Further Extracts of a Sub-Sub-Librarian

I live in Brooklyn, located on the westernmost end of Long Island, but I also have a family connection to another island east of here. I graduated from high school on Nantucket, Mass., back in the last century, and go there still with some frequency. Between here and there there’s also a geographical connection: both Nantucket and Long Island were formed by the same glacial and hydrological forces.

Nantucket, which is slightly more than twice as large as Manhattan (49 vs. 23 square miles — a fact I have a very hard time fathoming), was theoretically “deeded” to English colonialists in 1641, and was a part of the Province of New York until 1691. It is now a playground for our ruling classes, with $25 million dollar estates and whatnot (plus all the servants and a few middle middle class holdouts like us). Historically, however, the island is famous as the birthplace of the American sperm whale fishery. This 46-long skeleton of a sperm whale, in the island’s Whaling Museum, washed ashore in 1998. Henry James says somewhere that there were terrible dark things behind the great fortunes of his day. (As ours, of course.) For the wealthy of the mid-19th century Nantucket, it was the butchering of whales for their oil, used for lamps and soap, and later, margarine, nitroglycerine, steel quenching, and leather dressing. The ship owners’ mansions still grace Main Street. But the actual work upon the seas was done by others, of course; it was a hard and backbreaking industry that kept you at sea for three to four years at a time. Successful whale hunts were capped by the melting of the prey’s blubber into oil in the cauldrons of the ship’s try-works; it was a civilization based upon what Melville aptly called “burning a corpse.” Still is, when you consider that petroleum is the transmutation of an ancient riot of life.

Most prized of those burning corpses was the sperm whale. For, in addition to the whale’s rich blubber, sperm whales have massive rectangular foreheads laden with spermaceti, a waxy white substance thought to help with both the whale’s buoyancy (they can dive to an astonishing 10,000 feet) and echolocation. Originally thought to be the whale’s sperm, hence the animals’ ridiculous common name, the stuff became much desired for industrial, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic purposes, as petroleum today fuels far more things than most people realize.

In Moby Dick, the harpooner Tashtego falls into the whale’s head as he is emptying the case, as it was called, of spermaceti. He’s rescued by Queequeg, in a scene written as a kind of Caesarian birth with the practical thought that “Midwifery should be taught in the same course with fencing and boxing, riding and rowing.” Had Tashtego drowned encased in the perfumed spermaceti, Melville continues, the only comparable way of dying would have been the Ohio honey hunter who fell into a great store of honey and became embalmed in the thick sweetness. As ways to go, both rather impressive, and much preferable to a hospital bed.

Sperm whales also produce ambergris, a fragrant substance much prized by perfumers as a fixative. Melville notes it was used for “pastiles, precious candles, hair-powders and pomatum.” At times it was worth three times the equivalent weight of gold. In 1912, a record 983-pound piece of it was auctioned off. Oddly, this “grey amber,” which has nothing do with amber, the fossilized tree resin also highly valued throughout history, is created (sometimes) in the whale’s intestines. It may be produced to help ease the horn-like beaks of giant squid through the digestive track. (There is much still unknown about these giant, deep-living creatures). Melville, a lover of paradox, makes much of the fact that this sweetness comes from the “inglorious bowels” of an enormous animal, excreted, vomited, or sliced out it; that lovely ladies of fashion are anointed with digestive mire, that gentlemen wind fine watches lubricated with case oil.
And speaking of paradox and ambiguity: my parents gave me this sperm whale tooth in the late 1960s. It’s posed here on Sam Ita’s clever contraption, Moby Dick A Pop-Up Book. I can remember a barrelful of teeth, mostly smaller than this one, outside a Nantucket store. Tourist tidbits, back when such things were legal. In the 1960s, some 25,000 sperm whales were being killed every single year, mostly by Russian and Japanese whalers, and that was just one of the species being killed. To give you some comparison, American whalers in the mid-19th century (pre-exploding harpoons) took only an estimated 15,000 total sperm whales between 1830-1870. A ban on commercial whaling has been in place since 1982, but countries like Iceland and Japan continue to flaunt it. In Iceland, most of the catch is sent to Japan (where, coincidentally, I was born), making a mockery of their “it’s our tradition” excuse. There was some whale meat being served at a buffet when we were in Iceland a year ago. We passed.

3 Responses to “Further Extracts of a Sub-Sub-Librarian”


  1. 1 Paul August 22, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Wonderful post. Makes me want to read Moby Dick again (for the 4th time)


  1. 1 Resin | Backyard and Beyond Trackback on November 7, 2014 at 7:06 am

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