the low hum

The Whale in the Room

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg

The Low Hum is a column tuned to the frequency of climate-change anxiety that underpins every aspect of our lives.

We drive eight hours south for a family vacation in Death Valley. We go in March — my husband, our 3-year-old, and our 5-month-old baby — when it is around 90 degrees at Furnace Creek. I am theoretically happy to be there but my hormones are a mess and I am not sleeping. When the sun comes over the mountains and shines on the tent, I feel panicked, a short-circuit caused by the proximity of the baby to the sun.

We drive around the park, the windows closed, the air-conditioning running. Close to the campsite is a resort where there is a pool offering day passes. We walk to this pool through a vast field of RVs running generators, the air scented with grilled meat. There is a golf course covered with green grass.

At night, we put the children to bed in the tent and light a fire, suddenly welcome in the cool dark air. I read an article about the late environmentalist Rachel Carson in a magazine. Carson was famous for warning the world about DDT, but first she was a marine biologist.

I learn from the article that the water in the Atlantic is so warm that no right whales have given birth to any calves this year. I do not know anything about right whales, but my eyes mist over thinking about calfless whale mothers, until a bat swoops down and brushes against my head, and then I begin to worry about whether the bat has bitten me with microscopic teeth. My husband, who does not know about the whales, is patient while I enter a quiet, diffuse hysteria about this. On the drive home, I call the Department of Health. By Mono Lake, I have allowed myself to accept that I have not contracted rabies from theoretical, imperceptible contact with a bat’s tiny teeth.

We return home and resume a years-long waffling about whether we can afford to stay in the city where we live. By the next spring, we have decided that we cannot, and my husband gets a new job in another state. We buy a house in our new city that has sat on the market for a year, slowly reducing in price while its owner stalwartly mows and waters the lawn. We immediately cover his green grass with cardboard and wood chips to kill it. I picture filling the space with trees and plants, which will absorb carbon in whatever way they are supposed do that. It is a novel sensation to do what we like. “I’m planning to die in this house,” I tell my husband.

Our new city is allegedly overdue for an earthquake of cataclysmic proportions. It is my policy to be matter-of-fact about this with my older child, who is now almost 5, her sister almost 2. Before we move, I lie with the older one in her lofted bed underneath an Ikea canopy designed to look like a castle and I tell her about what the earthquake might feel like. I tell her it could last six or seven minutes, which will feel like a very long time. I tell her it is not very long in the scheme of things. I tell her that likely the fear will be the worst part. I tell her it will be scary but it will end. She absorbs this information with what I choose to interpret as equanimity. My upbringing was full of reticence around certain topics, and I imagine that by naming the topics, they will cease to be problems. Absurdly, I feel very secure whenever I lie under the Ikea canopy and talk about these catastrophic scenarios.

My understanding of the new city, where I have spent very little time, is that it rains all the time, a cool gray city. The real-estate agent tells us that there are more hot days every year and that houses need air-conditioning where previously they didn’t. Our friends, who have also moved to this city, tell us they slept in the basement briefly during the previous summer. The house we buy has central air, installed by the owner a year or two before.

We move into the house in August. In the morning, when I walk my children to day care and summer camp, it is cool, almost chilly. But the heat increases throughout the day, peaking at 4:30, when we walk back from summer camp. I am in a period of what I can now see as extreme agitation caused by moving. I push the stroller up a hill in the sun saying, “Why the fuck is it so hot?,” while my older child rides in empathetic silence. The baby sweats in her carrier. I am nevertheless opposed to turning on the air-conditioning. We should not need air-conditioning in the cool gray city, I insist. In any case, the air-conditioning does nothing upstairs, where we swelter in our beds at night.

The previous owners left things all over the house. There are plastic gallon bottles of what I think is emergency water in the basement. The basement is a low, clammy space, unfinished and full of ancient cement and plaster. It is very cool. Upstairs, in a stifling place under the eaves, we find a cache of Christmas wrapping paper and three paperbacks. One of these is called Whales of the World. It is from 1987 and is, as described in the title, full of photographs and facts about whales. My older daughter immediately seizes upon this book and demands I read it to her.

The book is written with a flat affect and almost zero narrative embellishments. The whales are the embellishments. “Right whales were named by early whalers who thought they were the right whales to hunt,” I read to her. “They are very slow-moving and easy to kill. They float when they are dead.” I have to will my throat to open so I can get through the page.

I am matter-of-fact when we come to the end of the book with its gentle, anachronistic admonishments about conservation. “You know,” I tell my daughter. “This book is old, and unfortunately we don’t have some of these whales anymore. Or won’t soon.” I say that the planet is getting too warm; the ocean is getting too warm. I think what a gift it would be to learn all this early, not later in life, when the idea of an ocean with no whales and no fish at all is so perverse that it makes your throat close to think of it. “People have made a lot of bad choices,” I say. “Although we didn’t really do it on purpose.” I have read that individual actions become meaningless at this scale of problem, but this does not jibe with what I am told about parenting. “We have to make better choices,” I say feebly. She is gravely understanding. We watch Free Willy on Netflix, another artifact.

Her sister turns 2 and begins to talk and pick her own books. We continue to read the whale book even though it is full of things that are no longer true about whales and how they live. We read the whale book and then we lie under the Ikea canopy. When we read the whale book, I am young again and I am comforted. In the whale book, there is still time to change. In the real world, I’m not sure. What shall I tell these girls? We will live how we can. We will remember the ocean. We will descend to the basement. We will pray for cool weather. It will be scary but it will end. It will be scary and it will end.

The Whale in the Room