Monday 26 November 2012

Sighting the Whales

A print version of the book, published
by Sort Of Books.
According to the Oxford Dictionary a sightline (or sight-line, or even sight line) is a 'straight line extending from the eye of a spectator to an object or area being watched ', but in Sightlines, Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie takes a look at landscapes many of us would not normally see. This isn't a book, of poetry, but but her language and thoughts are those of a poet, and her vision remains clear as she looks at hidden places, exploring nature, and man's place within it, reflecting and connecting on what she finds,

Her journey takes her to the strangely beautiful world inside the human body, viewed through a pathologist's microscope; bird communities on isolated Scottish islands, and a ruined chapel on an island named for a saint who lived so long ago that only his name and the stones remain. She visits the site of a vanished Neolithic henge, has an encounter with icebergs, and gets to stay on St Kilda, where life was so harsh people finally abandoned it. She makes her way deep into a Spanish cave system to view prehistoric wall paintings, sees the mysterious Northern Lights and watches the moon turn to a dusky red globe hanging in the sky during an eclipse,

And then there are the whales. It's the whales that dominate, alive and dead, and her her words do more to drive home the terrible fate of these creatures at the hands of mankind then any new programme or learned paper from campaigners could ever do.

St Brendan and his monks moored at an island,
lit a fire - and the island (which was really a
whale) sank! I'm not sure who would have
been more shocked, the monks or the whale.
Whales have always fascinated me. As a child my imagination was captured by exotic tales of Sinbad and St Brendan, who both set up camp on islands that turned out to be whales – imagine the shock of waking up one morning to find the 'land' is moving! And then there was Kipling's 'How the Whale Got His Throat' in which, O Best Beloved, a Mariner of infinite-resource-and-sagacity is eaten by a whale and dances hornpipes where he shouldn't, so the whale lets him go, but not before he turns his raft and suspenders into a grating in the whale's throat, to prevent men and large fish being swallowed. 

Over the years since then I've come across a host of other stories and poems about whales (Ted Hughes' 'How the Whale Became' is brilliant). I've watched them in various David Attenborough programmes, and worried about their dwindling numbers. And, of course, I've listened to the wonderful Judy Collins singing 'Farewell to Tarwathie', a traditional whaling folk song, accompanied by the sounds of spine-tingling whale-song.

Jamie's description of the whale skeletons on display in Bergen's Natural History Museum is hauntingly beautiful.

The Hvalsalen. Whale Hall. What else could it be called? They were all there, such a roster of whales – the baleen whales, sei and humpback, right, fin and minke whales – even the blue whale, and the toothed whales, too, sperm and bottlenose, narwhal and beluga, and the Sowerby's beaked whale, and, affixed to the walls, dolphins, almost dainty in comparison; the killer whale and the bottlenose.

Such bones as I never saw, hanging above my head.

There are twenty-four of them packed together (like blackbirds in a pie, I thought as I read), held together with metal, suspended from the ceiling on iron chains. Dusty, dirty, brown with age, they seem to have a life of their own, and oil still seeps from the bones more than a century after they were slaughtered and stripped of fat and flesh. To start with Jamie is mystified by the distinctive smell, but eventually identifies it as that of her childhood wax crayons which, it transpires, were probably made of whale oil.

A whale skeleton at the Hvalsalen. The website is at

On a central pillar, neatly painted in Norwegian and English, were the words “Do not touch the animals", but it was a bit late for that. The whalers' harpoons had got them; the flensing iron.

But despite the weight of bones, the effect of the Hvalsalen was dreamlike. The vast structures didn't seem to offer any reproach. Rather, they drew you in. Undisturbed for a century, they had colluded to create a place of silence and memory. A vast statement of fact: "Whales is what we were. This is what we are. Spend a little time here and you too feel how it is to be a huge mammal of the seas, to require the sea to hold you, to grow so big at the ocean's hospitality."

When she returns and helps a specialist conservation team clean the skeletons, she is amazed at the transformation. Handling the bones of a right whale (so called because it was the right whale to kill), she muses:

It was astonishingly light – it seemed to radiate such a thick yellow light. The word that came to mind was 'buttery'. The bones, I mean.

The presence of all those whale bones gets under her skin, and I understand why. The conservators have never seen live whales, but Jamie has, and the magic of these giant marine mammals shines through her writing.

She describes a sighting of five killer whales viewed from the rocky cliffs of an islet where she is studying a gannetry. The whales appear as a dark pencil line on the horizon, but at closer quarters they are immeasurably huge. They blow, and roll, and disappear, and rise again, water spilling off the side of their broad backs. Like inanimate icebergs, the living whales 'revealed only as much of themselves as was necessary; much more of their bodies remained concealed from his under the sea's surface, even when they blew'.

Photo of killer whales courtesy of Robert Pittman at 
Wikimedia Commons.
Months later on the remote, uninhabited isle of Rona, she sees the same group and watches the reactions of birds and seals under threat. But although the five whales watch, and circle the area, they swim off and the seals are left alive and unharmed.

As I read I thought about my Norwegian grandmother, born in 1888 in Kragero, a small town on the edge of a fjord. There was a brother who was lost at sea, and her father owned a fishing fleet, and I believe his father was also a fisherman, so I found myself wondering if they, or any of their family and friends were involved in the whaling industry. I would so love to see whales but, sadly, I am a disgrace to my sea-faring ancestors, for although I love to be beside water, I am always exceedingly ill on boats, even with the aid of prescription travel tablets, wristbands, and a 24-hour fast prior to sailing, so I guess whale watching is not a sensible option. Instead I will content myself with reading about them and looking at their bones.

Jamie is intrigued by the bones. She found her own whale vertebra on the turf of a Hebridean island, just up from the shore, and visited museums as well as towns with whalebone arches, including Whitby. The jawbone arch she looked at there is a recent installation, donated by Alaska in 2003, and it's the previous one I remember, it's surface crumbling and pitted with age. 

She also called into the museum run by the Literary and Philosophical Society, which still has exhibits housed in old wood and glass cabinets, and is one of the best museums I've ever been to, with a mesmerising collection of memorabilia from the old whaling captains and their crewmen.

William Scoresby Jnr. 
There Jamie looked the life of Whitby's best-known whaler, William Scoresby Jnr, who studied snowflakes in the Arctic, conducted magnetic experiments to improve the compass, and surveyed the coast of Greenland, naming the inlets and headlands after his friends and family. In the museum you can see his delicate sketches and water colours of the places he called at, and the plants and wildlife he saw – but he also returned home with barrels full of bone and blubber. He was obviously cultured and clever, yet he made his living by slaughtering whales in the most brutal fashion imaginable (there's a graphic description of the killing and processing of a whale in Carol Birch's 'Jamrach's Menagerie') Until Jamie reminded me I had forgotten that Scoresby eventually left the sea to become a clergyman, but somehow I doubt he concerned himself with the fate of the whales.

By the way, his father William Scoresby Snr, whom Jamie doesn't mention, invented the crow's nest, which gave sailors a clear sightline from sea to land (when there was any to see), which takes me back to the title, and set me thinking about the word sight, which can be used for the action of looking at something, and for the thing being looked at. I know the grammar is a bit wonky there, but what I am trying to say is that there is a strange kind of duality there, and there are sights for us to see in unlikely places, if we only know where to look, and Jamie does her best to make us see them. 

Overall, the image I was left with was her thoughts on the Aurora Borealis.

Once upon a time whaling ships had come to these latitudes, with orders to return heavy with oil and baleen. Now the aurora alters into long trailing verticals, and it makes me think of baleen. Sifting, Sifting what? Stars, souls, particles.You could fancy the northern lights were a great whale whose jaws our ship were entering.

The book held me spellbound, and I ended up by checking out the Bergen museum, and finding more information about whales and whalers, and writing much more about them I intended. I think I got slightly obsessed by the subject, but there is a lot more to book than that.

This is Kipling's own illustration for 'How the Whale got his Throat',
which I include because it was one of my first introductions to whales,
 and everyone should read 'The Just So Stories'. Kipling's caption says:
 "This is the picture of the Whale swallowing the Mariner with his
infinite-resource-and-sagacity, and the raft and the jack-knife
 and his suspenders, which you must not forget."
I have to say a big thank you to Lynne at dovegreyreader, who wrote a wonderful review of this book, which is much more sensible than mine (you'll find it herewhich I remembered when I saw the Kindle version of the book on offer at a bargain price, so I bought it. Now I can look forward to reading 'Findings' and I need to get a book of Jamie's poetry!

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