Depth. Insight. Power. These are the words that come to mind while you read Sightings, a moving account of humanity’s relationship with grey whales by nature writer and journalist Brenda Peterson with Chichasaw poet Linda Hogan. Published by National Geographic, this book is an eye-opening observation of how people can learn to respect their roots, celebrate and protect whales, and the shortcomings and celebrations along the way.
“Writing this book in two voices — that of an American Indian woman and a nature writer — we hope to invite the reader to consider another culture, which happens to be nonhuman,” the authors write. “Because we in the 21st century now face many difficult decisions about the futures of both human and animal cultures, this book is a passionate dialogue about both Native and animal rights.”
Linda Hogan writes from the perspective of an American Indian woman. Her poetic language is strong and captivating, drawing the reader in with bright sensory descriptions and vivid storytelling. I enjoyed Hogan’s chapters in the book for her profound observations of the tribes she discusses, and their struggle to both embrace and reconcile with the whaling history celebrated in their culture. I don’t want to spoil the book by using specific examples because this one to consider reading, but the way Hogan tells her parts of the story effectively balances Brenda Peterson’s more scientific voice. The women tell the story of the grey whale together, and the result is a powerful account of a difficult issue — should indigenous people embrace their traditions of whaling in the 21st century? And how should they reconcile with killing whales if they are to celebrate this aspect of their past? Linda Hogan shows both sides of the issue, capturing the emotional turmoil of tribe elders without seeming biased towards one directions or another. She does exactly what a writer should do, introducing her reader to all sides of the issue and showing the circumstances as they area.
On the subject of modern-day whaling I encourage you to check out this photo diary of a whale hunt featured in Hakai, a visual illustration of a people who hunt whales to provide for their village. It really complicates the issue and is both timely in our current lives and still relevant to Sightings, which was published back in 2002. Although it’s been over a decade since the publication of Sightings, society is still struggling to address the modern-day whaling, the problems that arise, and the rights that indigenous people should have in embracing their culture and traditions.
Brenda Peterson, a nature writer, provides more of the natural history and science side of the story told in Sightings. Her storytelling is similar in some ways to Hogan’s, as she also does well to evoke the reader’s emotions, but her approach comes across more grounded and less abstract. Because of this, the writers balance each other out as the chapters switch back and forth between their voices. Personally, I enjoyed this novel approach because it keeps the story propelling forward and in constant momentum. In fact, if I had more time on my hands I would have finished this book very quickly — the chapters are short, the language is simple and easy to comprehend, and the writers are excellent at reeling you in. With such vivid storytelling, Sightings can be difficult to put down when you’re invested in an exciting scene, and Peterson is very good at investing her readers. Her writing is welcoming and conversational, enough so that you may not realize you’re learning about history and science as you read. She is careful not to bias her reader, but she also emphasizes her own feelings and emotions in order to give the story its characteristic depth.
Sightings is an insightful look into the mysterious history and life of grey whales. It’s both a pleasure to read and a difficult subject to grapple with. You may feel as I did, sometimes torn between the desire for humans to interact with and learn from whales, but afraid that teaching whales to be comfortable with human interaction will only make illegal whaling easier. And what about the rights of tribes who wish to return to traditional whaling, if only for celebrations? The authors approach this complex topic from all angles, ultimately showing readers the allure of the grey whale and how we should make sense of our own relationship with these majestic animals. By the end of the book, you will want to join Peterson and Hogan on one of their whale-watching adventures and see a grey whale with your own eyes. Sightings is an enchanting, and sometimes challenging, look not only at grey whales, but at ourselves as humans responsible for the protection of the ocean and its incredible and diverse life.