It had been a dream of mine to do something as bold. 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. 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.
The End of Whales: A Return to Youth and Lost Imagination
Much later I would discover other books by Jean George, among which two stand out in my memory. 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. 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.
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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. But there was more to come. From him I learned that the late Jean George she passed away in had left behind a nearly finished manuscript of a new book. 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. 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. Whales are intelligent, complex creatures — in a long, 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. Whalers decimated the right whale populations of the Atlantic and North Pacific — by the time the mids rolled around, the search for new whaling grounds had become an economic necessity. New England Whalers hunting a right whale, around source: Wikipedia. Ice Whale begins in 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.
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 years, his descendants must continue the tradition. 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.
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 year span, the descendants of Toozak look out for the special whale with the mark on his chin. Environmental concerns in the wake of the near-extinction of the Bowhead also played a role, leading to a moratorium on whaling.
Of Whales and Ships and Eskimos: Jean George’s Book “Ice Whale” | Antariksh Yatra
The Orwell Foundation
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