Of Whales and Ships and Eskimos: Jean George’s Book “Ice Whale”

When I was a kid, I used to sometimes sneak out of my classroom at my school in New Delhi, and hide in the library.  My school environment was highly disciplined, with a great emphasis on academics and proper behavior.  While this was all to the good, sometimes my imagination needed free rein.  I still remember hiding behind the stacks, a shaft of sunlight coming in through the window, illuminating the page of the book I held on my lap.

It was during one of these escapades that I came across author Jean Craighead George’s book My Side of the Mountain.  I devoured the book, marveling at the adventures of a boy who had run away from home to live in the wilderness.  It had been a dream of mine to do something as bold.  Many of the books I’d read while growing up involved children who ran away from home with monotonous regularity, usually to camp in the wilderness, and it seemed like the thing to do.   My own attempt at it had been some years before my discovery of My Side Of the Mountain, when, as a ten-year-old, I’d run away to the tree outside my grandparents’ house.  For the first couple of hours I had enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversations of mynahs and jungle babblers, and observing buffaloes pass beneath me, but the tree limb wasn’t the most comfortable perch.  To my everlasting chagrin, when I returned to the house in a few hours, bored and hungry, I found that nobody had missed my absence.

But there was something different about this book.  It made the animal inhabitants of that mountainside come alive, in a way that I had experienced in my own interactions with non-humans, but had not been able to articulate.  Later I would realize that this aliveness was really a way of recognizing that animals had agency – they were actors in their own dramas, with their own agendas and worldviews.  Without turning animals into cutesy Disney-style caricatures, without over-sentimentalizing, George had brought forth in her fiction what naturalist Henry Beston had so clearly articulated about animals:  They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth. 

Much later I would discover other books by Jean George, among which two stand out in my memory.  These were the Newberry-award-winning Julie of the Wolves and the lesser known but equally remarkable Water Sky.  I don’t recall when I read them – it must have been while I was in college.  What I do remember is that both books made the Arctic vivid and real, stimulating for the first time my interest in this part of the world.  The world south of the Arctic circle generally ignores the frozen ‘top of the world.’  A barren, icy wasteland, peopled sparsely by ‘Eskimos’ with dog sleds and igloos, where polar bears wander on ice floes – such, I imagine, is most people’s summary of the Arctic.  And yet the Arctic is gorgeously beautiful, crucially important to global climate, filled with astonishing creatures not found anywhere else in the world.  Here live people of varied cultures who must negotiate a balance between modernity and tradition, people who have lived in the Arctic and loved it for thousands of years.

Decades after my initial infatuation with the Arctic, I had the opportunity to work on an undergraduate educational project on climate change.  Naturally, I chose the Arctic.  At this time the Arctic is melting at an alarming rate (temperature rise is at a rate about twice that of the global average) with profound global consequences.  At the same time it is being eyed by vested interests, from political entities (the eight polar nations) to oil companies.

So it was that I took myself to Alaska, to Barrow, in fact, the very town from which Julie, in Julie of the Wolves begins her remarkable journey alone across the tundra.  Being in Barrow was especially meaningful because of my memory of reading the book in my youth – it was a kind of coming full circle.  I could see how much had changed since Julie’s time, but also, I could feel the reality of what she felt – the biting cold, the brightness of the snowy tundra.  But there was more to come.  In Barrow, I had the good fortune to meet Craig George, Jean George’s son, marine biologist and an expert on bowhead whales.  From him I learned that the late Jean George (she passed away in 2012) had left behind a nearly finished manuscript of a new book.  Two of her children , Craig and his sister Twig, had just finished their labor of love – completing the book from their mother’s notes, and seeing it into print.

So when I returned home to the Boston area, I immediately ordered the book.  The book is called Ice Whale.  It is a travelogue in space and time, the story of a whale and of people, based on a true history of violence, exploitation, cultural conflict, and, ultimately, the beginnings of new possibilities.  Before I go further, though, let me introduce that marvelous, mysterious creature, the bowhead whale.

Bowhead Whales (credit: NOAA)

Bowhead Whales (credit: NOAA)

The bowhead whale, Balaena mysticetus, is part of the larger family of right whales, the only one of its kind to live in the Arctic.  It can grow up to 20 meters in length, and may live as long as two hundred years.  It is a baleen whale – it feeds on tiny sea creatures by straining them through the long, frond-like baleen filters in its mouth.  It travels the icy depths of the Arctic, perfectly adapted to the cold.  Its thick skull is strong enough that it can break a two-foot layer of ice when it comes up to breathe.  A gentle giant, it uses complex vocalizations to communicate with others of its kind.

It’s not a bad life – to travel with your companions in the rich waters of the Arctic, which are generally too cold for the predatory orcas – when you are hungry all you do is to open your mouth and close it again, letting the water out through the baleen, leaving behind a delicious mouthful of copepods.  Whales are intelligent, complex creatures – in a long, 200-year lifespan, what thoughts do the bowheads think?   What do they say to each other?  In this short BBC video, one narrator wonders what wisdom these great creatures might accumulate during their long lives.

Right whales have been hunted for their blubber, oil, meat, bones, and baleen since the sixteenth century.  Whale oil was used as lamp fuel, and to make soap and margarine, and baleen was used for corsets (‘whalebone’).  Whalers decimated the right whale populations of the Atlantic and North Pacific – by the time the mid-1800s rolled around, the search for new whaling grounds had become an economic necessity.

New England Whalers hunting a right whale, around 1860 (source: Wikipedia)

New England Whalers hunting a right whale, around 1860 (source: Wikipedia)

Ice Whale begins in 1848 with the whaling bark Superior, the first Yankee whaler to cross the Bering Strait into that terrible unknown ocean, the Arctic.  There the Superior finds plenty of right whales of a new kind, and the hunting begins.  When they return south with the news that there are thousands of right whales in the Arctic, the whaling ships point their noses northward, and the slaughter of the bowhead begins.

The scene now shifts to Toozak, a Yupik Eskimo boy on St. Lawrence Island.  Subsistence hunting is a way of life for the Eskimo, and Toozak, though young, is already an accomplished hunter of seal and walrus.  The Bowhead, to the Eskimo, is a ‘noble spirit,’ to be treated with respect, hunted only as much as need demands.  One day Toozak witnesses a rare sight — the birth of a bowhead whale, one with a mark on its chin that looks like an Eskimo dancing.  The calf and the human look at each other, and Toozak, in his awe, declares him brother and calls him Siku.

But when Toozak is a young man, he makes a mistake.  Inadvertently he gives away the location of a rich whale feeding ground to a Yankee whaler.  The resulting mass slaughter weighs on him so heavily that he goes to the village shaman to ask for guidance.  The only way for Toozak to atone, the shaman tells him, is to protect a whale, the whale he has seen being born, Siku.  And since whales live at least 200 years, his descendants must continue the tradition.  The atonement will be complete when a whale saves the life of one of Toozak’s descendants.

The story of Ice Whale is three stories braided into a whole: the story of Toozak and his descendants, the story of the whale Siku, and the story of cabin boy turned whaling captain, Tom Boyd of Massachusetts, and his descendants.  Against the 200-year span of Siku’s life from 1848 to 2048, we see how greed decimates the bowhead population of the Arctic, a stark contrast to the sustainable whale harvest practiced by the Eskimos.  We see the cultural changes among the Eskimo, wrought by contact with the white man.    Shamans disappear with the dog sled and the sod houses, Christianity and material comfort come to the stark and difficult lives on the tundra, but at the same time, much is lost or eroded, including language.  Throughout this 200-year span, the descendants of Toozak look out for the special whale with the mark on his chin.  Meanwhile, Tom Boyd’s descendants paint a picture of the history of whaling, its gradual decline as fossil fuels replaced whale oil, and corsets went out of fashion.  Environmental concerns in the wake of the near-extinction of the Bowhead also played a role, leading to a moratorium on whaling.  In our day the bowhead population has recovered to about half the original numbers, and only subsistence hunting by Eskimos is permitted.

The two human storylines ultimately meet, and the story goes forward into the future.  In this surprisingly short book for such complex themes, Jean George accomplishes a number of literary goals.  In one whale-lifetime we have a compressed history of the modern human, told through the fine details of individual people’s lives.  We have a glimpse of the life of the bowhead whale Siku, as he grows, learns the underwater topography of his home, and learns also about humans.  The notion of animals – especially mammals — possessing agency, emotional complexity, and worldview, rather than being machine-like automatons running on instinct (a misconception that probably originated with Descartes) is brought forth beautifully through the symbolic renderings of the names the whales have for each other.  The Arctic ocean itself comes across as a fourth story arc, a character in its own right – first threatened by whaling, then granted a temporary reprieve by fossil fuels, and finally, to be threatened again by fossil fuels through climate change.  As the sea ice melts, oil companies eye the fossil fuel reserves under the sea, and the exploration vessels deploy seismic guns that deafen any whales that might be nearby.  The warming of the water allows more orca hunting packs to come up from the Atlantic and Pacific, where they prey on the bowheads.  Through the latter part of the book we see the changing Arctic through the eyes of humans and whales.

At this time in human history we have a choice.  Will we do whatever can be done to limit climate disruption, so that we and other species can continue to live?  Or will we, like the old-time whalers and the industrialists who pocketed the profits, keep pillaging the only planet we have?  Ice Whale imagines a future going into 2048 in which humans make the choice of survival.  This is important.  It is easy enough, with the mountains of scientific evidence, to paint a doom-and-gloom picture of the future.  In fact we know realistically that even in the best-case-scenario the future will be a difficult one.  Our choices are bleak – a business-as-usual pathway leading to extreme climate change, which may well wipe us out along with many other species, or a pathway based on a deep and profound respect for earth’s systems, along which we will suffer, no doubt, but where there’s a chance we will make it.  To be able to work toward that future we need the audacity of imagination, and this is why the ending of the book is so quietly wonderful.

The Arctic Ocean framed by Bowhead whale bones, Barrow, Alaska (my picture)

The Arctic Ocean framed by Bowhead whale bones, Barrow, Alaska (my picture)

During my trip to Barrow (soon to be recounted in my academic blog) the community was getting ready for whaling season.  The college had closed early so that the young people could help with the preparations, and trails were being cut through the sea ice.   Throughout the North Slope, oil and gas drilling have brought prosperity to the Eskimos, changing their lives perhaps as profoundly as the Yankee whalers did, with the difference that they now have control over their future.  The issue of whether to support or oppose off-shore drilling, which would likely be a threat to the whales, is a contentious one.  I had the privilege of meeting an Inupiat whaler, who spoke eloquently about the bond between the bowhead whale and the Inupiat people.  But the heart of the matter – short-term gains for the necessary betterment of the community, versus longer-term disastrous effects of climate disruption – was the same as in other places on the globe.  In fact it is the great human dilemma.  To change paths is not easy, and before we can change, we must acknowledge the past and imagine alternative futures.

When I finished the book I set it down and looked out of my window.  I had only recently left the icy tundra of Barrow, to be surprised by a green spring in Massachusetts.  Walking through town and city, listening to traffic noises, paying bills, it is easy to forget what a remarkable planet we inhabit.  That on the same planet, along with internet cafes and tax forms, there exist enormous, intelligent creatures such as the bowhead whales, living their slow, extraordinary lives in the still-frigid waters of the Arctic.  It has been many decades since I first hid away in the school library, and found myself transported to places thousands of miles away.  Since reading the book, and since my visit to Alaska, I have been finding similar moments in my day — when I become momentarily unpinned from the place I currently inhabit, aware that at this very moment, somewhere near the top of the world, a whale is calling.

Notes:

1) On the use of the term ‘Eskimo:’  Some native communities along the Arctic do not use the word, finding it pejorative; however Alaskan coastal native tribes such as the Inupiat and Yupik peoples do use the term.

2) There may be some evidence that whales have personal names for each other, expressed as sound patterns.  Here is one report about sperm whales, with original references therein.

3) An article from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute about bowhead whale songs makes interesting reading.  

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