was halfway through Laura Dassow Walls’s new biography of Henry David Thoreau when my partner and I celebrated his birthday on our favorite stretch of Northern California coast. I woke early on our first morning, and while sipping coffee and looking out over the Pacific I saw what looked like a whale’s spout. And another. And then another. By the time I shook my partner awake, dozens of spouts stretched north and south as far as the eye could see. We had arrived at the peak of the gray-whale migration from their birthing waters off Mexico to the chilly North Pacific. We’d never seen so many whales in our lives, and hurried to a nearby bluff for a closer look.


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