Friday, April 1, 2011

Goodbye to a whaling town

It's very strange for me to read the New York Times article describing how the tsunami wiped out the whaling town of Ayukawa--mostly because when I worked for Greenpeace I spent months in Ayukawa, hoping to shut down that very same whaling operation.

The article begins with a description of a flattened building--the headquarters of Ayukawa Whaling company.  Years ago I sat in that building with Michi, another Greenpeacer, as she translated the vague threats the officials made against us: we were anti-whalers in a whaling town, two young women alone, and the officials of the company could not be responsible for what might happen to us. The whalers got drunk, sometimes, we should understand... to be safe, we must leave immediately.

Michi and I stayed to photograph and document the dead whales that were brought into the station. Greenpeace believed the company was taking whales in violation of international law--they were taking females--and if we could prove this with photographs, we could shut them down. But a funny thing happened during the time Michi and I were in Ayukawa: all the whales were brought in at night, and all were pulled up the slipway into the station belly-side down, so we were unable to ascertain their gender.

Our efforts in Ayukawa ultimately came to naught--we were not able to prove our suspicions, and whaling (although slowed over the intervening years), continued until the March 11 tsunami finally stopped it.

Now, reading about Ayukawa, I remember the grinding sounds from the building where the whales were rendered into meat and oil; the blast of--what? steam? smoke?--that would periodically escape like a spirit from the smokestack; the bitter cold as Michi and I kept watch, witnessing in the dark; the whalers who followed us and knew our names; the thickness in the air that made a coating on the roof of my mouth that I could not scrape off; the owners of the inn where we stayed who taught us a befuddling card game where we called "First page" when holding our last card; the children who would gather outside the inn after school, calling "Hello!" and "How are you?"and "Greenpeace-su" until we hung out the window to answer back--at which they would giggle and shriek like we were rock stars.

I still hold in my mind these lines from a poem, The Whaling Basement at Ayukawa, by Scott McVay:

From this hour
I will carry perpetually
millions of molecules
of Ayukawa air
laced with dead whales.
How check the slaughter?
If I knew, I would be a prophet
and put whalers behind other plows.


How should I feel now that the whalers have finally been stopped? The ending has arrived--but in a way that I cannot celebrate, no matter how long awaited, anticipated, and fought for, no matter how long overdue.



(Want to read more about Greenpeace days? Click on the "Search this Blog" box to the right and enter the word Greenpeace.) 

19 comments:

  1. What a nice post. And I had the temerity to assume it was yet another one of your criminal exploits. Bad me, bad, bad me. I must now die of shame. (now you'll probably tell me you WERE arrested there! But I'll be dead. From shame. FOR SHAME.)

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  2. You are such a brave, strong-minded woman! And I love how you give us such a layered picture of the village. When do you start on your autobiography?

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  3. I have just found your blog Pat! I feel similar things about the shutdown of the paper mill in Oregon City. Happy happy not to breathe in their smoke, but a little sad at the loss of jobs. But only a little. Resource exploitation has some inherent evil to it, no matter how much we may think we need it.

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  4. You give us the gift of time travel as you remember the village of Ayukawa before the tsunami. We taste, feel, see the air of conflict as you allied yourself with Greenpeace to fight illegal whaling. By inviting us into your memories, you broaden our world. You are, indeed, our "fearless leader." Alice

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  5. Thanks for the story. I wonder what comes next for this town.

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  6. Yes, and I wonder about Wada Ura, another shore station that I assume met the same fate, and Taiji, where dolphins are slaughtered (did the boats survive the tsunami?
    Thanks for stopping by, Mark.

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  7. What an intense post. Thank you for not sugar-coating your memory, and for writing such a complex piece!

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  8. Wow. What an weird place you must be in with these memories in light of what's happened.

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  9. Thank you for stopping by the Dharma Bums today and leaving a comment. It is so much appreciated. This post reminds me of a poem I wrote many, many years ago about members of my mother's family who did not escape Nazi Germany in the late 30s and 40s. Here's a bit of it:

    when the letters stopped coming
    they assumed he had perished
    along with the rest of his family
    their innocent flesh and bone
    transformed to ash and smoke
    that billowed out of the stacks
    and settled on the earth, a devil-made dust

    The post I wrote about it is here:
    http://newdharmabums.blogspot.com/2005/05/holocaust-remembrance.html

    I love the work you did in Japan. Your efforts are the work of the heart. Thank you.

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  10. Robin, it's especially interesting that you made that connection, because Scott McVay's poem that I'd quoted from also contains these lines:

    You breathe shallowly
    trying to forget the hanging smell.
    The putrescence
    of burning flesh at Auschwitz
    and the other camps
    comes to mind
    and is dismissed
    and then it creeps back again...

    I'll go check the link you've left--I've so enjoyed the writing I've already seen on your blog. (Hey, anyone reading this--go visit Robin and Roger at www,newdharmabums.blogspot.com--it's a lovely little corner of the web).

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  11. What an interesting thing it is to have that reference to Auschwitz in the poem about the whale slaughters. There is something so familiar about the absence of compassion for all life in these horrific places. The work of the psychopath is never done.

    Thank you so much for the kind words, Patricia.

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  12. Hi Patricia, wow, another cool PNW nature-focused blog! What a beautiful and bittersweet post. Yes, thanks also for your comment on Pacific Northwest Seasons! I admit blog is a jumble of my interests and some environmental, some outdoorsy, some food, etc. so hard to pidgeonhole.
    Would be curious ifyou make those cookies - I might up the spices to 1T each depending on your taste for spice.

    I'll come back! peace,
    jill

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  13. Hi Jill, thanks for stopping by. Yeah, it's the spices in your mock croc cookies that make them sound especially yummy (what about adding coconut...hmm...). Anyone intrigued can find the recipe here:
    http://pacificnwseasons.blogspot.com/2011/03/have-you-ever-had-unforgettably.html

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  14. Maybe the whaling will stop...or take years to come back...I prefer the former. I think they will be concentrating on recovery...

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  15. I don't think whaling will come back to Ayukawa. It was a dying industry, with old boats that are now destroyed. There is a fierce pride in whaling there, but I don't think that will be enough to resurrect it.

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  16. What an intense post. Thank you for not sugar-coating your memory, and for writing such a complex piece!

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  17. Yes, and I wonder about Wada Ura, another shore station that I assume met the same fate, and Taiji, where dolphins are slaughtered (did the boats survive the tsunami?
    Thanks for stopping by, Mark.

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  18. Thanks for the story. I wonder what comes next for this town.

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  19. I have just found your blog Pat! I feel similar things about the shutdown of the paper mill in Oregon City. Happy happy not to breathe in their smoke, but a little sad at the loss of jobs. But only a little. Resource exploitation has some inherent evil to it, no matter how much we may think we need it.

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