Thursday, December 22, 2005

whale bones

Roger Payne began his career studying whales one night in the rain. He heard a whale had washed up on the beach near where he lived. He took a flashlight and found the whale. Someone had carved their initials into its side, butted out a cigar in its blowhole and hacked off its tail. He stood there until his flashlight went out, then he stood there for a while longer.

It can take many hours to kill a whale with modern methods. They thrash in the water and literally tons of blood is shed by the whale. Many years ago, an anti-whaling group sunk a whaling ship, the Sierra, in its Lisbon port. First they ambushed it and rammed it with a small boat called the Sea Shepherd. The Sierra escaped and was in port being repaired when the group detonated a mine against its hull a few days later. It is said the Sierra claimed about 25,000 whales in its many years as a whaling boat. No one was injured.

The Blue Whale is the largest living being, so far as we know, the Earth has ever seen. They can reach lengths of 100 feet. Their tongues weigh as much as elephants.

In 1835 the Chumash population of San Nicholas Island off the coast of California was evacuated after clashes between the tribe and sea otter hunters threatened their lives. A single schooner loaded them up, but a woman ran off the boat when she could not find her child. A strong wind picked up and the schooner was forced to sail. In 1853, eighteen years later, a passing ship found her still there. She lived alone on the island in a house made of whale bones.

Glenn Gould could play Bach effortlessly, the complex interplay of melodies sounding as natural as water running. The sound is often so brilliant and intense that I can sometimes hear a feeling. I will try to describe it but it will be awkward and vague: the kinship between the immense and the tiny, the night galaxies of their millions of miles and millions of years and almost impossibly beautiful light all embedded in the massive architecture of a cathedral dome above little precise irises of green and blue and hazel.

Now Gould did not like social interaction and tried to remain as safely aloof as possible. He did not like to be touched by people and tried to avoid talking to people in person. He would invent fictional characters and impersonate them, like this:

Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite

Theodore Slutz

Karlheinz Klopweisser

When the Voyager spacecraft was sent out from Earth in September 1977, the gold record attached to it (a message in a bottle that will drift for millions of years) contained one of Glenn Gould's renditions of Bach. It also contained whale songs.