Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Gruesome Dispatch From Alaskan Mike

My friend Alaskan Mike moved to North for a teaching job, but the move was easier for him after a messy breakup. In his latest dispatch he talks about Christmas and whaling, two things that look pretty different from up there. He's not delicate in the telling:
Part One: The Christmas songs have started to play at the couple of stores here in Barrow. These are the same recordings of Christmas songs that I have heard all of my life, but here they seem particularly alien. Like forcing a square peg in a round hole.

I have always thought the holidays were a funny time. Hell, most people hate their families, or have some serious problem with at least one member of their unhappy household. I have always managed to find work or I guess this time –- go to the North Pole to avoid this unpleasantness.

Baleen comes out of whales. It comes out in long strips. I have seen some more than fifteen feet long. It is what the whale uses to filter out its food in the ocean. The Natives make all kinds of things out of it. Baskets, sleds, and tools -– you name it. They also etch drawings into it. Every single shop and home has some decorative baleen in it. It is considered bad luck not to have any. I put my first piece up in my house today.

In order to leave behind the past, we much embrace the future. I am not Mike, as in the Mike who did this, that and the other. As in the Mike who fell apart when his love affair went “south.” (Very bad pun here.) The past is just a shadow that haunts us if we let it. The past is for learning, not perpetual torment and punishment. I’m not Mike from the lower forty-eight any more. I am the Mike who lives in Barrow, which even the Natives refer to as "The End of the World."
Part Two: Well, none of my students came to class this evening, so I guess that I will write a bit more about Whaling.

Barrow is the only place in the world that has two distinct whaling seasons. In the early Fall, and in the Spring. Something to do with the migrating patterns I guess. I saw my first California Grey whale up here about a month after I arrived. That would be in September I guess. It was a little, only about twenty feet long, swimming in the shallows scraping barnacles off of itself. The Natives don’t hunt them –- they taste bad I’ve heard. It was swimming just spitting distance from me, as I stood with my feet at waters edge.

Whaling is big here. To be a Whaling Captain is too hold one of the highest places in this social structure. There were at least eight Bowhead whales harvested this season. There ranged from twenty to forty feet. They average one ton of meat and blubber per foot. Bowhead whales are the ones that taste good.

In the Fall, the ocean is open and they go out in small aluminum boats and wait. They sleep in these little boats and sit in complete silence for a day sometimes. When they spot one, they pursue and shoot it with a harpoon gun, which is shoulder held. Ever shoot a double barrel shot gun, both chambers at the same time? These harpoon guns will break your shoulder if you don’t know what you are doing. They then drag it to the shore and tow it onto the old Naval Airfield, which is right by the beach. There they can completely butcher it in less than a day. That’s pretty damn good.

I went over there after the Natives had left for the night, and all that remained was huge ribcages and giant skulls. A dead quiet field of bloody slush, and giant internal organs strewn about in entrails. It reminded me of some terrible dinosaur apocalypse.

As it happened, I had rented Star Trek Four: The Voyage Home the week after the whaling season ended. It was one of the better Star Trek movies, but I laughed when I saw the main idea behind the movie: You really don’t need to slaughter whales anymore because all of their byproducts can be made artificially now. Whales are nice and we should be sweet to them.

What they did not mention is that you have to be able to purchase the artificial products. The whales harvested here will feed this entire community for the upcoming year. We live in a predatory system. I’m not terribly happy about that myself. If I were God I would have made hamburger trees, guitar trees, and pussy trees. (If you are a good guy, getting some decent pussy is a serious pain in the ass.)

The Bowhead whales are harmless, unless you are krill and the like. A cat is friendly unless you are a mouse. This world is an eat or be eaten kind of world. The thing that “civilization” has really done via the media -- is to put a rather absurd mask on the fact that this is not a friendly world. This is a hard world. This is probably Hell.

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