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Bookmonger: Whales inspire careers, passion projects

Published on July 17, 2018 12:32PM

The cover of Rebecca Pillsbury’s ‘Guided by Whales.’

Courtesy Duende Press

The cover of Rebecca Pillsbury’s ‘Guided by Whales.’

Author Rebecca Pillsbury

Courtesy Duende Press

Author Rebecca Pillsbury

For the generations that have grown up on the expansive lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” it’s been hard to come to grips with the notion that this land and these waters and “that endless skyway” actually do have a limited carrying capacity for everything the human race seems to be throwing at it.

The consequences of global warming and polluted groundwater and acidified oceans clotted with plastic debris aren’t easy to face, but folks can choose to succumb to malaise and cynicism, or they can get motivated to work on solutions.

And that’s just what Bainbridge Island author Rebecca Pillsbury chronicles in her latest book.

Pillsbury’s particular passion is for whales and their well-being. In “Guided by Whales,” she interviews nearly two dozen individuals devoted to advocating for cetaceans, improving their habitat and reversing the current, precarious state of many whale species.

Like the people she spotlights in this book, Pillsbury is convinced that humans have much to learn from these giant creatures, who have brains that are heavier and up to seven times larger than humans’. She reports that whale brains not only have more convoluted cerebral cortexes than human brains, they also have a lobe that human brains do not — something that, scientists believe, has to do with processing emotions.

Furthermore, while modern humans — Homo sapiens — have been kicking around for just a couple of hundred thousand years, the whale species we know today have been around for tens of millions of years, and their remarkable evolution can be traced from land mammal to oceanic kingpin.

Whales demonstrate cooperation, tolerance, playfulness and an empathy that perhaps surpasses human understanding. Pillsbury proposes, and she is not alone, that over their long history, whales may have solved some of the existential questions that bedevil humans to this day.

Pillsbury talks with educators, artists, scientists, activists, storytellers and others. Her aim is to get more people to be more proactive in protecting whales and their habitat, and her tactic is to tell the inspiring personal stories of folks who are doing just that, in a myriad of ways.

Some of her interview subjects may be familiar names to Pacific Northwest readers: husband and wife team Howard Garrett and Susan Berta, founders of the Orca Network; Howard’s brother Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research; and Seattle author David Neiwert, who wrote the 2015 book “Of Orcas and Men.”

But you’ll also meet amazing characters like Australia-based activist/mural artist Howie Cooke (“Where there’s a wall, there’s a whale”), origami artist and “sperm whale groupie” Peggy Oki, and self-styled professional mermaid Hannah Fraser.

These engaging stories of conservation, education, research and activism demonstrate a wide range of approaches one might adopt in order to help whale recovery efforts.

“If you’re only noticing the negative, you’re hanging out with the wrong people,” Pillsbury advises.

Instead, she urges, now is the time to “wake up and act.”

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.


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