There were two different worlds, the natural sciences and everyone else. At least that’s what it seemed like when I was in college more than half a century ago. The dean organized “Two Worlds” seminars to try to bring us together, but the natural scientists distained those of us in the “soft sciences” sociology, psychology, anthropology, economics and political science. Some of the scientists even viewed the humanities and arts as a waste of time while arts types viewed science majors as rock counters (or worse adders of atomic numbers.) That’s where I came from and if I didn’t live in Sitka I doubt I would have ever attended a science symposium.
But I do live here and when something happens in town, especially as November closes in, you go. I’ve been going to the Sitka Whale Fest for years and have never regretted it.
The core of Whale Fest is a scientific symposium, but that’s just the core. The symposium is leavened with traditional Native Alaskan knowledge, storytelling, music, art and socializing.
The presenters are picked for their ability to explain scientific concepts to lay people like me. They marry traditional knowledge with science and a desire to use the arts to help explain our amazing ocean systems to scientific luddites like me. For instance the presenter on lampreys opened with a lamprey rap.
The walrus is an amazingly adaptable beast. It has survived climate swings and the fossil evidence shows it living in warmer and colder climates. The scientific evidence in enlivened with stories of the walrus in traditional northern cultures (both Native and Finnish) and in literature.
Scientific knowledge of bowhead whales is enriched by Inupiaq knowledge gained by millennia of hunting and living with the animals. It is in both the interests of science and culture to learn as much about these giants as possible. And the presentation on zombie crabs was mind blowing, especially for the crab, which has its mind taken over by a tiny barnacle and does the barnacle’s bidding.
The core of the festival is science but it is presented in an environment that includes maritime themed variety show, a concert of sea shanties, kid’s concert, and maritime themed art.
There is a market selling maritime themed goods and goods from the sea (like sea salt.)
And there are advocacy groups.
Students wishing to get academic credit can and kids from different high schools participate in a competitive “Ocean Bowl.”
And we go out on the water with whale researchers to experience it all first hand.
I had two epiphanies during Whalefest. One was during the banquet keynote. Gene Tagaban, a Tlingit storyteller was keynote speaker. He spoke about how we all strive towards healing and I realized that’s what our media work has been about healing, healing after dictatorship or war. I came away with a new understanding of what we are about.
The second came in Mike Castellini‘s closing summation. He was brilliant, taking something from every scientific presentation, from the art, music and storytelling that surrounded us and ended with the festival with a slide: “One Ocean, One World, One Health.” One Health!