Saturday, July 7, 2018

July 7: Heidelburgh Tun, Snow and Grass, Yooper Weather

Now comes the Baling of the Case. But to comprehend it aright, you must know something of the curious internal structure of the thing operated upon.

Regarding the Sperm Whale's head as a solid oblong, you may, on an inclined plane, sideways divide it into two quoins,* whereof the lower is the bony structure, forming the cranium and jaws, and the upper an unctuous mass wholly free from bones; its broad forward end forming the expanded vertical apparent forehead of the whale. At the middle of the forehead horizontally subdivide this upper quoin, and then you have two almost equal parts, which before were naturally divided by an internal wall of a thick tendinous substance.

*Quoin is not a Euclidean term. It belongs to the pure nautical mathematics. I know not that it has been defined before. A quoin is a solid which differs from a wedge in having its sharp end formed by the steep inclination of one side, instead of the mutual tapering of both sides.

The lower subdivided part, called the junk, is one immense honeycomb of oil, formed by the crossing and recrossing, into ten thousand infiltrated cells, of tough elastic white fibres throughout its whole extent. The upper part, known as the Case, may be regarded as the great Heidelburgh Tun of the Sperm Whale. And as that famous great tierce is mystically carved in front, so the whale's vast plaited forehead forms innumerable strange devices for emblematical adornment of his wondrous tun. Moreover, as that of Heidelburgh was always replenished with the most excellent of the wines of the Rhenish valleys, so the tun of the whale contains by far the most precious of all his oily vintages; namely, the highly-prized spermaceti, in its absolutely pure, limpid, and odoriferous state. Nor is this precious substance found unalloyed in any other part of the creature. Though in life it remains perfectly fluid, yet, upon exposure to the air, after death, it soon begins to concrete; sending forth beautiful crystalline shoots, as when the first thin delicate ice is just forming in water. A large whale's case generally yields about five hundred gallons of sperm, though from unavoidable circumstances, considerable of it is spilled, leaks, and dribbles away, or is otherwise irrevocably lost in the ticklish business of securing what you can.

I know not with what fine and costly material the Heidelburgh Tun was coated within, but in superlative richness that coating could not possibly have compared with the silken pearl-colored membrane, like the lining of a fine pelisse, forming the inner surface of the Sperm Whale's case.
It will have been seen that the Heidelburgh Tun of the Sperm Whale embraces the entire length of the entire top of the head; and since- as has been elsewhere set forth- the head embraces one third of the whole length of the creature, then setting that length down at eighty feet for a good sized whale, you have more than twenty-six feet for the depth of the tun, when it is lengthwise hoisted up and down against a ship's side.

As in decapitating the whale, the operator's instrument is brought close to the spot where an entrance is subsequently forced into the spermaceti magazine; he has, therefore, to be uncommonly heedful, lest a careless, untimely stroke should invade the sanctuary and wastingly let out its invaluable contents. It is this decapitated end of the head, also, which is at last elevated out of the water, and retained in that position by the enormous cutting tackles, whose hempen combinations, on one side, make quite a wilderness of ropes in that quarter.

Thus much being said, attend now, I pray you, to that marvellous and- in this particular instance- almost fatal operation whereby the Sperm Whale's great Heidelburgh Tun is tapped.

The Heidelberg Tun.  I had to look that one up this morning, although I had a guess, simply from context.  My guess was that it was a very large container for wine, and I was correct.  (Not really a stunning, Sherlock Holmesian deduction.)  The Heidelberg Tun (and that is the modern spelling) is contained in the Heidelberg Castle.  The current tun was constructed out of 130 oak trees in the year 1751.  It has the capacity to hold 57,854 gallons of wine, although it is not used for this purpose.  It is now just a tourist attraction and dance floor.

Well, this chapter leaves me a pretty big opening to speak about alcoholic beverages that I enjoy.  (In case you are interested, gin is my liquor of choice--Tanquery, to be specific.  My wife insists that this beverage tastes like pine needles.)  However, I am going to avoid the obvious direction in which this passage from Moby-Dick leads me.

Aside from the wine, these paragraphs also focus on immensity.  Melville is trying to make his reader understand the sheer size of the sperm whale.  Certainly, his audience would be quite familiar with the Heidelberg Tun, sort of like if I were describing something very large and wrote, "It was as big as the Titanic."  It's a matter of trying to make something alien and unknown by comparing it to something well known.

Today, my plan is to mow my lawn.  I know, exciting.  There are two chores for being a homeowner in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that I absolutely detest--cutting grass and snow removal.  For those of my readers who do not live in areas that receive much in the way of winter precipitation, I can only make you understand the snow situation in the U. P. by a little comparison (like Melville).  This past February, I drove through the streets of Calumet one evening.  The banks along the road were so high that I couldn't see the houses.  It was like driving through a Grand Canyon made out of snow.

Now, one of the favorite pastimes of Yoopers is complaining about weather.  For example, this summer, the heat has been really hot and humid (as it has been throughout most of the United States).  Yoopers are not really used to Florida-type humidity and temperatures.  So, we sit around in lawn chairs, on back porches, at camp bitching about sweat and bugs and heat rash.  In a few months, we'll be looking at blizzard warnings and yearning for warm weather again.  It's a predictable pattern.

A little point of Yooper etiquette:  people who are not from the Upper Peninsula are NOT allowed to complain about the weather.  If you are from downstate or out-of-state, do not go into the Rainbow Bar in Ishpeming and start making disparaging comments about snow or heat.  You will probably be met with comments like "You trolls don't know anything about snow" or "If you don't like the heat, go back to where you came from."  (Of course, I am paraphrasing here.  The language will be much more colorful and laced with Yooper profanity.)

Since I am a Yooper, I'm allowed to complain about shoveling snow or mowing grass.  Along with the mowing comes complaining about ticks and black flies and wasps.  That will be the theme of my afternoon, if things go as planned.  It is supposed to reach a high of 87 degrees today.  Therefore, I may be cursing the heat, as well, in good Yooper fashion.  However, I will say that, given the choice between grass and snow/heat or cold, I will always fall on the side of warmth.  (This is a change for me.  I used to prefer winter because of Christmas.)

If you see me outside, pushing my lawnmower this afternoon, be prepared to also hear me swearing a great deal, using phrases like "goddam bloody bugs."  That's what Yoopers do this time of year, along with picking blueberries, going for four-wheeler rides, and eating pasties.  (These may be stereotypes, but they are accurate.)

Saint Marty is thankful today for sunscreen and insect repellent.

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