“It has been decided by our leaders that economic growth is more important. That the extinction crisis is an acceptable trade for their greed.”
― Charlotte McConaghy, Migrations
I have completed my first two Gaia/nature reads for 2023 both books deal with the theme of migration or journeys, for both animals and humans. One was a re-read to join in with an Instagram online nature book group; RewildYourShelf started by Jaz @ oceanxbluess. That one was Charlotte McConaghy’s Migrations. An international bestseller Migrations is a powerful, haunting tale of total environmental collapse, set in an all too plausible dystopian near future. McConaghy creates a haunting unravelling of the natural environment and the past trauma of her main character, Fanny Stone. In the narrative, Fanny is ostensibly following the last migration of the arctic terns, engaging her ideological opposites in one of the last commercial fishing crews to complete her quest.
The second read, a non-fiction title; Soundings: Journeys in the company of whales, an eco memoir by Doreen Cunningham about the year, as a single mother she took her infant son and followed the migration of the grey whales from their birthing lagoons in Mexico back north to the arctic feeding grounds of Alaska. Soundings is a slightly disjointed memoir, but scattered amongst the personal is quality content on whale ecology, climate change and Inupiaq culture. An environmental journalist, Cunningham also draws on a previous sabbatical spent with the Inupiaq to investigate climate change and its impact on the Arctic people. Both Migrations and Soundings are books driven by a quest theme and migration, accidentally on my part they made for a complimentary and stimulating combination. Both feature compelling strong female narrative that challenges and inspires and in different ways, both books also evoke the Melville classic Moby Dick.
Cunnigham makes challenging observations on the reporting of climate change, as a former BBC news journalist with expertise in environmental reporting she is well-positioned to give insight into the way vested interests like the oil industry have influenced and managed information. She details the now well-known research conducted by Exxon back in the early eighties that confirmed the reality of climate change and the devious public relations strategy they and other oil companies put in place to undermine the reporting of climate science:
“I cannot see into Exxon management’s heart,’ said physicist Martin Hoffert, who had worked on climate models for Exxon. He was testifying to a US congressional committee in 2019, during a hearing examining oil industry efforts to suppress the truth on climate. ‘Exxon was publicly promoting views that its own scientists knew were wrong,’ he said. What they did was immoral.” (p22).
I first read Migrations a couple of years back when it first came out, (previously blogged here), and it did not disappoint on the second reading. McConaghy has an evocative and compelling prose style. She grabs her reader with her first startling line: “The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone here.” It is, in many respects a novel about grief. Fanny is grieving many things and through the novel both Fanny and the reader grieve for the natural world. Driven on a quest to follow the last arctic tern migration Fanny seeks out the captain of a fishing vessel on the promise of using the birds to locate a golden catch. Fish catches are declining and commercial fishing is just one of the many exploitations of the natural world that are reaching critical impact. McConaghy uses her story to explore the common ground that exists between the environmental activist and the fisherman, both love the sea and its bounty and hold it in reverence, if in different ways. Finding that common ground between opposing camps is critical if we are going to make any headway in protecting the natural world.
I found it interesting that Cunningham too in Soundings seeks that common ground. In spending time with the Inupiaq, Cunningham respectfully explores subsistence hunting and first nation values that champion holistic relationships with the environment. The personal narrative in Soundings may for some readers make the science more immediate and accessible but for me, it didn’t always work, although the details of her difficult relationship with a controlling partner and the challenges of travelling with a toddler added drama to the account. There is also a bit of a romance layered into the narrative. Relationships and their complexities feature strongly in Migrations forming a large part of the narrative drive. Relationships between mothers and daughters, partners and in-laws and transient relationships or the random acts of kindness of fellow travellers are significant in both books.
Cunningham draws a kind of personal power from the whales, she has a sense of identification with the birthing whale mothers which does seem a little naive, especially given her strong scientific background, (engineering), clearly, she is seeking a transformative experience with the animals and desperately wants to imbue her son with a sense of wonder and identification with the creatures. Cunnigham herself certainly identifies with the struggle to birth and protect a child, but the presence of her young son does not always sit well with other travellers and is the source of some conflict on her travels.
Both the whales for Cunningham and the arctic terns for Fanny in Migrations are animals loaded with symbolic, almost mythic significance and both become means to negotiate the challenge of a changing environmental landscape and its implications. Why is it, that the natural world can exert so much magic and wonder on us if we let it? Why do we hunger for those transcendent encounters? Cunningham takes a personal obsession and uses it to advocate on the behalf of the environment, animals and first nation peoples. McConaghy utilises the plight of the terns, those beautiful, hardy little travellers to inspire greater awareness and empathy with the plight of our natural world and does so with great effect. Neither book may be perfect but they are both entertaining and powerful reads.
“The Arctic tern has the longest migration of any animal. It flies from the Arctic all the way to the Antarctic, and then back again within a year. This is an extraordinarily long flight for a bird its size. And because the terns live to be thirty or so, the distance they will travel over the course of their lives is the equivalent of flying to the moon and back three times.”
― Charlotte McConaghy, Migrations