Duet for a Small Porpoise’s Extinction

Kimi Eisele contemplates coherence, the near extinction of the vaquita, and the expensive bycatch of being human.

Kimi Eisele | Longreads | December 2018 | 22 minutes (5,477 words)

Were we ever to arrive at knowing the other as the same pulsing / compassion would break the most orthodox heart.

— Claudia Rankine

One December afternoon two years ago, I came upon an iceberg in the Place du Pantheón in Paris. Twelve of them actually, each the size of a small car, arranged in a circle, clock-like. I observed them for a while, and then I did what I sometimes do in nature: I started dancing with the ice.

There was another dancer there, too, moving fluidly around one of the pieces. When I saw him I thought, kin, which is also what I came to feel for the ice itself.

I approached the other dancer and asked to join him. At first he said no. A cameraman was filming him, and I understood this to mean his dance was important and would be preserved. He mentioned an injury. Maybe he was afraid I would touch him or lean on him, which is a fear I myself have, given my own fragile lower back. Or maybe he thought I wanted to partner dance — waltz or jitterbug, say — and I understood that refusal as well, because that is not the kind of dancing the icebergs seemed to summon. I clarified, “Not together, just alongside. We each can do our own thing.” So he nodded and I joined him and we danced that way, improvising, alone and together, with the ice.

The ice was from Greenland. It had already broken off from the ice sheet and was melting into the sea when the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Elliason and his geologist collaborator Minik Rosing scooped it from the ocean and transported it in refrigerated shipping containers to Paris for the occasion of the 2016 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP21.

While world leaders listened to scientists and economists and debated the future of the planet, people came to the Place du Pantheón to be with the 12 chunks of ice. Children, grandmothers, musicians, dancers, sanitation workers. Dogs came too. It was not unlike a petting zoo, but instead of goats and ponies, they petted ice.

Photo by Shannon Cain

I returned to the icebergs nearly every day. One night after a rain, the pavement glimmering under city lights, I made another dance, just me and the ice, dueting.

A friend filmed this dance and some weeks later, he sent me the video. He’d added music: Antonio Sanchez’s “Pathways of the Mind,” from Meridian Suite — a perfect pairing, by sheer chance. I’ll always have it now, to remember.

Technically, the word “iceberg” signifies a chunk of ice more than five meters wide that’s fallen from a glacier or ice sheet. Smaller ice chunks are called “growlers” or “bergy bits.” The Greenland growlers in the Place du Pantheón remained there for a few weeks. And then they disappeared.

***

Last November, some friends and I drove from Tucson to the small Mexican port town of Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, where we rented a house on the beach.

While world leaders listened to scientists and economists and debated the future of the planet, people came to the Place du Pantheón to be with the 12 chunks of ice.

The afternoons were chilly but the water was warm, and we swam with tiny fish and watched trains of pelicans in flight above the sea surface. At low tide we waded through tide pools on the rocky shore, looking for anemones and hermit crabs. I marveled at how a single depression in a shallow rock can create an entire microhabitat, one that appears and disappears with the tides.

A few times, swimming off the shore, we glimpsed dolphins, which are not to be confused with vaquitas, small porpoises that also live in the Gulf of California.

In Spanish, vaquita means “little cow.” The scientific name is Phocoena sinus, from the Latin for “bay,” because of its home in the gulf, a body of water warmer than the habitats of the five other porpoise species in the world and where only the vaquita can live.

Genetic samples suggest the vaquita split from another species in the Pacific Ocean 2 to 3 million years ago. Given this timeline, the species has something in common with ice.

After the retreat of northern glaciers, the species was isolated and evolved to survive in warm waters in an area population biologists call a refugium. The vaquitas’ refugium is roughly 1,500 square miles — the smallest geographical range of any marine mammal.

Because of that range, and what has happened to it, I probably won’t ever see a vaquita in real life. Nor will you.

Twenty years ago, an estimated 600 of them swam in the Gulf. When I was there in late 2017, scientists estimated only 26 remained.

***

Many years ago, I took a graduate writing seminar with Vivian Gornick, madame of the personal essay and, back then at least, notorious for making students cry. It was clear from the way she rolled her eyes and said things like, Is this even a sentence?, that she didn’t think highly of our class.

She liked me enough, though I didn’t really need her to. I wasn’t getting a master’s degree in creative writing, but in geography. I’d signed up for Vivian’s class in search of writing rigor. I loved the way she talked about craft.

Of every essay we read, including the ones we’d written and submitted for critique, Vivian would ask, What is this really about?

One day Vivian told us a story about a trip she’d taken to Puerto Peñasco. She described the drive through the desert toward Mexico as a journey through a wasteland, a landscape of nothingness. The seaside town wasn’t much better, she reported, poorly planned and dirty and full of tourist tchotchkes and no clear place to walk, which to her, a lifelong New Yorker, was incomprehensible.

But then, she said, something unexpected happened on the drive home. After the chaotic, noisy port town, the desert suddenly made sense. The stands of organ pipe and saguaro and ocotillo and the jagged mountains and the big sky all fit together, logically and beautifully.

Coherence, she said. Her mouth opened up fully, and the word appeared like a thing on the table, weighty and observable.

***

Down the road from the beach house we rented was the Intercultural Center for Studies of Oceans and Deserts (CEDO), where we went to hear a lecture about marine life. On a picnic table, amidst other bones and shells, was the desiccated head of totoaba fish (Totoaba macdonaldi), a large fish also native to the Gulf. Even in that state the fish’s giant mouth and significant underbite were noticeable.

The naturalist asked my boyfriend, Julius, who is six-foot-five, to hold the totoaba head up to his own, like a mask. “This is how big they can get,” the naturalist said.

Commercial fishing of totoaba began in the 1920s, and over the following 40 years, overfishing and habitat loss decimated the population. The fish once spawned in the brackish water of the Colorado River delta, but so much fresh water has been diverted from the river’s flow in the United States that the delta is now too salty, and the fish can no longer thrive. In 1975, Mexico banned totoaba fishing, and in 1986, the species was placed on the IUCN Red List of endangered species. No one knows how many are left.

The fish is prized in China for its swim bladder, sold as meat and as a nostrum for infertility and skin and circulatory problems. So totoaba are fished illegally with large nets, aptly called gillnets, which hang vertically in the water and catch fish by the gills.

Gillnets are also used to catch mackerel, sharks, and rays. Vaquitas get trapped as bycatch. Vaquitas are mammals. When unable to surface for air, they drown.

On the same picnic table as the dried totoaba head was a plastic replica of a vaquita. Vaquitas are very cute. Usually no longer five feet, they have snub noses and wide-set eyes ringed with black circles. Sometimes they’re called “pandas of the sea.”

After the lecture, I watched a man pick up the plastic vaquita and cradle it in his arms. It was stiff and clunky, like a child reluctant to be held.

***

Before I danced with the ice, I danced with cacti, trees, rocks, rivers, an owl, and dying salmon. Some of these dances I recorded with my phone.

The practice of dancing with other species and nonhuman natural elements evolved from a film project I directed using the body (my own and others) to represent plants and animals in the mountains of Southern Arizona. The idea was to connect with, make visible, and stand in for species that would be adversely impacted by the construction of the proposed Rosemont copper mine. We called the film “Rosemont Ours,” a play on the Rosemont Mine.

We studied these plants and animals during site visits and in photographs or, when available, on video. At least nine of the species were threatened or endangered and therefore hard to observe. In those cases, we practiced something I started calling “attunement” — paying attention fully to the habitat and imagining the movements of plants and animals in situ.

One dancer squatted in a stream, her eyes wide like the endangered Chiricahua leopard frog. Another climbed a cottonwood tree and perched on a branch like the Western yellow-billed cuckoo. Three of us climbed onto an outcropping of rocks and curled our bodies into tight coils like giant Santa Rita talus snails with still too many arms. We did our best to capture the essence of these species, but learned quickly that the human body, for all its wonder and ability, is also clunky and blundering. Roots, wings, hooves, and fins are to be revered.

What I loved most was moving within the species’ habitats, sensing them nearby, maybe even watching us. Eventually I wanted not to mimic or represent other species, but to dance with them. The first duet I did was with a saguaro cactus, the iconic desert Southwest species. A saguaro doesn’t move a lot, but it does sway in the right wind. I let the cactus be a cactus and let me be me — two beings sharing time and space.

Before I danced with the ice, I danced with cacti, trees, rocks, rivers, an owl, and dying salmon. Some of these dances I recorded with my phone.

I danced with rocks, too, letting them be still and solid, while I attempted to pour my body over them. Sometimes I moved quickly, as a counterpoint to their stasis. I stuck with my material. The rocks stuck with their material. Steadfast. My soft and supple bare feet burned on their hot surface. I held myself still for a long time.

***

In Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli describes reality — as revealed by quantum mechanics — as a series of interactions, “a continuous, restless swarming of things, a continuous coming to light and disappearance of ephemeral entities … a world of happenings, not of things.”

When Rovelli explained this to Krista Tippet, the host of the podcast On Being, she said, “A stone is a happening.”

A stone is a happening.

A thing is a thing because it takes up space and has mass. Some things move — like vaquitas. And some things don’t — like rocks. But that’s not actually true. Rocks only appear to be solid and hard and still. In a TED Talk called “The Universe is Queerer Than You Think,” Richard Dawkins explains this: “The hardest, solidest, densest rock … is ‘really’ almost entirely empty space, broken only by tiny particles so far apart that they shouldn’t count.”

We can’t see these spaces because of the size and speed at which our human bodies and brains operate. Dawkins calls the place we humans inhabit, the “middle world,” in between the microscopic and the cosmic ones.

While matter is constantly changing, sometimes the changes happen slowly enough so as to be imperceptible. This continuously baffles and thrills me. The atoms that make a rock keep up their interaction — keep happening — such that the rock stays a rock. The atoms that make a coffee mug keep making up a coffee mug, until it falls and breaks. The atoms that make up you keep making up you, until you age or get sick and die.

But why do the atoms keep doing what they’re doing? Is this coherence a choice? An imperative?

A rock stays a rock until wind and water change it on a timescale we cannot see. A vaquita stays a vaquita until it is caught by a gillnet on a timescale shorter than I can stomach.

***

For Vivian’s class, I wrote an essay about a poisonous snake I once carried onto an airplane in Ecuador. The snake was a Bothrops atrox, a South American species also known as a fer-de-lance, or more colloquially, equis, for the pattern of Xs on its back. If an equis bites you, its two fangs inject fast-acting venom causing nausea, blackouts, paralysis, permanent memory loss, and, in some cases, death.


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A farmer had found the snake at the edge of the dry forest and instead of killing it had delivered it in a bucket to my boss, an American biologist who ran the community development NGO on the coast where I worked as a volunteer. The biologist arranged for the nation’s only vivarium, in Quito, to receive the reptile. Since I was traveling to the capital for the weekend to register my visa, it was decided that I would transport it. The trip was an eight-hour bus ride from the coast up over 9,000 feet to the western Andean cordillera, or, from the port-city of Guayaquil, a 30-minute flight. I chose the flight and carried the snake, secured in a white plastic bucket, poked with air holes and scrawled with the words: Cuidado – XX – Venenoso.

When I recall that trip, I think mostly about the fact that I traveled with my new Ecuadorian boyfriend, a tall vet tech who worked with pigs and spoke little English. We marveled at the passing of the snake through airport security, X-rays and all, and stowed him under the seat. We stayed in a Swiss-themed hotel, and the snake sat quietly in its bucket at the foot of the bed the whole night. I remember my boyfriend’s hands and that he played me a Silvio Rodriguez CD and that I fell in love the moment Silvio’s voice reached my ears.

I went looking for the essay I wrote for Vivian while writing this one. In it, I described the farmer who’d spared the snake and wrote about the designation of the tropical dry forest as a global conservation “hot spot” for the rate at which it was disappearing. I wrote that economic activities there were often at odds with saving forests and species’ habitat. The essay wanted to be about how we so often prefer wild animals to be either dead or safely held back in cages or aquaria or vivaria, but it wasn’t quite successful. I wrote about the security X-rays, but included nothing at all about the boyfriend. Did I somehow think love would detract from the story? Did I not realize that love is the story?

***

There is no word in English equivalent to the Portuguese saudade. Nostalgia comes close. Or longing. But saudade is more immediate. Saudade is the sweetness that exists alongside the pain of missing what’s gone or longing for what’s desired. It’s the past, present, and future all smashed together into an emotion that makes you smile and cry and yearn for something you can’t quite touch. It’s like the complexity of a sound or a scent in a single word. It’s like a puddle of what-was-once-ice.

A variation of saudade is solastalgia, from the Latin solacium for comfort and the Greek root algia for pain. The philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined it in 2003 to describe the psychic distress caused by global climate change and also interruptions like wildfire, drought, volcanic eruptions, and mining. It’s the feeling of homesickness you feel when you are still at home.

An ice cube in your palm. A vaquita in the ocean you are swimming in.

Solastalgia is a word the Bureau of Linguistical Reality often uses as an example of the kind of new language we need for expressing the complexity of feelings and phenomena in the midst of climate change and other environmental disruptions in the Anthropocenic era. (The Anthropocene is the proposed name for the current geological age. While I understand the word, I find it arrogant. As if dominating the planet isn’t enough, now we must name the era after ourselves?)

The Bureau is made up of Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott, who wear bureaucratic-brown button-down shirts and stiff skirts and carry clipboards under their arms, but who are really artists who care about the planet and love language. Some of the words they’ve helped people create include:

Blissonance, a noun for the feeling you get when your blissful experience in nature is disrupted by the recognition that you’re having an adverse impact on it simply by being there.

Morbique, an adjective describing the morbid desire to travel places before they are radically altered by climate change.

I met the faux bureaucrats in Paris at an arts center a few miles from the ice and signed up to consult with them on a word. While I waited for my appointment, I listened to the woman ahead of me describe a time she’d walked into marshland and heard the music of grasses and felt like she was inside of the sound, which made her feel small, in a good way, and full of awe. What would be the word for that, she wondered.

‘Saudade’ is the sweetness that exists alongside the pain of missing what’s gone or longing for what’s desired.

Something like “melisma,” she kept saying, but also something like “minute.” Melisma, from the Greek for “melody,” is a group of notes sung to one syllable of text, as in Gregorian chants. Minute, from the Latin minutus for “made small.”

Minu-melisma?

I wanted a word for my duets with other species and natural elements.

“What does it feel like when you’re doing the dance?” asked Heidi, the linguistical bureaucrat.

“Like joy,” I said. “An acknowledgement of cobelonging on the planet with another. In silence. In movement.”

“You witness them and they witness you?” Heidi asked.

“Yes,” I said. “And for those moments, we make something together.”

***

When I delivered the venomous snake to the vivarium in Quito, I saw on display several species of boas, corals, and vipers, but no equis. The attendant gladly accepted my donation. The snake hadn’t moved, I told her. Was he starving?

She said he was probably just stunned from the journey, that they can go three to four months without eating.

I asked what they would do with the snake.

She told me it would be used for studies and possibly for mating. Then she handed me a receipt with a tracking number, in case I wanted to follow up.

I did. Two years later, still living in Ecuador, I called the vivarium. A herpetologist told me my equis was alive and well. A female, she was the subject of “systematic studies,” and was not on display for the public.

This gave me pause. She’d escaped the deadly swipe of a machete only to land in captivity. Had that been a fair trade?

***

Over the past few decades, scientists, conservationists, and the Mexican government have made valiant efforts to save the vaquita. These include a $30 million buyback program that compensates fishermen for turning in their permits and equipment, the development of alternative net technologies, and a temporary ban on gillnet fishing in the Gulf. But none of that has stopped the illegal poaching of totoaba or the deaths of vaquitas.

In the fall of 2017, a few weeks before my trip to the Gulf, scientists and conservationists made the hard call to abandon a captive breeding program, possibly the last hope for keeping the species alive. While they’d managed to catch one porpoise, the stress of captivity was too much for the animal, so they released it. A second porpoise died in the process of capture.

At the time of this writing, scientists estimate that only 12 vaquitas are left.

I don’t know how they know this, but the news of it hits me like a gut punch, tightens like a chokehold. I lose air.

If I were an artist with a big name and a big budget, I might imagine a performance: those 12 vaquitas swimming together, in a clock-like circle, somehow visible to the world.

***

The estates and families of famous choreographers are always trying to figure out how to preserve the artists’ work after they’ve died. Some choreographers devise their own methods of writing down their dances, but there is no universal notation system.

A dance is a happening.

Notations of 19th-century formal court dances focused on footwork and floor patterns, but often failed to capture arm movements. In the 1920s, Rudolf Laban created “Labanotation” to capture how the whole body should move. I know one choreographer who learned this notation as part of her graduate studies, but she never uses it.

These days the way to remember a dance is to make a video, which you can now do with your phone or computer. Such a record is only ever an after-the-fact approximation though. No flat screen can ever quite capture the way a body carves space, the way breath heaves, the way muscle articulates against bone. No video can ever really capture the way a live performance feels.

This is the thorn of dance.

Nearly a year after I danced with the ice in the Place du Pantheón, I learned from an article in the New Yorker that Olafur Elliason, the artist who’d put the ice there, had invited a number of dancers to improvise with it, including a prima ballerina from the Paris Opera Ballet and the Danish man I’d danced with.

The Dane, Steen Koerner, was quoted in the article: “All of the sounds of the ice — stop-stop-stop, melt-melt-melt, crack-crack-crack — can be transferred to the body.”

Elliason had invited the dancers and had them filmed because he wanted the project about disappearing ice to last beyond Paris. He said, “Watching the dance activates the movement-based activity in your brain. I’m trying to propose that there is a link between translating an idea into doing. A work of art is always an idea on a journey to become a body. The dance is really about hosting that opportunity, to translate what we think about into what we do.”

***

When I got home from the beach, I watched a video of the vaquita. I wanted to know what it looked like in the water, in motion.

Vaquitas are elusive, solitary. The video showed the animal from a distance, a small dorsal fin slicing through the surface of the water.

A few days later a video of a dying polar bear showed up on my Instagram feed. The film crew had encountered the bear on an iceless field in the Arctic, the post said. They couldn’t know for sure why the bear was dying, but they assumed it was starving. I hurried past.

But then I remembered the Buddhist notion of bearing witness to suffering, the practice of tonglen, which is to breathe in pain and breathe out ease. So I scrolled back up and watched as the emaciated polar bear’s gigantic paws moved over the wet gravel, bones protruding with each step, and did my best to offer some respirational kindness.

When a mosaic-tailed rat living on an island in the Pacific not far from Australia went extinct, I cried for a day. I had never heard of the Bramble Cay melomys before, but the news of its end lanced me open.

As a girl I always worried about the horses on TV in racing or shoot-out scenes. But these dying animals in the wild feel like assaults to my body. Something goes missing inside me. The feeling is sharper than saudade. It is a mix of misanthropy (from the Greek: a dislike of humankind) and an overwhelming tenderness for an animal I may not have even known.

***

I have known fishermen and admired their large hands, their muscular and calloused fingers. The reeling in of catch is its own kind of choreography.

One woman I know spent a season fishing for salmon in Bristol Bay, off Southwest Alaska. The work was brutal, she said, and the sea was full of merciless, greedy men. They would race toward a concentration of fish and slam into each other’s boats if necessary. Salmon as currency.

Every day this woman and her deckmate would haul in the fish and bash them over the head. She made her deckmate look her in the eye. Again and again, she’d say to him, “Feel this. Don’t forget to feel this.”

***

A friend suggests a word for my interspecific duets. Dualessence, he says. Or, more simply, duessence.

It’s a pretty word, I think.

Or maybe bioharmonessence, which feels more expansive — dueting with a whole landscape of life.

***

When improvising dance compositions, which I’ve been doing for many years with other dancers and musicians, a sense of aliveness comes from not knowing. No plan, no notation, no score, no premeditation. No one knows what will happen. A piece begins, unfolds, then ends.

Sometimes this happens beautifully and sometimes it is a shit mess. Sometimes what is beautiful for one person is a shit mess for another. Often in this practice, I have to wrestle my inner director. Maybe because I’m an Aries or maybe because of Vivian Gornick, I often want a piece to “say something” other than what it is saying or not saying and sooner than it’s ready to. Which is to say, I want coherence.

But a dance can get tangled in an agenda. Pressing too hard for coherence can wreck a thing. Perhaps I am demonstrating this. Perhaps the atoms that make up these words aren’t sticking around but flying off instead towards some sparse poem somewhere.

The thorn of being alive is impermanence…But when one species precipitates the ending of another it feels like a false ending.

“Make light sense of it,” my improviser friend Katherine says, by way of John Cage. Which is to say: Don’t fucking take over and direct it. This is not only your dance.

***

The average lifespan of a vaquita is about 20 years. The average lifespan of a totaba is 15 years. The average lifespan of a human being is 79 years. In Monaco, you might live to 89, but in Chad, only to 50.

The thorn of being alive is impermanence. We will happen and then we will stop happening.

But when one species precipitates the ending of another it feels like a false ending. Like someone forcing an outcome, preventing a thing from becoming, continuing, unfolding, and ending on its own. Right now we are living in the era of human-induced endings.

I don’t know how to breathe with this.

***

I have started making duets with my dog. I have two, but one is cagey and shy. The other is eager. When I lower my body, he will rise from his side and raise a paw. When I lift an arm, he’ll slide back down to the floor and roll on his back, belly upward and vulnerable. I will follow for a moment of unison. I know he wants affection, is asking me to stop and pet him. Sometimes I do, but sometimes I let the dance continue. Indeed these duets are less about knowing and more about affection. Two beings turning, sharing, being-with, loving.

***

Does naming something make it easier to understand?

Animals create coherence. Think: nests, anthills, spider webs. But they just make these things then use them. They don’t name them.

Maybe to make sense of something is simply to use one’s senses to know something about it. I touched, smelled, tasted, looked at, and listened to the ice in the Place du Pantheón.

(I realize that all of those acts might be considered morbique.)

All of the sounds can be transferred to the body.

***

Because it was the off-season in Puerto Peñasco, the beach where we stayed was mostly empty of other people. Still, vendors wandered from house to house selling straw hats, jewelry, and mangos sliced open to look like flowers. One man came by with a thick stack of blankets folded over his shoulder. “From Oaxaca,” he said about the blankets.

I pointed to a red blanket and to get to it, he had to remove six others, unfolding each one for me to view. I liked the blue fish woven into the red.

I asked him if was hard to make ends meet in the off-season, and he said yes but that he was happy for honest work, which can be hard to come by since the drug cartels have taken over. He looked down the beach when he said that. More money, he said, but not worth it.

Had he been a fisherman, he might have been tempted by a different illegal market. A single totoaba swim bladder will sell for up to $100,000 in China. Aquatic cocaine, some call it. Vaquitas are a horribly expensive bycatch.

I bought the red blanket with the blue fish, and because shopping can be contagious, two of my friends bought blankets too. The next day, we bought three straw hats from another vendor.

Amy also wanted to buy a mug for her sister, so at the end of our stay we stopped in the port town, the seaside tourist strip Vivian found so irritating and incoherent. Julius admitted to me that he’d never actually shopped in the tourist district before, said he generally avoids them. I understood the embargo. The prices are inflated and the stuff can be cheesy and too much of any one thing is always a little gross.

But since the house we rented is owned by a white guy in Phoenix and because we’d brought with us from Tucson a cooler full of food, I told him that not spending money locally was its own kind of ugly poaching.

Vaquitas are solitary animals and generally swim alone, except when parenting a calf. Mostly they’re hard to spot because there are so few of them left.

Amy bought a mug, then stopped at a display of huaraches. A woman brought out pair after pair for her to try on. She chose the rainbow-colored ones. “Are they too garish?”

“They’re perfect,” I said. “No one in Portland will have them.”

As we got in the truck and headed north for the border, Julius said, “I get it now. I understand why we should buy things.”

One person’s tchotchkes are another person’s livelihood.

***

A dance is a happening.

A stone is a happening.

An iceberg is a happening.

The totoaba is a happening.

You are a happening.

I am a happening.

The vaquita is a happening.

The vaquita happened.

***

The Paris climate agreement was negotiated over a period of 13 days in December 2015 by representatives of 196 parties and adopted by consensus. The countries that signed on agree to do their part to limit the increase in global average temperature to 1.5º Celsius to mitigate the risks and impacts of climate change. In 2020, under a decision by President Donald Trump, the United States will effectively withdraw from the agreement.

The average lifespan of an iceberg is three to six years, from the time it calves from a glacier until it melts into the ocean. Icebergs that enter warmer waters die sooner. Icebergs lucky enough to stay in cold waters can live up to 50 years. The glacial ice that makes up an iceberg can be over 15,000 years old.

Every day, the ice in the Place du Pantheón got smaller. Someone placed a jar beneath the edge of one of them, and as the ice melted, the drops made a song. I got down on my belly to look and listen.

It was the clearest water I’d ever seen. Distant water. Near water. Saudade water.

***

Spotting a vaquita is not easy. They are small and stay below the surface, rarely playing or splashing. Unlike dolphins and sea lions, vaquitas are solitary animals and generally swim alone, except when parenting a calf. Mostly they’re hard to spot because there are so few of them left.

What does it feel like to be the last of your kind?

A thing is a thing as long as the atoms are keeping it together. And then, at some point, it stops being that thing. This is a complicated duet of beauty and impermanence. This is not a resignation. This is breathing in pain and breathing out ease.

The only way to hold the vaquita now is stiffly, and to breathe it softly into the void, that perfect darkness.

The silence under the sea must be its own minu-melisma.

Two fishermen in Bristol Bay haul up the salmon and whack them on the heads to kill them.

One fisherman in the Gulf of California will haul up the very last vaquita, already dead in the gillnet.

Feel this.

* * *

Kimi Eisele is a writer, performer, and visual artist in Tucson, AZ. Her novel, The Lightest Object in the Universe, will be published in July 2019 by Algonquin Books.

Editor: Sari Botton