Tomatoes, Instagram, whales, and the world from the deepest oceans to the edges of the atmosphere; each of these connects in surprising and confronting ways in former UWA student (and Pelican writer!) Rebecca Giggs’ first book, Fathoms: the World in the Whale.
This inspired, intelligent work won the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and the 2020 Mark & Evette Moran Nib Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the 2020 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction. Riley Faulds interviewed Giggs ahead of her appearance at the Literature and Ideas weekend for Perth Festival.
Riley Faulds: Your book Fathoms: the World in the Whale has won a number of awards around the world and had some rave reviews, which is very well deserved, I’d say from reading it. So how would you summarise the book for our readers?
Rebecca Giggs: The way I normally introduce readers to the story is to tell them a little bit about the scene that’s in the preface of the book. A couple of years ago, I helped out in a whale beaching on the coast of Perth, not far from City Beach. A yearling humpback had stranded. A yearling is not a big whale; they’re normally about twelve to fifteen metres long. But it was clearly in distress, because it basically pulled up on a sandbar partway in the water and partway on land. And so we managed to get it back out into the ocean, but it eventually came back further and higher up the beach, and stranded again. And I went down there with a big crowd of people; people brought their pets, they brought their kids along. And everyone was talking about why whales strand, and there were lots of different kinds of explanations on the beach. There were people who thought that it was unwell, that this whale wasn’t eating the way that it should. Maybe it had acquired a virus, or maybe it had been chased by predators. Someone even said to me that they thought that beaching whales were connected to falling stars, and changes in the cosmological sphere.
So I really started with all of those different explanation for why whales strand on the beach. And I was interested in the ways that they point to different understandings of our natural world, be it microbial in the form of a virus or predatory if it’s a shark that’s chased the whale up onto the beach, or even something more universal with this sort of mythic sensibility about the nature of falling stars triggering whale strandings. So that’s really where I started. And later it broadened and has become a project that’s much more about the ways in which our everyday lives stretch out touch the world of the Earth’s most stupendous wildlife, in the most remote wilderness on the planet.
RF: That’s something that repeats throughout the book, where you begin with an individual whale or species and then zoom out into the wider ecology of whales and how humans interact with them and influence them. And then terrestrial species and ecology as well, and all about shrinking ‘wildness’ and how humans are responding to that. Why do you think whales, in particular, are such a good vehicle to explore those wider themes with?
RG: Really, it only became apparent to me halfway through the project, that whales were really this wonderful Trojan horse for having a conversation about global change. And I mean that in the sense of climate change, but also the trans-hemispheric effects of plastic pollution. And as you point out, changes in ecology that spread beyond the marine environment, all the way up into agriculture, and into wildlife existing inland. So why whales are such a fantastic vector, I suppose to hitch all those different stories onto; people who already feel a great degree of attachment to whales. I think when we hear about global change taking place, often it’s described with a very body-less sensibility. So we talk about the melting ice shelf, we’re talking about the changing acidification of the ocean. These things are very abstract, and it’s sort of hard to wrap your head around, but whales, people really feel strongly about. They have stories about whales in lots of different cultures around the world. And people also have a sort of empathetic connection to them, because they seem to be animals that are in some ways like us. They’re mammals, and they raise their own young. They are warm-blooded. They have brains that are partitioned into hemispheres that have some of the same neurons as humans do. And so we’d always imagined that they had a social life or mental life that was in some ways, akin to our own. And so really, I was trying to use people’s existing sentiment around whales to begin a conversation that’s much more about, you know, the big changes taking place in the planet’s ecology.
RF: Yeah, there’s that sense in the book of humans seeking that sort of anthropocentric connection to whales. But also the sense of their mystery as well, and the idea of a something’s rarity stoking our interest in it. And I’ve got the quote here: “the less we see, the more the aura around it.” And that’s really interesting too; do you think that by reading Fathoms and engaging through your writing really deeply with whales and the scientific understandings and artistic understandings of them, that we’ll lose that aura?
RG: Well, you know, you’re asking a question that brings to mind a line from the poet, William Wordsworth, where he says, “We murder to dissect.” So he had an idea of the beautiful in nature. And he had thought that science’s analysis of nature effectively robbed it of beauty, because we’re taking the little scalpel to nature to look at it from the inside. I think otherwise; I do believe that the more we learn about whales, the deeper the mystery and intrigue around them becomes. Whales are inherently very mysterious animals. There are individual species that we have never encountered alive. Only a few years ago an entirely species of whale was discovered, by doing a DNA analysis on a skeleton that had been hanging as a mascot in a high school in Alaska. So here is this entirely new animal. And they live lives that are very far from our sensory reality, they live in the dark, they live in the deep oceans. They live in a world that is exquisitely attuned to sound, very unlike the sort of visual world that we live in as terrestrial mammals. And so every time we learn something new about whales, it opens up some new possibility, some new intrigue; for example, with whale sounds, we’ve long been able to hear whales and record them, but never really known why whales sing and what it is they’re actually communicating to one another. And that mystery is so compelling to us. Because here is this seemingly complex form of communication that is outside of our ability to decode.
RF: And do you think that mystique about something like whales is a good thing in terms of how we relate to the environment and environmental change? Do you think that’s motivating for people to do something about the issues of wastage and environmental degradation that appear in your book?
RG: Yeah, I think that sense of mystery and wonder is a cornerstone of environmental sentiment. Because we protect nature and not just because it provides us with resources, but because it shores up reserves of emotion, to some degree. Nature is where we go to feel humble, it’s where we go to feel inspirited. It’s where we go to feel refreshed. And we’ve long positioned nature as this sort of antithesis to industry and to urban life and to modernity. Now, increasingly, we’re discovering that actually, that itself is a damaging myth. That nature is actually full of the byproducts of our industrial activity; and that is, in its own way, humiliating as opposed to productive of humility. So, yeah, I think, to some extent, the magic of whales and the wonder that’s associated with them, is the kind of gateway drug into environmental consciousness. But all of us need to do more if we wish to really inhabit that sensibility. I say in the book that you don’t get to be hopeful about our environmental future, until you try to make yourself useful. And I really believe that we shouldn’t be going to the arts and to literature, looking for a way to feel better. We should be going there to find out a better way to help. Fathoms is not really an activist book. But that is the political ideology that underpins it. So it’s always written a few steps back from those conclusions, but that’s what I hope people really take from the book and what, I guess, the sort of nerve that they manage to consolidate from reading it. Yeah, that’s part of it.
RF: In relation to that aura of mystique versus understanding how much of an impact we have on the oceans and the environment through our daily lives: the book emphases this desire for wildness or even an illusion of it, through these Insta-worthy photos of what seems like an untouched landscape, but is actually photoshopped or retouched to seem that way…
RG: I think you’re sort of hitting on a really interesting point here, and you’re a very sharp reader, Riley, of this book, because there is a tension in Fathoms that hasn’t actually been resolved. And, you know, this is my first book! So also, there are going to be some bits in it that are insoluble, some arguments that don’t quite match. On the one hand, in the book, I really wanted to spend time enquiring into the intimacy and the extent of our connection to the lives of whales. So the way that plastic pollution shows up in their stomachs, the way that noise pollution affects their communication. And I wanted to understand that as an embodied reality, I wanted to understand it through the senses of the whales. But at the same time, I wanted to preserve the whale’s otherness, its strange mental life, its strange social life, and just how unknowable the whale is, even as we’re also increasingly seeing the human traces turn up in a really visceral way, inside it and shaping its life.
RF: And the book is amazing in how it interrogates that; that we can still have that wonder and awe and mystery, while understanding that the whale doesn’t have to be like us directly. That when it looks at us, it’s not trying to look within us for something; it probably doesn’t even see us, and that’s okay. And that it can be mysterious, that not everything has to be positioned relative to ourselves, to have that.
RG: But then we all hunger for that; I was interested in the narcissism of people wishing to see the whale respond to them, you know, to cross the eyeline of a whale, the whale to follow you with its gaze, and perceive you to be something that was interesting or important, or maybe even some feeling of kinship passing between you and the whale in that moment of eye contact. But of course, as much as we all desire that – and I certainly wanted that, to have that moment of contact. But whale vision is very, very poor: whales do not see well in high light. They rely far more on their aural sense, on hearing and sound to navigate their world. So it’s kind of like a form of projection at that moment, because for the whale, it’s not meaningful in the way that it is for human beings.
RF: In another vein, some of our readers are very interested in the practice of writing. And your prose in this book seems in a lot of sections to be, I’d say ‘elevated’, very poetic and serious. And do you think that something about the subject matter lends itself to that style?
RG: When I started writing, I wanted it to be in a very straight form of science communication. If you go into a bookstore and go into the science section, you’ll find books that are about biology and physics and mathematics. And a lot of those books, their intention is really to articulate complex scientific findings in a way that the every-person can understand them. So they’re really putting a pane of glass between the science and a more public sphere audience. And I tried that, I tried writing in that way for a long time.
And then there was one day when there was a terrible heatwave. I went to the public library, and I was sitting there working on the manuscript. And I was actually working on the section in the front of the book, to describe the death of a whale in the open ocean; the decay of the whale’s body as it slowly descends into the deep, all the little predators and decomposers that come to feed off the carcass. Anyhow, I was sitting there working on that passage, and a friend of mine turned up. His name is Aden Rolfe and he’s a Sydney-based poet. And he has a wonderfully poetic, rich language that, as you described it, is an elevated lyric language. And so for the day, I thought, you know what, this isn’t really working for me, I’m just going to try and write this section of the book as though Aden was writing it. He was sitting opposite me on the desk, and I was like, “well, I’m just gonna ventriloquise the poet’s sensibility.”
And once I had that section, I realised that actually, this is what I was interested in. Not only did that voice feel more authentic to me, but it also felt like what I wanted to say wasn’t just about nature. It was about the ways that we turn nature into story, and about the ways that science has a cultural dimension to it. So when a whale washes up and it’s full of debris, we’re going to associate that with stories like Jonah, and the Leviathan in the Bible, or some of the tall tales of old-salt fishermen. And it’s more significant to us, because we already have these stories in our culture. So I’m very interested in the social and cultural dimensions of scientific knowledge, and in the imaginative qualities of how we connect our lives to other creaturely life on the planet. That language decision was very deliberate, but it’s also real to me because, you know, I’m not a scientist; I’m somebody with a background in the arts. And it just felt much more authentic to my way of being in the world.
RF: You could have fooled me that you’re not a scientist!
RG: Well good, I hoped to pull that part off!
RF: Now, you’ve partly covered it and I don’t want to open a whole can of worms with this, but there’s this idea of the two cultures of science and the humanities, and that those are really separate. And you obviously operate through the lenses of each of them. What are your thoughts on the state of this separation and how important it is to be able to kind of synthesise and find bridges between them, or is that a false dichotomy anyway?
RG: I think there was definitely a time when that dichotomy was real. But I think that in the post-climate change era, most people in the sciences are very cognizant of the fact that to see the sorts of changes that we need to see to ensure a liveable world for future generations, we’re not going to succeed by just bombarding the public with data. You know, that was the Al Gore model, that basically you could just get the science out there in a lucid way and people’s hearts and minds would be changed. And of course we’re discovering that that’s not the case. And actually, the climate change debate is a forum in which all other different kinds of politics and identity are being negotiated at the moment. So I think that, yeah, most people in the sciences are cognizant of the fact that there needs to be synthesis with cultural understandings of the world, with story. I’ve had some really wonderful responses from marine biologists about the book.
The other way, of course, is increasing the scientific literacy of people who are non-scientists; making sure that people are involved in citizen science, that science just doesn’t become the preserve of experts, but that it becomes something like numeracy or literacy trying. That science becomes a vocabulary that most people have familiarity with. And I think that’s really important, that we do understand things like the scientific methodology, what a hypothesis is or what peer review means. I would like to see those things become much more mainstream. But I think Fathoms, to my mind, is one person’s effort to try to bring those two modalities together to be scientifically imaginative, and imaginatively scientific. And, yeah, I hope that people who pick it up, the readers who pick it up are science-curious; but you know, it’s not a book that batters you over the head with detailed reports from the front lines of marine biology. It is lyric. And I hope that sweetens the journey through the book.
RF: I think you’ve done it remarkably well. It’s an amazing piece of work. And I’ve read reviews of the book comparing it to other key environmental works like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, for example. Do you think – and you said that the book’s not particularly activist – but do you think that a book like Silent Spring really changed much in terms of ecology and people’s attitudes towards it? Or was it really only influential for, you know, people rich enough to afford organic food?
RG: Number one thing: I harbour no illusions that a book – a book like this at least – is going to trigger a mass social movement. The way I see it, this book is a form of a conversation. It should be a place where the reader can consolidate their nerve; and if they feel so moved to become involved with the issue of the health of our oceans, then there will be localised forms of action in places. Where they can exercise their own talents that are relevant to their communities and their networks and the way that they see, their identity as well. So I do hold back from describing any specific cause of action, because I want people to localise that and really find a meaningful way of pursuing these problems, for them. I hope that the book gives people a new way to imagine the way that their everyday lives extend into the ocean, touch the deepest oceans and the farthest atmospheres as well.
And ultimately, this is what the whale does for us, in the 2020s. In the 1980s, to be anti-whaling meant that you were anti-whaling governments and anti-whaling fleets. But in the 2020s, to want to save the whale knits you into a system of worldliness that’s far more complicated. And it has to do with the plastic that you use in your kitchen, it has to do with driving cars, it has to do with far more minute and quite proximate acts. And happily, many of those things are far easier to change than to try to, you know, stop the government from enacting a whaling policy.
So we all have these small actions that we can take that cumulatively have a really big effect. And yeah, I want to renew people’s sense of awe and wonder as well. And sort of acquaint them with the weirdness of the natural world, the slightly spooky Gothic qualities of decaying animals and strange sounds that are being emitted from the ocean floor that we have no idea what they mean. And, I guess, not just touch on that instinct for mystery, but also invite them into the dark, parasitic underside of nature. That’s also a theme in the book, not just the big charismatic animal, but also all the other attendant species that live off whales and live off decomposing things in the deep sea. So this is my first book, and it was an ambitious goal to try to achieve some of those feelings in the readership. But I’ve been so gratified by hearing from readers. And some of the reviews have explained in a way that was even more compelling than how I think I put it in the book, around what the main arguments are.
I’m really proud of where it’s going. And I’m also a strong proponent of writing in Western Australia. I’m really hoping people come down to the Perth Writers Festival event at the end of February, and we can have a chance to actually be writers and readers together in a living space, a breathing space. It’ll be the first public event that I’ve done in person to promote this book and it feels like a real homecoming to be able to do it back where I grew up in my home state where my family will be in the audience. That’s a thrill.
Rebecca Giggs will be speaking at Literature and Ideas on Saturday 20 February, 4pm at His Majesty’s Theatre.
Words by Riley Faulds
Image courtesy of Perth Festival