Pino Cacucci: The Whales Know. A Journey through Mexican California. ISBN 978-1-907973-88-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ This book was given to me as a gift by a fellow blogger. Lucky me. Books (and chocolate) are my favourite gifts, and I would never ever have bought this book myself as I would never ever have discovered it on my own. Usually I do not read traveller stories, and perhaps that is a mistake, because I found this small book both interesting and entertaining.
As the title suggests, Pietro Cacucci takes us on a tour through the Mexican part of the Californian peninsula to discover things you and me probably did not know before: The Baja California is nowadays a sanctuary for whales while in the past it was the killing ground of European whale hunters. The whales fared better than natives. Under the rule of Spain they were exploited in the pearl fishing and mining industry as cheap slaves or killed when they tried to revolt against their merciless Christian rulers. Pirates set up their base camps in the 17th century along the coast and engaged in early democratic experiments long before the French stormed the Bastille. Today the region remains a favourite spot of treasure hunters, Hollywood stars and Americans to young to buy alcohol in the US.
While the many scientific details on the region’s wildlife and history that Cacucci has researched, make the book an interesting read, his observations on local wisdom and the social interaction in Mexican California make it a truly entertaining. In Ciudad Constitucion Cacucci earns the praise of a landlady when he puts green chili into his tacos and avoids being treated (and judged) as a gringo. Which reminds me of a bunch of Vietnamese men watching me with the keenest possible interest when I had a super hot Pho Bo as breakfast in the Mekong Delta.
Man has to adjust to his environment to survive and vice versa. Adjustment and survival of both Man and environment is one of the themes of the book. Nature and climate are harsh in certain parts of Mexican California: arid deserts, coasts battered by tropical storms. The Jesuits tried to cultivate the land and to turn the natives into farmers. They failed on the latter point, but succeeded in laying the foundation for a wine industry.
Other challenges are man-made. US fruit companies set up huge and vulnerable banana mono-cultures, leading to the extinction of local banana varieties. Cacucci quotes a scientific journalist predicting the extinction of the banana as such in the near future, and indeed, I saw a piece of news in the “Guardian” recently confirming that a fungus is destroying banana plants in Asia and Africa and threatens now the Caribbean. Varied sorts would have put up a better defence. And one wonders whether the musical improvisations of male humpback whales turned into jazz musicians also fits into such a survival strategy and whether they can charm us sufficiently with their songs to make us change our environmental policies?
What struck me, is Cacucci’s matter-of-fact language. He makes no judgments, he observes and simply tells what he sees and hears and lets the reader develop his own opinion. The one exception to the rule is when it comes to environmental protection. He makes some valid points about Man’s irresponsible behaviour. Above all, this book is a love declaration to Mexican California and its astonishing sea life. There is hardly a page where Cacucci does not get ecstatic about some sort of creature. The author’s passionate feelings for Mother Nature’s genius permeates the book, and, being a nature lover myself, I subscribe to any of his appeals to stop Man on his destructive path.
As for the music, it would appear Jim Morrison of The Doors has been around the place as a student, inspiring him to the song “Ensenada, the dead seal”, Ensenada being a Mexican city on the Pacific coast some 100 km south of the US border. But while reading the book and seeing those humpback whales before my inner eye, I had to think about a wonderful dreamy piece of music evoking gently rolling waves, Maurice Ravel’s composition “Une barque sur l’océan” (A boat on the ocean):