The Year of the Whale

September 22, 2021 | 3 books mentioned 2 5 min read

I once had a professor who would read, every year, the same 10 books. He called them THE TEN. CandideSiddhartha, Screwtape Letters, and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations were regulars; the others he’d swap out after a six- or seven-year run. Taken with this idea, I decided I, too, would do a yearly re-reading. The book would be Moby-Dick, and I would begin it each year on Christmas, the day the Pequod sets sail.

covercovercoverAnd so I did: 2017, 2018, and 2019. But last year I read it three times. In the winter of 2020, I read it with a student doing an independent study. She told a friend how great Moby-Dick is, and so the following spring he, too, wanted an independent study.  And then, in fall, I ran another independent study on Moby-Dick, this time with two students I met just a few months earlier when we were, as it turns out, building a whale.

“Building a whale is a lot like building a deck.” So says biologist Rus Higley. “You can get all the parts at Home Depot, and there are a few tricks that, if you know them, make everything a hell of a lot easier.”

covercoverHigley knows the tricks. He built the gray whale skeleton hanging at Highline College’s Marine Science and Technology Center and the humpback skeleton in the Foss Waterway Seaport. And he helped me (an English professor) lead 158 volunteers in building the gray skeleton that now hangs at Seattle Pacific University.

The whale had washed up on Longbranch Beach, on the southern end of Washington’s Kitsap peninsula. She was a juvenile, 29 feet long, her ribs jutting out, skin over them as a blanket over knees. Her stomach, the necropsy would soon find, was empty. We towed the whale to Gig Harbor, where a ship crane hoisted her 16,000-pound carcass into a dump truck. At a nearby farm, our crew flensed her, retrieving her 250 bones and burying them in pile of horse shit, its enzymes and critters leaching the oil from her bones. Six months later, we exhumed them––now bone dry––brought them to campus, and put them on a roof to bleach in the sun. And then, in August, we began building.

It’s a strange thing to spend so much time with a book over the course of a year. I think of Jean Giono. With his good friend Lucien Jacques, he translated Moby-Dick into French. “Long before I embarked on this project,” Giono says, speaking of that translation, “for at least five or six years, Melville’s book was my foreign companion.”

What does it mean for a book to be your foreign companion for nearly a decade? For Giono, it means walking alongside Ishmael, who, Giono writes, “would accompany me on my homeward path.” He explains:

I never had to take more than a few steps to catch up with him and, once the depths of the shadows were black, to become him. I would reach him with what felt like a single, longer stride. Then it was as though I’d entered inside his skin, my body clothed in his like an overcoat.

I can’t quite say that I, too, put on Ishmael like a jacket. But I can say that he, and Melville, through all those re-readings, have been my companions.

Of all the work ahead of us, measuring the whale––our first task––seemed the simplest. We needed to know whether she’d fit in our 30-foot lobby. Higley told me to bring a rope to the beach, and I did, 200 feet of it. He laid one end in the notch between the whale’s flukes, and I stretched the rope across the corpse, trying to follow the backbone as best I could, the rope sliding off the knobby knuckles of this emaciated gray’s spine.

I then laid that rope on the beach, next to a maxed-out tape measure. “Nine hundred seven centimeters,” I called from the whale’s snout. “Twenty-nine feet, nine inches. She’ll fit.”

When I read the whale’s necropsy now, months later, I see that Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has her at 867 cm––nearly 16 inches shorter than the measurement Higley and I came up with.

That’s a big difference, and I’m not sure how to account for it, given that WDFW measured the same way Higley and I did, with a rope laid across the whale. For me, the discrepancy points to an even bigger question: can we ever really know how long a whale is?

A live whale, her tonnage buoyant in the ocean’s salty water, would never stay still long enough to measure. A dead whale rests on a beach, gravity pulling that weight down into the sand. Is a live whale the same length as a dead whale? I doubt it, that body disfigured, either slumped over and cowered by death, or stretched and bloated and distended by all those fermenting gasses. And which is a better representation of a whale’s length, a measurement running across the topography of its backbone, or as the crow flies, a taut line snout to tail, tangent to the highest knuckle of the spine? And if that beached whale lays not on its belly but on its side, its torso twisted such that its jaw faces the sky, unobstructed measurement impossible––what then?

In the messiness of trying to determine a whale’s length, my companions offer some help. When he’s asked whether a whale’s spout is water or air, Ishmael responds, “My dear sir, in this world it is not so easy to settle these plain things. I have ever found your plain things the knottiest of all.” Water from air, the length of a whale—plain things as these are, they are not simple.

Later in the book, an imaginary interlocutor, frustrated with Ishmael’s exhaustive cetology, admonishes him to “have a care how you seize the privilege of Jonah alone.” But Ishmael, whaler that he is, is in a place to know, and I think that I, too, may be in a place to say something, having myself sat in the mouth of a gray whale, pushed up against her tongue, cutting away at the flesh holding her jaw, her throat behind my shoulder.

This imaginary opponent continues, saying that Jonah alone has “the privilege of discoursing upon the joists and beams; the rafters, ridge-pole, sleepers, and underpinnings, making up the frame-work of leviathan.” I’ve sat within that rib cage, lifted the ridge-pole spine as we tried to shift the orientation of the whole skeleton. I’ve handled all 518.3 pounds of her bones, matching growth plates to vertebrae, wedging nasal cavities into the cranium, rotating a pair of hips this way and that to discern, as best I can, their proper orientation. 

And just as Jonah alone has the right speak to the skeleton, Ishmael’s conversant argues, only Jonah can speak to the insides, “the tallow-vats, dairy rooms, butteries, and cheeseries in his bowels.” But these, too, I have held, have sliced away from the body, have seen strewn about a grassy field as the flensing crew cut, cut, cut away, looking for bones and discarding the rest. Her ovaries, the size of basketballs. Her eye, the size of a grapefruit. I placed that eye in a jar filled with cheap vodka, an all-purpose preservative until I could get back to the lab. Whale lice I pried from her flesh with my pocketknife, those, too, going in the vodka. I’ve stroked her broom-stiff hair, each strand an inch or two long, blonde, those near her blowhole reddened from the blood oozing from it.

Ishmael’s response to this interrogation is to tell a story of when, on leave from another voyage, he found himself on an island housing an assembled sperm whale skeleton. He cuts himself a “green measuring-rod” and sets about measuring it. Once he’s done measuring, Ishmael tattoos the whale’s dimensions on his right arm. “There was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics,” he says.

In this moment, the extraordinary––these invaluable statistics––becomes markedly ordinary. Every time Ishmael looks down at that arm, at these numbers made flesh, he re-reads the whale, that whale, in all its mystery and majesty, becoming a bit more familiar with each glance encounter. And so it was through our own day-to-day work with these bones, the novelty of carrying a radius and ulna across the room soon wearing off, the strangeness of sorting ribs and the surreal act of threading vertebrae onto a two-inch metal pipe, this sacred work of handling another’s bones, the innermost part of a body, somehow becoming routine––routine as reading a book three times in a year. Each rereading invites me into Melville’s sentences. Those sentences have become my companion, a companion not unlike my whale, sentences I’ve only yet begun to learn to read, a whale whose length I never will.

is associate professor of English at Seattle Pacific University and author of Touching This Leviathan.