You should all rush out right now and procure a copy of Where the Sea Breaks Its Back by Cory Ford, subtitled The Epic Story of Early Naturalist Georg Steller and the Russian Exploration of Alaska. Mrs. Peculiar and I spent much of the summer devouring (re-devouring, in my case) Patrick O'Brian novels, and the transition to Mr. Ford's book was utterly seamless, like picking up a work of non-fiction which O'Brian would surely have penned had Ford not beat him to it. Nautical exploration, harsh elements, shipwreck, the resourceful desperation of sailors, and above all natural philosophy: it's all there. And Mr. Ford's pen does excellent justice to all (he had a long-running column in Field & Stream; ah, for the days when outdoor sporting magazines cultivated writing of a caliber that can no longer be found in National Geographic). From the introductory chapter describing the Aleutians, the author's own experience:
The sun was setting; we watched it poise on the horizon and then slip out of sight as deftly as a conjurer's coin. A queer chuckling sound caught our ears, and we halted. A small dark-bodied bird, with white eyes and a crested topknot like a California quail, marched out from a crevice in the cliff and regarded us owlishly for a moment. Then he fluffed his feathers-- I could have sworn he shrugged-- and walked to the edge of a projecting rock, and pitched in a power dive toward the water. Through my glasses I saw him spread his wings and level off at the bottom of his descent, only a few inches from the surface of the ocean, and shoot out at right angles like a projectile from a gun.Naturally, the narrative revolves around Steller. A young, ambitious man, a brilliant naturalist, he is very sympathetic while being frequently as insufferable as a Stendhal protagonist. The man had the enviable yet heartbreaking distinction of being the first trained naturalist to set eyes upon the northwest of the American continent, on Vitus Bering's epic voyage in 1741. Americans will most likely recognize his name in the Steller's Jay; he also lends his name to an eider, a sea lion and the spectacular Steller's Sea Eagle. Even more intriguing, he observed two highly unusual species which were never seen by a scientist again. Steller's Sea Cow was an enormous manatee dwelling in Alaskan waters, up to 35 feet long, 25 around and four tons in weight. Steller measured a specimen and found that its heart weighed 36 1/4 pounds and that its stomach was [Steller's words] "of amazing size, 6 feet long, 5 feet wide, and so stuffed with food and seaweed that four strong men with a rope attached could scarcely move it from its place and drag it out." Operating in a very different tradition of scientific observation than today's, and also under trying circumstances, to say the least, Steller also gave the following description of the animal:
He was followed by a steady succession of other birds, each in turn stepping out onto a rock and hurtling down in the same breathtaking leap. Some were crested auklets; some the absurd-looking least auklet, its big eyes surrounded by a few white bristles, giving the effect of plucked eyebrows; some the rare rhinoceros auklet with a tuft of feathers sprouting from its bill like a horn. The air was full of acrobatic birds, forming single lines and moving in long undulating ribbons below us, crisscrossing each other's paths, weaving in and out in graceful patterns, alternately light and dark as they turned in the air. Abruptly the show ended. At some inaudible signal, the ribbons wound upward to the top of the cliff, and with a roar like a waterfall the entire flock disintegrated overhead and landed all about us. One by one the gave us the same owlish look, shrugged again, and trudged back in to their burrows for the night.
[The fat was] glandular, firm, and shiny white, but when exposed to the sun takes on a yellowish tinge like May butter. Both the smell and the taste of it are most delicious, and it is beyond comparison with the fat of any marine animal... Melted, it tastes so sweet and delicious that we lost all desire for butter. In taste it comes pretty close to the oil of sweet almonds... The meat, when cooked, although it must boil rather long, is exceedingly savoury and cannot be distinguished easily from beef. The fat of the calves is so much like fresh lard that it is hard to tell them apart, but their meat differs in no wise from veal.Small wonder that, after they had sustained Steller and his companions through an Aleutian winter, the sea cows were devoured every one by Russian fur traders. Steller's writings are the only record of the animal.
More mysterious still is Steller's Sea Monkey. In the naturalist's own words
"It was about two Russian ells [five feet] in length... the head was like a dog's, with pointed, erect ears. From the lower and upper lips on both sides whiskers hung down, which made it look almost like a Chinaman. The eyes were large; the body was longish, round and thick, tapering gradually toward the tail. The skin seemed thickly covered with hair, of a grey color on the back, but reddish white on the belly; in the water, however, the whole animal appeared red, like a cow. The tail was divided in to two fins, of which the upper, as in the case of sharks, was twice as large as the lower. Nothing struck me as more surprising than the fact that neither forefeet (as in the marine amphibians) nor, in their stead, fins were to be seen."No one has any idea. The thing was never seen again, and were it any other observer one would question the account's reliability. But Steller was a seriously good observational scientist. All his other accounts of marine life hold up in retrospect, and he seems to have gotten quite a long and close look at the animal. What's a cryptozoologist to think? If the Russians ate them all, it was never deemed worthy of mention.
He was particularly impressed by "its wonderful actions, jumps, and gracefulness. For over two hours it swam around our ship, looking, as with admiration, first at the one and then at the other of us. At times it came so near to the ship that it could have been touched with a pole, but as soon as anybody stirred it moved a little farther. It could raise itself one-third of its length out of the water exactly like a man, and sometimes it remained in this position for several minutes. After it had observed us for about half an hour, it shot like an arrow under our vessel and came up again on the other side... in this way it dived perhaps thirty times. There drifted by a seaweed, club-shaped and hollow at one end like a bottle, toward which, as soon as it was sighted, the animal darted, seized it in its mouth, and swam with it toward the ship, making such motions and monkey tricks that nothing more laughable can be imagined. After many funny jumps and motions it finally darted off and did not appear again. It was seen later, however, several times in different places of the sea."
Of course, voyages of exploration are not generally lacking in Sturm und Drang, and Bering's voyage ranks high in the annals of human misery. Indeed, it's progress is emblematic of the phrase Worse things happen at sea. After sighting the sea monkey, the St. Peter was harried by desperate weather until it was finally wrecked on a desolate island, with a crew deep in the throes of scurvy. Despite all that had just happened at sea, what then happened on land is intensely harrowing:
...three sailors died as they were brought up on deck, and a fourth succumbed on the way to the beach... Conditions were not much better ashore. Driftwood for the underground huts had to be dragged a considerable distance, and the handful of men still able to work had not yet completed the shelters. The sick lay on the open beach under rags and bits of canvas, sometimes half buried by the drifting snow. When a man died, his comrades were too weak to remove the body, and it remained alongside the living. A night they could hear the foxes gnawing at the corpse.From this situation, as hopeless as any in which humans find themselves, comes not only survival, but the irreplaceable scientific tour de force that is Steller's description of the sea cow. Why can't we make movies as amazing as this? Steller's biography puts any number of Hollywood epics to shame.
"Everywhere on the shore there was nothing but pitiful and terrifying sights," Steller sympathized. "Some sick cried because they were so cold, others because hungry and thirsty, since the mouths of many were so miserably affected by the scurvy that they could not eat because of the great pain, as the gums were swollen like a sponge, brown-black, grown over the teeth and covering them." His previous contempt for his Russian shipmates was forgotten. Now, in their adversity, he worked tirelessly to minister to the needs of the crew, bringing them warm soups and antiscorbutic herbs and roots which he dug from the frozen ground.
Also, his De Bestiis Marinis is available online.
My other recent read, which I will discuss at much shorter length, is Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides. Revolving around the biography of Kit Carson, it is also an account of the American settlement of the southwest and the Navajo experience of that settlement. Kit Carson is easy to vilify for his role in rounding up the Navajos, but the man was hardly a racist. His three marriages, for instance, were to an Arapaho, a Cheyenne and a New Mexico Spanish woman. Sides does an excellent job of not shying away from the brutal aspects of the American conquest while also avoiding excess of sentiment and hand wringing. What I like best about the book is Sides' ability to reveal the full strangeness of history, especially parts of American history which we too often take for granted. For instance, I had no idea that after Stephen Watts Kearny and his dragoons traveled from Santa Fe to invade California, they were met and nearly slaughtered by mounted Californians wielding nine-foot lances.
More regular blogging to come, I hope!