Summer is far too dynamic to leave the farm, so I wait for the quiet moments of November, when everything’s been put to bed and the winter is not yet on us. One year, I went to Mexico; another, to Hawaii. Last year, I traveled to the little “island nation” of Nantucket, a place far distant–it takes more time to get there from here than it does to fly to San Francisco or Iceland. I’m working on a choral work about whales and whaling, and nowhere is the history deeper than on Nantucket, where whalers set sail and didn’t return for three, four, sometimes five years, the holds of their proud ships filled with the spoils of their war: hundreds of barrels of whale oil.
Once we bumped to the dock, it was a strangely other world that I was entering. Neatly painted historic buildings and narrow, cobbled streets easily enabled me to revisit the days of Nantucket’s whaling past. I’d taken a room at an inn where the price was good; it was just steps from the wonderful Nantucket Historical Association’s main offices.
At the NHA’s research library, Elizabeth Oldham, a beautiful white-haired woman with a deep knowledge of the subject, laid out before me large bound volumes of one captain’s logs. I donned the requisite white gloves and, deciphering the captain’s script (his ls and his ds listing like the masts of ships at sea in a good wind), commenced the voyage, living each of his days in my minutes. The nautical shorthand for capturing a whale was to draw a black whale in the page’s margin, and I noted the days that passed between captures. No wonder the voyages went for such a long time. (While the men were away–that is to say, all the time–their wives kept the island humming, so Nantucket carries a great legacy of strong women.)
Nantucketers were Quakers, a peaceful people, except in this business of whaling. The more I read, the more I understood the brutal nature of this business, the chase and the slaughter of 60-ton sperm whales: the carving away of the flesh, the rendering of the blubber, the disposal of the carcass. Young boys, 10 or 12 years old, were welcomed aboard by the captain, as their small bodies and willing natures made them the perfect beings to (among other tasks) climb inside the whale’s head to scoop out the last of the spermaceti, oil so precious, oil that burned so bright.
The odor alone must have been horrendous and surely the derivation of the phrase “you could smell it a mile away.” And then there was the phrase “stove by a whale,” nothing more than the end result of a whale’s rage at having been harpooned or separated from its calf. More than one of these great ships was sunk by the anger of a whale. The story told in Moby-Dick was likely the story of every ship: the mad captain obsessed with capturing the whale that had defied him, and the crazed whale, intent on devouring the crew of the malicious ship that had murdered its children.
After a few days of this research, when the ferry again docked in Hyannis, I felt as if I’d come home from a long voyage in search of whales. I had, in a sense. And I’d found them, in ways I hadn’t expected. Home here seemed like a serene and safe harbor where I could write about what I’d learned, a great long distance from the ghosts of Nantucket’s past.
For more on whaling and a roster of upcoming events at the Nantucket Whaling Museum, contact the Nantucket Historical Association at: 508-228-1894; nha.org