Friday, June 15, 2007

A Whale of a Century

from Jacqueline

Don’t know if you saw the news item this week, about a whale caught up in Alaska, that had embedded in its shoulder bone an arrowhead fragment, part of the type of harpoon used back in the late 1800’s. This meant that the whale, a bowhead, was well over 100 years old and might well have been pursued by whaler of the type commanded by good old Captain Ahab. I thought it was sad, really, that the whale had managed to get by for a century, and yesteryear’s harpoon head was found when they were using chain saws to cut up the leviathan. I know the Eskimo feed on this whale, and that traditionally they use every part of the animal, but there was something so sad about that whale’s ending, as if he deserved to go on and on until nature took care of his end. I feel like that about most animals, particularly whales, though I am glad I can count on veterinary science to help me out with my domestic animals.

The idea of living through a century, especially the last century, just boggles the mind. It was only a couple of years ago that the man who had led the last cavalry charge by an American mounted army, passed away, in Menlo Park, I think, or somewhere like that, in an area that is now known for its tech industry. Cavalry charges and iPods, just a couple of degrees of separation.

Years ago, the author Howard Spring wrote a novel about a woman who lived one hundred years. He said he wanted to write such a story, just to explore history’s passing in the life of one person. I thought about that a lot – I think I must have been in my teens when I read the book, and I wondered about my own life. Can’t say as I think living to 100 would be all beer and skittles, what with researchers now saying the oil will begin to seriously run out in four years time. Solar power is looking very, very attractive, and thank heavens I can drive a horse and cart.

I’m only just over the half-century, and the changes I’ve seen astonish me, at times. As a child only one person owned a telephone in the hamlet where I lived, and that was the shopkeeper at the end of the road. We also had a telephone kiosk, but if your relations needed to get hold of you in an emergency, then they called the shop and Fred Cooke would send one of his kids down to your house to give you the message. And because we didn’t have a car, we couldn’t go anywhere until the London coach went through the next day, if we had to go to London in a hurry, because that’s where all our family lived. The "coach" by the way, was just a bus, but because the service had started in the days of horse-drawn transport, people still called it the coach. I thought about those times yesterday, when I announced to my husband that I thought I might like an iPhone, entranced by the idea of having my entire media world in an almost paper-thin do-dad at my fingertips – which was a surprise, really, because I am not what you’d ever call an “early adopter.” All a bit different from Fred Cooke’s black bakelite telephone.

I worked on the local farms as a child – the big advantage of being a country kid, you could always get outdoor work throughout the school breaks – and one day while gathering spent hop bines, I found a pin from the uniform of a First World War Land Army girl. I had that pin for years, and even used to wear it. I was crushed when it dropped off on the London tube one day. I love the idea of being in this world and having some connection to the past, some memory that gives me only a degree of separation or two from history.

I wonder how much that whale had needed to compensate for our oceans becoming more polluted, and warmer. Had he changed his territorial habits, or had he thought, “I’m too old for that!” There he was, a whale who had been born at the time of the sailing ship, and lived long enough to see his kin deafened by the navy’s sonar. And ever since I read that story yesterday, I’ve wished he was the one who got away.

Now, on another note, you may recall that a few times over the past year, I’ve asked that question, “How do I raise the bar on myself?” The question has mainly been in connection with who I am as a writer, but as we writers know, everything about who we are is part of being a writer, otherwise people wouldn’t write or read blogs. I flirted briefly with the idea of doing an MFA in writing, however, I kept coming back, in my deliberations, to a course I had been fascinated by for about ten years that, essentially, delves into what it is to be human, through the lens of mythology and depth psychology. The MA/PhD program in Mythology and Depth Psychology at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in California, is the sort of thing I would have loved to do when I was younger, but not only do I think you need a few miles on you before you open a lid like that, but someone would have said, “You’ll never get a job with that for a degree!”

I finally bit the bullet in early April, having already attended two open days and several of their short courses, and spoken to numerous ex-students (many of whom are writers) – and sent in my application. I knew I could handle my studies along with my writing - the fact that it’s low residency and not far from where I live helps – and hoped that one would inspire the other. People come from all over the world to this particular seat of learning, which also houses the Joseph Campbell library, so I wasn’t overly confident when it came to assessing my chances. My interview was scheduled for just a few days after I sustained my shoulder injury, and I decided to go ahead with it, but not take the painkillers, otherwise I might have been way too interesting – to myself, anyway. And at the end of last week I heard that I had been accepted. So, in September, I will be going back to school. I’m more than a little scared, but that particular emotion is outweighed by excitement, and I’m happy to report that a significant number of the students are of the “mature” variety. I’ll keep you posted!

Have a good weekend one and all, and if you want to share this post, you can use the envelope icon below.


  1. Jacqueline,

    What a wonderful post, full of echoes of my own recent thoughts. Maybe it's our age. The iPhone has triggered some of it, and the whale, too. It's almost like you've heard the pings of my own psychic sonar.

    I marveled the other day that I had known a man (my grandfather) who had known a man (his grandfather) who carried a flag in our Civil War.

    I recently bought an MP3 player, small as a lipstick, that carries as much music as 50 of my old vinyl albums and I don't need a turntable to play them. I find myself staring at it in wonder sometimes and I'm sure the younger co-workers think the old man's gone daft.

    I've been thinking of going back to school, too. I can get a break on Duke's tuition through my wife and I'd like to go back and finish my bachelor's. I dropped out of school long ago when my GI Bill ran out and I was broke. I was 14 hours shy. I look back on it now and realize what a mistake it was, but so it goes.

    I'd like to study Italian and art. Maybe even take a writing course. Your return is encouraging. I'll be following your progress.

    Thanks again for this post. It's nice to know I'm in good company with all these thoughts of time.

  2. from Jacqueline

    Thank you, David. I think our age has something to do with those echoing thoughts, however, I believe that being born mid-century - especially the middle of the last century - has something to do with it. It was a tumultous time, in terms of social upheaval and technological innovation (for better or for worse), so that, on the one hand, for example, my grandfather's livelihood depended upon the horse (and if a horse couldn't earn its keep, it wasn't worth the keeping), whereas for me, the horse is recreation. And my father still maintains that it was a sad day in automotive engineering when they finally did away with the starting handle as back-up for electric ignition. That, in an age of Star Wars and the Space Shuttle.

    Going back to school is very exciting, and now it's a case of being able to study something I am really interested in, that engages me and that I know will open doors on many different levels within me. When I first went to college, the only door anyone seemed to be interested in (especially one's parents), was the door to future employment.

    It's been interesting, the number of people who, upon hearing of my plans to go back to school, have said how much they would like to do the same thing, to be engaged intellecually in higher learning. "Go for it!" is what I have to say to such yearnings.

  3. "I wonder how much that whale had needed to compensate for our oceans becoming more polluted, and warmer."

    Really an interesting question, and I don't have a clue.

    I would recommend, however, the five-part LA. Times series, "Altered Oceans," which won the 2007 Pulitzer for Explanatory Reporting. It appears with ample illustrations and video at


  4. from Jacqueline

    Thanks, Paul. I've read part of the series, but will check out the link. When I lived close to the ocean, in Montara, just south of Devil's Slide in northern California, I used to go out with my camera - not that I'm any kind of photographer - and take photos of the polluted beaches. I'd find seaweed wrapped around a cellphone, styrofoam everything, and plastic, plastic, plastic washed up. And when I lived close to the English Channel, we would see all manner of trash washed up, with the language (on cans, plastic containers) indicating where the offending pollutants came from. Like a message in a bottle, that ocean trash can travel the world.

    The other thing about living on the coast in Montara, whenever you saw the locals taking a stroll down to the beach, they'd always be carrying trash bags. Beach clean up wasn't a one day a year token effort, but something we did all the time.

  5. Jackie,
    I'm a huge histroy buff and follow developments of local historical finds with interest.

    Currently, we are experiencing a drought. The receding waters of Lake Okeechobee have yeilded numerous artifcats. I often wonder the hardships those original people and early settlers endured.

    As for history in the last 100 years I usually just ask Paul what things were like.


  6. Jim,
    Much like the whale, I carry harpoon marks in my hide, too.

    Thanks for the info. I thought the only artifacts Lake Okeechobee yielded were early Budweiser cans.

  7. from Jacqueline

    Oh, boys, boys boys, how you quip! And how funny you are with it!

    I've read about the lake, Jim, and I think it's fascinating how artefacts are being yielded up by the drought - and not only early or later Bud cans!

    The thing is, those people might not have considered their way of life as being hard as we do today, given the level of ease we're used to. When I was a kid I used to help my grandmother with her laundry, and she used an old washboard along with one of those bars of green laundry soap, then after she rinsed the laundry, she'd run it through a mangle - you had to have strength to turn the handle of that thing. Frankly, I don't think our clothes or linens today would stand up to that sort of treatment.

  8. On the subject of drought, it seems the entire peninsula of Florida is ready to drop into a vast sinkhole.

    There's an excellent new book: "Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern United States" by Cynthia Barnett. The book was featured this today on NPR's Morning Edition. Excerpt here.

  9. from Jacqueline

    And the subject of the new Great American Drought was the headline in the UK's Independent newspaper this week:

    And still the sprinklers are sprinkling all over California. My brother is a landscape designer/gardener and at his house does not have a lawn, just brick patios everywhere. He says, "It's a desert here, you go with it, don't fight it." But his clients all want English country gardens while he talks about drought tolerant and "companion" gardening (that's where you plan the garden so that the bugs drawn to one plant kill the bugs drawn to another, and other certain plants keep the weeds at bay) means you don't have to use chemicals to manage your garden.

    And this dialogue brings us all back to the subject of many a post here at taking responsibility for our footprint here on earth. I try my best, but I wish I was half the saint I would like to be when it comes to my big clodhopper-clad foot and the environment.

  10. Our J, I love all of this post, but I think my favorite part is about the pin you found, and the wonderful Women's Land Army poster. I remember being puzzled by David Mamet's title Speed-the-Plow, when I first ran across it. I haven't seen the play, so I don't know what it means in the context he intended, but it's very pleasing to discover the derivation.

    A website description of their work in WWII reads:

    "The girls of the land army looked after animals, ploughed the fields, dug up potatoes, harvested the crops, killed the rats, dug and hoed for 48 hours a week in the winter and 50 hours a week in the summer. As there was not enough machinery to go round they often had to work with old fashioned equipment, such as horse drawn hand ploughs, and to harvest crops by hand."

    Did your pin look like this?

  11. from Jacqueline

    Thanks so much, Cornelia. No, my pin was more like the poster, but without the drawing. The typeface was about the same, and it was square with Land Army in bold lettering on a white background. It was just lovely, just a bit bigger than your average postage stamp. I treasured that pin and was heartbroken when I lost it - but served me right for not leaving it at home.

    Last year I bought my God-daughter a silver pin from the Royal Canadian Veterinary Corps in WW1 - she's training to be a veterinarian and lives in Canada, so I thought it would be something to bring together our two interests, so to speak.

    There's a film made about seven or eight years ago called simply, "Land Girls" (watch out for Rachel Weisz in her breakout role), an adaptation of the book by Angela Huth - it was a simple movie, and gave an idea of what those girls accomplished in WW2

  12. I love that the life of the whale spanned a century, and it's migration path probably passed so many changes in it's world every year. I'm sorry that it didn't meet a natural end after surviving for so long in the wild. We take life so much for granted.

    I love the land army badge story too. :-D I'd love to read your memoirs someday. Your observation and recitation of life is so interesting. :-)

    Congratulations and felicitations on being accepted into the Joseph Campbell program/degree!! Empowering. Go for it!! Yep, know that scared excited feeling going to class all too well. :-D You'll do wonderfully well.

    Good onya, and thanks for another wonderful post.

    marianne (who's exhausted after spending four hours in design conference with a publisher for a picture book - Bob's the artist)

  13. Hi Jacqueline,
    While we don't have access to a hundred year old whale, my family is lucky enough to have my grandmother, who this past February celebrated her 103rd birthday. She is quiet a remarkable woman, not just because of her remarkable age, but simply because of the woman she is. One would assume that at 103 she might be getting bored with life and more than a little disgusted about all the crazy things she's witnessed over the years, but she's probably the most upbeat optimistic person I know.

    On a recent visit I brought her a little gift--a bracelet made up of shiny glass beads. She has a real weakness for gaudy costume jewelry. The flashier, the better. I was helping her put the bracelet on when I noticed she had several more on both arms. I jokingly asked if she thought she'd have room for one more. She laughed and said, "Honey, I'm like Dolly Parton. I believe a person can't ever have too much jewelery or too much hair."

    Here's to whales and big-haired Cajun women. May they all live long and happy lives.

  14. Hi Jacqueline,

    Congratulations on getting onto the course! I certainly don't regret going back to uni myself - although I was only in my 30s when I did, and I'm not sure I'd do it again in my 40s, let alone 50s!

    Of course, one advantage of going late, as well as the ones you mentioned, is that your cobblersometer is more fully developed.


  15. Thanks for your comments, Marianne - and I happen ot have a memoir of my childhood tucked away, but I think it's going to remain in the drawer for a while yet.

    And Anon, congrats to your grandmother. I happened to read today that Britain's last surviving veteran of WW1 just turned 109. He was eighteen when he was called up for service, and was wounded in the Battle of Passchendaele - a terrible battle, if ever there was one, in 1917 - 90 years ago.

    And Robert - thank you for your congrats, too. My cobblersometer has been in pretty good working order for some time now, thank heavens! One of my friends has just received her PhD at the age of fifty-seven, which I think is pretty good going, and something to aspire to.