Staring At The Sea

For A Coming Extinction

Gray whale
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing
(WS Merwin, from The Lice, 1967)

Wikimedia Commons

Pottwal, Zeichnung un 1870

Whales, at one point in their evolutionary history, were land mammals. I learned this today.

At one point, about 50 million years ago, small, carnivorous, hoofed and furry creatures about the size of a dog, living near lakeshores in the area today known as Pakistan started evolving a more and more amphibious lifestyle. As far as we can tell they started taking to the water either to hide from predators or in order to hunt drinking prey from cover of water. Over time, their eye sockets evolved and climbed to the top of the head, so the little creatures could be entirely submerged with only eyes above water. These creatures are today spoken of as the first cetaceans, the first of the genus of whales. They are called Pakicetidae. Literally: Pakistani whales.


Over millions of years, these creatures — whose ancestors, remember, crawled from the waters at great cost only about 400 million years earlier — took more and more to the water, finding more and more of their lives there. Evolution rewarded those who ventured farther, those who innovated in the water, rather than on land. One thing led to another. Did they take to the sea, or did the sea take them?

A pakicetus, circa 50 million years ago.

Eventually they changed, some threshold passed, a recognizable difference graduating, attenuating, catching hold. Soon, comparatively soon, geological timescale-soon, they are  crocodile-like mammals preying on small land mammals at the edges of the vast lakes. They ventured further, gradually changing into larger, more mobile creatures and as the climates changed and the geology shifted, venturing into salt water and acquiring more euryhaline properties as the lakes of what would later become Pakistan were touched by the sea.

And suddenly, growing, changing, everywhere: the ocean opens smooth like a highway to the rest of the planet. In the blink of a fossilized eye, the geological record shows them suddenly in subtropical oceans across the globe. They elongate, become much more intelligent, develop social abilities. They evolve and keep evolving. Now they are a worldwide thing. The direct descendants of those small, furry creatures huddling on shorelines in Pakistan in the Eocene are the largest animals ever to have existed on Earth.


Imagine that creature, scurrying from rock to rock in the shallows of inland lakes, slipping into the water, looking for food, surfacing again. Quick and light, restless like a stray dog, shaking itself to get rid of the water but unable to get entirely dry. It’s hooves click on the slippery rocks at the water’s edge. It comes to rest on an outcropping now, and stares at the lapping of the waters. The sun is setting over the lake and the forest grows dark and starts singing songs we will never hear.

If it could reason, what would it think, this little thing huddled on a shore in Central Asia? How would it think about what would become of its descendants? The smooth vastness of their bulk. Their dense, slow inscrutability. So little remaining of the little creature with hooves at the lakeside. At a deep, profound level, it’s progeny is for entirely different things than he is. Built to engage with a different set of problems, with a world entirely different from the shorelines, shallows and shelter that he knows. It is him, but it is something so different from him that it might be from another planet. To the little creature on the shore, the gulf is unbreachable, like the ocean itself that he will take to and conquer (and in which he is threatened, now, these tens of millions of years later, by these upstart apes, with that deeper, impersonal kind of extinction, in which what you were ceases to fit into the scheme of things).

And how would we think, if we knew what is coming, if we could see what becomes of our descendants? What happens to us in a million years? Ten million? Fifty? Surely if something descended from us exists it will be as utterly unlike us as whales and Pakicetidae. The constant, merciless work of evolution accelerated by several orders of magnitude by cultural change, our ability to shortcut through Design Space will have brought forth something that is for different things than we are. Something that will be uncrecognisable. Our children are not for us, they are for themselves. The distance to you grows each day, each year, each generation.


A friend of mine died today. Not a close friend, but a friend. He had been leaving for years, but now he’s never coming back. Another friend — a close friend — wrote to let me know that his wife and him are expecting their first child in six months. The exchange of generations happens all around us, each creature born into the resistance of the world. And the world eats away at us as long as we’re here, with teeth made of years and adversity. It never stops.

This evening, my daughter was bathing in the bathtub. I watched her playing in the water, splashing, lying down in it, turning on her back, turning on her belly. She’s always loved water, as though born to it. Her spinal column, our shared feature with all other mammals, filaments aglow with energy and impulse, sat outlined against the skin of her back. Half of her mine. I thought about my dead friend and the child coming. I thought about my beautiful daughter, half me, so close to me, becoming something of her own every day. I already see the pathway leading away from us, out into the world. The things that are close recede. The present slips away. New things come into the world to take our place. How far does love extend beyond the present twist of the helix?

I sat staring into the turbulent waters, like the little creature on the shoreline. Looking out into what came next.

  1. What a beautiful, thoughtful piece. And I had no idea that whales were mammals that had returned to water.

    • Release said:

      Thank you! As it turns out, as far as I can tell, most or all sea mammals are. I had no idea either.

  2. M said:

    Love this. You’re a wonderful writer!

  3. That was really fantastic, took me completely by surprise!

    • Release said:

      Thank you, surprise is a good thing to get from a piece of writing!

  4. Beautiful, beautiful post. I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend.

    • Release said:

      Thank you! I’m glad you liked the post.

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