The year is 1993. An Alaskan Inuit on a legal subsistence whale hunt has brought a Bowhead Whale to shore, and is cutting open its flesh. Deep in the blubber, his knife strikes something hard where no bone should be. He digs it out. If a 66-foot mass of muscle and fatty viscera could be called earth, he unearths an extraordinary artifact: a stone harpoon point, inscribed with the manufacturer’s signature. Astounded, he calls up whaling history experts in New England. It turns out that such harpoon points stopped being in use over a century ago. Tissue samples from the eyeball are sent to a state-of-the-art laboratory, which determines the whale’s age at death to be approximately 211 years; the oldest mammal ever found. This whale, killed during the Clinton administration, was swimming the frigid waters of the Bering Strait when Jefferson was president.
Though far from the largest whale, the Bowhead has two claims of note: the largest mouth in the world, and the longest lifespan of any mammal alive. Marine mammalogists believe its arctic habitat somehow preserves it beyond the years of other whales. What is more amazing to me than its two-century lifespan is how this particular whale survived the slaughter of Melville’s day, when whales were not so much harvested as mined.
Since the invention of the yoke, we’ve used animal energy to build our civilizations. We’ve even used animal excrement as fuel; consider that there have been wars fought over bat guano. But there has been only one period in human history, ending as late as the 1930’s, when living animals were used as a fossil fuel. Whale oil, made from rendered blubber, was primarily used to light lamps, but was also used to grease machinery, which led to its common name at the time, “train oil.” The fat that allowed Bowheads to survive the waters of the Arctic was used to light Darwin’s ingenious manuscript at night and to bring Lincoln to Gettysburg, to illuminate the cards in a gambler’s hand and grease the gears of locomotives that brought white men West as they shot buffalo from the windows.
This happened during that long period in which humans thought the Earth’s resources were nearly infinite — a period in which we still live. And they weren’t wrong, in a way.
Nature concentrates much of its energy in places, such as rainforests, as well as in animals, such as whales. It takes much to build a whale. A small child can swim through the aorta of a blue whale, whose blood vessels laid end to end — no exaggeration — can reach a million miles in length. A baleen whale is the product of untold billions of tons of krill, which is the product of trillions of tons of microscopic plankton. Whales are nodes of power, a huge knot in the thick shiprope which is made of countless threads of life. What we terrestrial primates have figured out is just how much energy we can siphon from our immense and dangerous oceans through these living oil deposits. What we haven’t quite figured out yet is that they are worth far more alive than dead.
Instead, we use that power to grease our machinery. That nearly infinite energy of Earth embodied by these enormous creatures has been mechanized. We are actively rendering the organic into the inorganic, making a shadow ecosystem of mostly servile machines. Whale oil became train oil; rainforest falls to the tractor. But a machine does not reproduce or evolve without our permission, and we should fear the day it does. And so the life force that was knotted up in the whale now sits dormant and rusting in the cranes of the shipyards at night. The crude of ancient ferns is burned up and lazing in our atmosphere as our mechanical beasts of burden idle on the highway.
Whaling was largely outlawed in 1966, but continues nonetheless. Personally, I pray for a Moby Dick, an animal of pure defiance that can sink the floating slaughterhouses and never be captured. Because the war of living things vs. machines is not a thing of futuristic science fiction — it started long ago. We need a champion of life, a whale that destroys trains, to place the power of creation back in the hands of the Earth. Otherwise, whale song will be lost forever to the creak and whine of subways, the rope of life will fray into threads we cannot sew together with our limited genius, and we will starve as our engines rust before our eyes, refusing to bear young.