lot from it.  But for all its deserved success, I felt it needed more storytelling.  In Thousand Mile Song, we get it, and richly so, right from the get-go:

Every morning Paul Knapp sets out from the shores of Tortola in hopes of recording a humpback whale song better than the one he heard on Valentine’s Day, 1992.

“I remember that day well,” nods Paul, looking up at the sky….

There’s something about these stories—the peculiarity of them, the witty way in which they’re woven into the science, Rothenberg’s eloquent pen above all—that makes Thousand Mile Song a page-turner.  What drives momentum, too, is the author’s questioning, for the book is no less than a quest.  Contrasting humpback whale song with bird song early on, Rothenberg asks, “Why should these musical principles appear in nature at such different scales?  Maybe music is a part of nature itself, something evolution has produced on different lines, converging into some living beauty that whales, birds, and even humans can know.”

By the end of his previous book we know that Rothenberg—who is a teacher and philosopher in addition to writer and musician—concludes that birds sing for the sheer joy of it; for the same reasons people sing.  As he writes in this issue of Terrain.org, “This doesn’t mean bird song has nothing to do with attracting mates and defending territories, but the function doesn’t explain the beauty of the song.  To delve deeper into the music, science and art must work together to try for the greatest human understanding of nature that is possible.”

Similarly, his quest in Thousand Mile Song is the exploration of science and art—the intricacies of whale and dolphin song and the opportunity for Rothenberg to play music to and ultimately with these far-ranging and highly intelligent beings.  So through his lyrical stories and deep delving into whale biology, the acoustic science of their songs, and the ongoing risks to the animals (such as Navy sonar testing), we travel across and beneath the saltwater edges of the globe.  From the Virgin Islands to northern Vancouver Island, from the republic of Karelia on the shores of the White Sea to the Hawaiian Isles, Rothenberg’s ambition for interspecies jamming becomes our own, blending both science and the author’s wisdom along the way.  And just as the stories involve us, the questions lead us.  “Wait a minute,” he says when exploring the still-unknown meanings of humpback songs in relation to human songs, “is human music then about nothing too?”  Here as throughout the book, he offers a response that leads to further seeking:

Only if you think of communication as made of information and nothing more.  Music is important enough to have evolved along with humanity for at least hundreds of thousands of years.  We may make music to charm the opposite sex, but only a self-satisfied biologist would say that reason for music is enough to explain it.  We, at least, are one species who spend a lot of time playing around with sounds for their own emotional and beautiful qualities.  Why not accept that other creatures could dwell in music the same way?  Why couldn’t it come earlier on the evolutionary tree, before language, in which the parts of an utterance mean something separate from the whole?

The stories Rothenberg sings are not always his own, though these too are inviting.  One of my favorites is the story of Margaret Howe, who “lived with a dolphin named Peter in a specially designed house, half under water and half above” over a period of six months:

Peter gets a squeaky bunny.  Peter has a square, a circle, a triangle.  He learns which one is which.  But he wants more.  “I find that this living is hard and taxing on my private life.  I do not think that I would like to live with this much restriction for too long a time.”  Think how Peter feels.  Margaret can get up and leave the house but Peter has nowhere else to go.  Yet the idea of isolation, of human and dolphin together, was key to the whole experiment.  Live together, and you’ll finally talk together.

Context is important to Thousand Mile Song—both the historical context of the whaling industry (and subsequently whale song, research, and preservation efforts) and an underlying geopolitical context.  Nowhere is that more apparent than in the chapter titled “Beluga Do Not Believe in Tears,” in which Rothenberg plays to beluga whales in the White Sea.  “The White Sea is not white at all but a dull gray, or a deep colorlessness, that adds in hollowness with thoughts of the terrible human history played out on these shores: war, incarceration, torture, fear,” he writes.  “That’s all over, and we’re lucky the white whales remain to remind us that nature can be pure.  Whales do not do such terrible things to each other; that’s why [maverick cetacean scientist] John Lilly thought they were far more intelligent than we are.”

Similarly, the book overlays hard science in a very gratifying way with Rothenberg’s insight, which itself is a kind of musical, scientific wisdom.  In the concluding chapter, for example, he writes:

Now that we humans know about whale songs, we imagine we have known about them all along.  But the painful truth is that, although they can be quite easy to hear even without all this technology, no one bothered to listen to them until they knew there was something to listen for.  We remain prisoners of our expectations.

And, from the beginning of chapter six:

Evolution does not just encourage the survival of the fittest.  It produces wondrous beauty and strange ways for animals to be in touch.  Cuttlefish change their shape and color to engage with each other.  Penguins identify each other through slight variations in their calls.  Elephants tap their feet to each other from miles away, their vibrations carrying for long distances under the ground.

If there’s a fault with Thousand Mile Song, I didn’t find it in my reading.  Pockets of the acoustic analysis can be dense, but they are never overwhelming.  Rothenberg’s plea for saving whales is poignant but never painful; and while direct it’s also not what drives the book’s narrative arc.  What drives it, instead, is an enchanting energy and a transition in the author: “Over this year I’ve been playing with underwater musicians I cannot see, I’ve begun to dream in whale songs, and sing impossible melodic leaps in my head from low to high as I wake.” 

Another way to think of these dreams, these songs, is as stories—for ultimately David Rothenberg’s Thousand Mile Song sings because its stories hold such delightful tunes.  Like the book, they resonate deeply well after we turn the final page.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound

By David Rothenberg

   Basic Books
   ISBN 978-0465071289


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