Back to the Arktikos, the Arctic circle, that spin-drifted land of indeterminate moral content–of mountain sorel, Labrador tea, feltleaf, and alpine milk-vetch. Of matter-melding ground blizzards and magical fat-encased animals, of succulent seal marrow and softly strokable muskox bellies, of electro-magnetic portents and grizzled dwarf birches.
And turn we now to a particular whale– the Greenland right, or bowhead. There’s virtually no way around it: if I’m writing about whaling, I’m going to have to mention those naughty, dunderheaded people of a certain era that shan’t be named (namely, the Victorians.*)
*These were not in the most technical sense “Victorians” as Queen Victoria did not rule the roost until 1837 and whaling peaked in the 1820’s. But they were, no doubt, proto-Victorians, ready to turn into full-blown, raging Victorians as soon as the crown of England touched the uppermost hair on the new queen’s head.
I am loathe to do it, after my friends threatened an intervention to confront my “unhealthy, and disruptive, and volatile, and fusty” Victorian-fixation. Let it go, Gail, they tell me. “The Victorians were not the root of all evil…they were just the first to ride that very tall and intoxicating wave of industrial revolution.” The wave that has since wiped out entire coastal villages and beaches and a bazillion tidepool niches.
They say if I’m going to look for the root of techno-industrial pathos I’m going to have to start with the first farming cultures and their hoarding of foodstuffs, uneven concentrations of wealth, power structures and protection rackets.
But the ancient Sumerians didn’t have funny mustaches as far as we know. Or tiny sailor suits.
In any case, here we are in the West Water, 1823, murdering as many as 2,000 whales per season. The seas are littered with whale carcasses:
“Here and there, along the floe edge lay the dead bodies of hundreds of flenched whales..the air for miles around was tainted with the foetor which arouse from such masses of putridity,”
wrote the captain of the Cumbrian.
We really have no choice but to plug these whales if we want to process our textiles and light the street lamps of London with whale oil (25 tons per whale) and make whale-tail glue for all our adhesive needs, and carry umbrellas with staves made of baleen (whale bone, one ton per whale) through the crummy London weather, and close our Venetian blinds made of baleen to the crappy English fogs, and bounce up and down upon baleen-bone springed furniture on our delicate British asses.
And murder we shall, til the seas stink to high heaven!
“Whale oil was as rare as the milk of queens,” says Ishmael in Moby Dick– a creepy, unhinged statement if there ever was one.
Barry Lopez writes in Arctic Dreams that “Many were ill at ease with arctic whaling, because of the threat to their lives presented by the unpredictable sea ice; but also in the regions where they hunted they found a beauty more penetrating and sublime than any they had ever known.”
Again, we wonder: is Arktikos a chilled and deadly paradise? Or the most stunning and limpid of hells?
Sailors kept journals.
What else did sailors do in those days for good or ill? They slept in tiers of hammocks (good); they made love to Eskimo women (good, if they were adept lovers who believed in the principle of mutual consent, which we have much cause to doubt); they introduced diphtheria and smallpox to Arctic peoples (ill).
But really, their main beeswax was knocking off whales. Like 38,000 of them in the Davis Strait fishery alone. In 1986, the number of that population was pegged at a mere 200.
Was it the strange, otherworldy devilry of the Arctic driving proto-Victorians mad? (Even madder than usual?) Or was it the interior mindscape and sanctioned insanity of the lower latitudes wrecking an innocent world?
In any case, the end result was 66 ft long sea-borne beasts, with nearly two feet of fat encasing their noggins, capable of pushing boats backwards through the water, and plowing their heads into the ocean floor when harpooned, and living 200 years–whales, to be blunt–turned to umbrellas and fuel and glue.
It was the bodily oils of whales that lit the streets of the civilized world, is what I’m getting at.
Life and Earth and Man are strange. Savagery, civilization, beauty, horror, blossom, decay, warmth and cold, barnacle and whale–all borders interpenetrate.
Henry Hudson thought the North Pole was a “massive boulder of black basalt sitting in the middle of a warm, calm sea.” A place we all know, yet know not. Not at all unlike our subconscious. Not at all unlike death. Not at all unlike…life. Not at all unlike the South Pole. Not at all unlike another planet. Not at all unlike lots of other things… yet not at all like anything else.
Plenty of people go to the Arctic without succumbing to the urge to kill whales. Let’s just all pray that we are hypothetically among them.
Next week, the third and possibly last installment of this series–in which we discuss how one might abduct a baby Arctic muskox for a pet!