I was waiting for the bus when my friend Jacki waved me over. We talked for a bit, me afraid I’d missed the bus; she sweeping the sidewalk, keeping busy on a slow day at work. I was thinking of going home defeated by Hawaii’s bus system. She said it wouldn’t be a defeat. Who knows what the day will bring? Perhaps I’ll go home and write the next great story.

We got to talking about writing. She suggested I take the bus around the island and write about all the interesting characters I bump into–like that one crazy guy who walks around with a baby doll and a blanket. I said that to do so and make it interesting I’d have to interview him, get inside his head and see what makes him tick. She said no, just watch him and write about it.

I bid her adieu and started walking home when I caught the bus bouncing up the road in the distance. I hadn’t missed it; it was just really late. I hopped on and went about my day uneventfully.

The ride back was far more interesting. Across the isle sat a mother with a baby on her lap and her adolescent daughter to her right. In front of her two middle school girls fidgeted with their phones. Somehow they got to talking with the mother. Turns out  mom is from Alaska and the two girls, Hawaiians, have an uncle moving there. They talked about that and they talked about the ocean. Mom was a surfer but she was always afraid of sharks. “I swam with ten sharks today. Black tip and white tip,” the smaller of the two middle school girls told her nonchalantly.

“You did?” the mom asked.

The girl told her where she went to school, that it was after school, and that her and her sister and some friends decided to go swimming. They were jumping off a pylon where a tiger shark lived, just underneath. At some point they were surrounded by sharks because it’s whale season and sharks are following the whales. But it’s no big deal because she isn’t afraid of sharks. At all. The mother said she would have been scared out of her mind but the girl said, “We use them for guidance.”

“Oh, I see. Like a spiritual thing?” the mother asked.

“Yes. The shark is our guardian. They were there to protect us,” the girl said.  She went on to tell the woman that not long ago her sister was playing in the ocean and some sharks began circling her. But they didn’t harm her because “They’re there for us.” She intimated that sharks would never hurt her or her family because they’re not afraid and they have a different relationship with them than most people. She wasn’t bragging, just explaining.

And I’ve heard this before. Numerous times in different ways–but never from a child. Hawaiians have a completely different relationship with sharks than those of us who grew up watching “Jaws.” Relationship with, not view of. A social anthropologist would say that Hawaiians hold different beliefs about sharks–but to leave it at that is to deny the relationship. The relationship informs the beliefs, not the other way around. And this is one of the blind spots of the Western mind, a holdover from colonization. Colonization demands that belief or prejudice comes first to justify what comes second. You don’t “conquer” equals. You make them primitives or barbarians or savages in your mind. You make them animals and you make animals less than that.

When we erect hierarchies of being like that and place ourselves at the top, we look down to judge, don’t we? All looking becomes a top-down view even with the best intentions. Because we don’t see equals we cannot take Hawaiians at their word that they have such a relationship with sharks–unless there’s some scientific way to verify that sharks pick up on and respond to the lack of fear in the human by way of heart beat or magnetic resonance, scent, whatever material process it is. Until we have that, we cannot fathom that such stories are anything more than stories. And with that, we turn the “real” story into one of cold biochemistry.

But here’s the thing: I challenge any meat eater to spend time with fish. Or chicken. Or cows. Or any of the animals you eat. Spend a lot of time with them, getting to know them, playing with them–not just feeding them but communing with them in whatever way you can, like a friend. Do that for a while and then tell me that you don’t feel it necessary to thank them when you eat their kind. You have to because they’re no longer just “food.” Yes, even fish are sensitive, emotive beings when you’re eyeball to eyeball. It’s not because you’re feeding them or providing them protection from big fish. It’s because they like you. They see you as an equal. And you know something? You’ll see them as an equal, too. Not that we think alike or act alike, necessarily, but there is something exactly the same in all living things–in all things, period–and that something is how we connect. That connection leads to thankfulness and this is the beginning of the natural order of things.

Again, you don’t have to take my word for that. Go be with nature and see for yourself. That’s science. It’s also how things are regardless of science.

I haven’t encountered any sharks yet. I may never. I know plenty of people who have lived here their entire lives and never encountered one. But if I do, I will not be scared. I will be understanding no matter what its reaction is to me in that moment. Something tells me it won’t attack me simply because I’m not Hawaiian. That special trait is ours and ours alone.

Now, where’s that crazy guy with the baby doll? And what makes him crazier than people communing with sharks? Or people who don’t believe that’s possible? Or the guy listening to strangers on a bus?


10 thoughts on “Aumakua

  1. I appreciate all those thoughts about animals and our relationship to them. I know that in my case, my own consciousness about my relationship to the natural world, all things _not me_ has changed and grown over the years. For example, from once being a dog breeder who had a view of dogs rather like that of a livestock breeder, I no longer can even use the phrase “I own two dogs.” I don’t _own_ them. We exist in the same space and nurture each other equally. (Well, I take that back, since I get stuck with all the bills) Nearly equal, then. But my cautionary note about the girls’ very lovely perception of swimming with sharks… Werner Herzog’s ‘Grizzly Man.’ The crunchy granola young man who felt he was existing in the same space as the grizzlies, that they were all one–well, one day they ate him. Nature is still red in tooth and claw, if we’re to believe the poet and Herzog.

    • There’s still a case to be made for individuality and even animals having a bad day. Maybe some are bullies.

      But in “Grizzly Man” it was pretty clear that the bear who ate him was most likely that hungry stranger to the land wandering through, whom he filmed at the end.

      I’d also ask, What is a shark protecting you from? Other sharks?

      And add that I don’t think fearlessness alone cuts it. You have to want to have a different relationship with them than fearless observer and observed. Not so different than people in a sense.

    • I’ve been thinking about the not-equal-because-of-bills quip. I know it’s a joke but it dawned on me that you only pay the bills because of the structures we’ve created. Your dogs have no choice but to let you do all the work–they’re out of nature. But if you were part of the pack in Central Park, they’d be feeding you. Rats and strays, sure…but feeding you.

  2. Yeah, it was a joke–but one that smarts. It’s $1,000 to get both dogs’ teeth cleaned, for example. It’s a surgical procedure, anesthesia and all. For toy breeds, that comes with the slightly distorted, man-made nature of the breed. Teeth not easily cleaned. If they were part of a pack in Central Park, they’d get gum disease and die early.

    Then where would my charred rat and French Roast be on a Sunday morn?

    More seriously, it is true that humans have set the terms of the power structure between ourselves and Nature in a million ways. We wanted to be (sorry) top dog. So, to cite the example at hand, we bred tiny, defenseless, city-ready dogs that are entirely dependent on US. No chance that Becket and Lita, both Papillons, are ever going to walk out of the house one day, seeking their own lives separate from me. They were designed that way.

    Not saying that’s an optimal relationship to Nature. But I’d argue that at least I have a very close relationship with some part of the animal world and that makes me a much better human than I’d be without that relationship and awareness of ‘the Other.’

  3. this has recently touched me in a couple of ways. a bit of background, i was born and live in southeast louisiana, just southeast of new orleans and am of isleno descent. islenos came to louisiana in 1778 when la. was owned by spain and are from the canary islands. the settlers were somewhat geographically isolated and maintained their cultural traditions to a degree. in any event they were primarily trappers, hunters, farmers and fishermen and serviced the city of new orleans with their crops and catch. my grandfather was a trapper and market hunter. fishing and hunting are two of my own favorite pasttimes. that being said, it has become increasingly difficult for me to continue in these pursuits. i truly enjoy everything about hunting up until the kill, although without pulling the trigger the entire pursuit seems pointless. also, i often find myself apologizing to the fish as i take them off the hook and place them in the icechest.
    i have recently gotten a few chickens as fresh eggs are so much better than store bought, and since our little weather event in ’05 i have had trouble securing them. the girls (what we call our hens) each have different personalities and the idea of chopping their little heads off is definitely not on the table, so to speak. so another animal has been eliminated from the menu. i have seriously considered going vegan, but for me peta mite stand for people eating tasty animals. they do taste good. they are also a good source of protein. what i have in the past objected to was the mass production and the use of hormones and the like to increase production and profit. now that i have gotten to know a few chickens, the idea of the mass killing of this species is repugnant.
    while the vegan thing remains an option, i remember hearing of a study which seemed to indicate that vegetables had a certain awareness of their surroundings. i seem to recall plants reacting to violence in a negative manner, and we have all heard about plants responding to being spoken to and having soothing music played in their presence,,,, so where does it end???

    • I don’t think it does end. Life is formless awareness being. By definition it has to be being something. What is it being? All things. So all things are consciousness and express “aliveness” to varying degrees. I don’t know if you’re familiar with my life story but I had a firsthand experience of exactly this.

      But, if that leaves a New Age poop taste in your mouth, pretend I never wrote it and we’ll stick with this: perhaps the conscious/feeling part of plants exists in its roots They do shed their leaves after all.

      But okay, if you’re not buying that then just stick with the core of this little essay: there is guilt in the callous mass slaughter and taking of “food.” There is thankfulness in accepting only what you need from other beings who find themselves in the same circumstance as you – everyone gotta eat!

      • i actually know absolutely nothing about u. although i did watch ur trailer earlier today, u r for me a true tabula rasa. so as of now i am able to project onto u what i need to at this time. like i said yesterday, i think, i got here by way of my reaction to the romanek vid. that juxtaposed with my own reaction to what i termed the “angry ex” vid has me experiencing some major seismic shifts in my own self perception. i am not one who tries to offend people and seeing that ms. rainey at least visits here occasionally i would like to say that i mean no offense. i am just being honest in terms of my initial reaction to the video. it has me doing some major personal reevaluations and for that i am actually truly grateful. i have had no idea of how much of a fan i had become. i have had the apparently false notion that i am an objective observer, but that may indeed not be the case. it is interesting to me to see how invested i have become, particularly in view of the fact that i have absolutely no connection to these people in any way. having one’s paradigm shaken can be very instructive and i hope that i am mature and secure enough to use this experience in a positive manner and make sense of my world in a more enlightened manner. if not i can always just hold my breath until it all goes away

  4. I’m not offended–just grateful that you put the canned, gut-level reaction in quotation marks. That suggests you might have further thinking to do on the subject. The UFO phenomenon, to me, is about the strangest thing I ever observed: strange, but still quite mysterious. My vote goes toward the study of the experiences in a way that lets us truly know more about what’s really going on.

    I like the discussion about plants, too. People might want to check out an article by Michael Pollan in the New Yorker Magazine, Dec. 23, 2013. “The Intelligent Plant.” One group of scientists are looking at “the neurobiology” of plants, which kind of implies our green friends have a much higher level of consciousness than we ever credit them with.

  5. thanx for referring me to that article. amazingly the new yorker in question was sitting about ten feet from me on my coffee table. (howze dat for synchronicity??) i first read/heard about plants having awareness some time back, although the tree to the head i took while on the roof during hurricane katrina makes pinning down dates nearly impossible, but i am pretty sure that the plant murder story was the same that i read some time ago. i am currently, and have always been really, fairly interested in the nature, boundaries and constraints of reality. i told my girl the other day that i think i am in love with terrence mckenna and she told me that she was worried about me.

  6. Thanks for sharing this, Jeremy. I admit to being dismissive of non-mammas like birds and fish. After I finished reading your story, I flashed on a memory of a seagull that my boyfriend at the time noticed standing in the middle of a busy San Francisco street. The BF went over to the gull, stopping cars and noticed it had a fishing line hanging from its mouth. The BF sort of shepherded it to the sidewalk and then to the front of our building. We called Animal Services (who showed up 4 hours later…but they took him to a bird rescue where they got the fish-hook out of his belly). Just to jump to the happy ending. Anyway, my point was that even though this was a “wild bird” he just sat there with us, through those 4 hours, waiting. Like he somehow knew it was all going to turn out all right. He was a lot smarter than the 3 people who walked by and asked us if the seagull was our pet.

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