Some readers, I am learning, visit Out Walking the Dog for the bits of natural history behind my glimpses of wildlife in the city, while others prefer to focus on the sense of mystery and joy engendered by those glimpses. For me, it is all water from the same well; both the science and the poetry, far from being mutually exclusive, arise from wonder and feed each other.
In my last post, I talked about spottting seals on NYC and Long Island beaches and piers. I referenced experts, who emphasize giving seals plenty of distance and leaving them alone so as not to stress them.
There is another good reason not to become entangled with a stranded seal: it may be a silkie.
Silkies, also called selkies, are seal-people, well-known in the mythology of northern Atlantic cultures including Ireland, Scotland and the Faroe Islands. Silkies sometimes have love affairs with mortal men or women, and these are often tragic and always sorrowful, as Joan Baez sings in The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, a haunting Scottish ballad.
In The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, a silkie transforms into a man to become the lover of a mortal woman. Later he disappears, and she bears a child. One day, as she sings to her baby boy, the silkie reappears to tell her who he really is.
I am a man upon the land
I am a silkie on the sea
And when I’m far and far from land
My home it is in Sule Skerry.
The silkie tells the girl that he will come again one day to fetch his little boy “and teach him how to swim the foam.” He then confides a terrible vision of the future:
And ye shall marry a gunner good,
And a right fine gunner, I’m sure he’ll be
And the very first shot that e’er he shoots
Will kill both my young son and me.
In another silkie story, a fisherman watches a seal come ashore, take off its seal skin, and become a beautiful young woman. He hides the skin, without which she cannot transform back into a seal and must live as a woman. They marry, have children and live together for years. She gradually forgets her past life, although she is drawn to the sea by a powerful yearning.
One day, while her husband is out fishing, she comes across the skin in its hiding place and knows again the truth about who she is. Putting on the skin, she is a seal again and swims joyfully away into the waves.
Still she misses her loved ones, and appears forever after in the waters close to shore, hoping to catch a glimpse of her husband and children.
Silkie stories riff on the profound connection between humans and animals, on our yearning to know what animals know, see what they see and, finally, on the sadness of our separation from the natural world. Of course, we are animals and part of nature, but we’re often the last to remember.
John Sayles’s wonderful 1996 movie, The Secret of Roan Inish, is a magical retelling of a silkie story.
And Neil Jordan’s 2010 film, Ondine, tells the story of a contemporary Irish fisherman, played by Colin Farrell, and the mysterious (and rather bizarrely fashion-conscious) seal-woman he brings up in his net.
You never know about seals. You just never know. Their lives and identities remain mysterious. So keep your eyes open for seals as you walk along the water’s edge or on the beach. But let them be. Yes, let them be.