Stove By a Whale!

Last summer Graham took Mycelia to a folk music camping festival for a night, and I stayed home and did what I do when I have the time and space to do just what I want to- watched free PBS videos online. A film called Into The Deep: America, Whaling, and the World came up in my search. Even though I've enjoyed every other American Experience episode I've watched, I was very hesitant to watch this one.

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

As I have blogged about before, I feel a deep affinity with cetaceans. Especially whales. I have generally avoided the subject of whaling throughout my life, but then I watched the above interview with filmmaker Ric Burns (who, btw, also made the New York documentary I recently blogged about). When he spoke about how the story of whaling was related to so many other historical events and  cultural trends I knew that I could no longer let that glaring blind spot in my own knowledge remain.

And I have to say that I found the film absolutely riveting. It just satisfied my soul. Through all the blood and gore and savagery and inhumanity, somehow I felt exuberant, buoyed by these people's lives and experiences and even by the human/whale relationship throughout time. Somehow (that's a whole nother blog post), it is deeply important.

My mind and imagination have always felt most at home, most free, in the ocean. Most of my dreams, and all of my Big Dreams, happen there. I remember in elementary school checking out maritime adventure books from the library over and over, my favorites being those about ghost ships, mermaids, sea monsters, and epic shipwrecks. (I also used to actually write reports FOR FUN on my vacations about whales and dolphins).

So then last week, actually on my 30th birthday, Mycelia and I were wandering around our downtown used book shop when I came upon the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. It tells the story of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship that set off for mostly unknown waters in the deep Pacific in search of sperm whales (having already depleted the population everywhere nearer to their East Coast island). On November 20th, 1820, with a few harpoons already embedded into the backs of a pod of whales, an eighty five foot sperm whale rammed their ship twice in a seemingly deliberate act of revenge.

In fact, there have emerged other reports from the time that tell similar tales. A recent book I have says that sperm whales have been shown to be one of the few species on earth that is capable of passing knowledge down through generations, of shared and remembered and *acted upon* cultural learning. So it totally makes sense to me that this pissed off bull whale in the prime of his life- who just happened to be traveling with a pod though he usually travelled alone- would react to this atrocity with, as first mate Owen Chase later wrote, "tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect".

The leviathan (sperm whales of that size were totally decimated in the 19th century) swam off, dazed. The ship sunk. Adrift in the immensity of the Pacific ocean for months, the starving men resorted to cannibalism when their shipmates slowly began to die. The episode quickly became an iconic one in maritime lore, and inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. (<--Serious summary, there is so much more to it than that).

Here is an interview with Philbrick:

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

Tonight I started reading In Search of Moby Dick: Quest for the White Whale.

Perhaps next I will actually tackle Moby Dick itself, though it looks very intimidating. Have you read it? Would you ever be tempted to spend most of your life at sea? I swear, you couldn't pay me enough. Storms, shipwrecks, mutiny, sharks, ROGUE WAVES for god's sake! Never!!!

My mind and soul and imagination, however, will continue to reside there.

(Oh! I made a Treasury to go along with this post...)