As it glides past you in the water giving you a quick glance with its silvery cat eye, the tip of its dorsal fin barely splitting the skin of the surface leaving a trail that quickly vanishes as it too vanishes into the encompassing blue, do you think to yourself ‘there goes a story’?
I do. I think of a 450 million year old story formed in the deep time of the Silurian period. It is a shark story. But, what is a shark story? It’s a story that started 449, 800,000 years before modern Homo sapiens journeyed out of Africa 200,000 years ago in the Pleistocene and then the Holocene but it may well end with us, in our names, at our hands in the Anthropocene.
So, if this is the story, who is telling it? Is it co-constructed or is any story just a story of us or better still and more accurately, is any story of us just a shark story? We have never been on Earth without them. As Donna Haraway would ask, who crafted your eyes to read it and my hands to write it? Whose story is this really, theirs, mine or ours? There is no my story, no your story without sharks – there is only our story. A shark story can only ever be a become together (Haraway, 2008) story just like a snail story, a whale story and a crow story because we are one of the latest arrivals to the party and we have never known the party without them. But how to tell this, our story? Is it told through personal experience and anecdotes in the watery field? Is told through paleontological reflections of evolution? Is it told from the perspective of fishers or conservationists or both? Is it told through ethographical or ethnographical methods? Is it told from the shark’s perspective – through observations of its body movements, comportment, proximity and eye contact that I/we are still trying to decipher? Is it told from a fanciful shark POV giving it human voice as in a child’s story?
Whose company am I keeping here in this telling? I am with Haas and Cousteau? No, far too masculine, far too much spear fishing and fish killing in a boy’s own adventure story and boy’s own adventure stories are stories of culture trumping nature, human dominance over the environment, man vs nature.
This story of mine washes around with the other wet women whose work I admire, so perhaps I am keeping company with the incomparable Rachel Carson, or maybe Dr. Eugenie Clark, Valerie Taylor or Dr. Sylvia Earle? Maybe it’s closer to Madison Stewart ‘Sharkgirl’. But these stories have already been told. Am I staying with Haraway’s trouble and spending time with the shark fishers, shark finners and shark fin soup eaters? No, far too distressing, crazy making and enraging. Am I spending time with the shark callers of PNG? No, they are shark killers too, reduced to shark killing for a tourism spectacle in the tired old man vs nature story (is it just me, or is anyone else getting really bored with this story?). Am I spending time with the shark callers of the Solomon Islanders who were shark worshippers? No, because I’ve been there/done that, they’re all dead and gone and the practice went with them. Am I with Val Plumwood – yes as I agree with her on almost everything I understand her to mean but the ideas seem distant and difficult to hitch onto a living/moving shark and are far from the immediate our story time of now. Am I with Patrick Nason, yes, sort of, closer as we share admiration for the same shark loving biologists Hammerschlag and Gallagher but not quite as I am not as interested in the people as much as I am in the sharks. Am I a frustrated marine biologist? Perhaps. Am I an anthropologist? No because I am not concerned about the people involved in the shark stories. Time and again I am told that I need to be concerned about the livelihoods of the fishers and the peoples and the cultures involved in oceanic happenings but I am not concerned or interested – that can be someone else’s job – it’s not mine (harsh I know but true for me at this point in time and I have to stay true to my own story). I am interested in the sharks. I am much more interested in a shark’s potential to continue to live than a fisher’s potential to continue to be able to catch it. Am I with Leigh Gibbs? No, much as I like what she is attempting, these are 2nd and even 3rd hand ideas about ideas about sharks – and for me, there cannot be a shark story if you have never even seen a shark let alone not made eye contact with one, not negotiated space with one or not even fed one. So, this story is proving to be elusive as I am finding it difficult to tell a pro-shark story in the field of humanities (I think the root word human in the title should have given me a strong clue that this was going to be a hard ask of me). The whole process is having the feeling of trying to nail jelly to the wall – an impossible task.
As a storytelling feminist, activist, shark-loving, ocean-using, non fish-eating woman from Canada now living in Australia I have gone around in circles for years trying to tell this story. So far I have told it in published poems and short stories but I wanted to tell something bigger, bolder, a girl’s own adventure story of 20 + years of sharing space with sharks around the world. I wanted my story to be a story that could make a difference – one that had a stamp of academic approval and one that could affect change. I am slowly coming to the conclusion that this story is one that cannot exist for me in this form. I am back to where I started many years ago writing shark stories and back to 2 ½ years ago writing a PhD shark story that will never be published in this form.
I am coming to terms with the fact that this is ok, because this in itself is a story. It’s a story of trial and error. It’s also a story of victory (getting into the program and working with a supervisor who has exposed me to a whole new world) and it’s a story of defeat (realising the theory is proving to be difficult and too abstracting for me from the ‘now’ of the anthropocenic shark story I am trying to tell).
And so, here I am, again at the beginning, a blank piece of paper in front of me, as endless and vast as the ocean, with a story hidden inside of it – an elusive story like the shark swimming past, its quick glance burning itself into me, branding me, leaving me with a yearning to tell our story.