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Book Review: The Sounding of the Whale

The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century

by D. Graham Burnett

University of Chicago Press, 2012

The odd little sub-genre of gauzy nature-books wasn’t born of the humpback whale (it was born of bunnies, robins, and hedge fairies, in England), but the two have been inseparable for almost fifty years now. Whale songs reached the pop charts; cetaceans of all types swam the star-ways in science fiction; two humpback whales even saved the planet Earth in the most popular Star Trek movie of them all. Type ‘whales’ into your favorite book-search engine and you’ll get a list of titles that are heavy on the soft-focus mysticism and decidedly light on the hard-focus mysticeti.

In a way, it’s a perfectly natural counter-reaction to the unavoidable fact that humanity has spent almost all of the time it was even aware of whales trying – in that quintessential human way – to exterminate whales. That long, mindless, bloody chronicle has been told many times (almost never with remorse or regret, although there have been notable exceptions – pride of place going always to Joan McIntyre’s sublimely sad 1975 masterpiece, Mind in the Waters), and it’s an ongoing story: whales of all types are still hunted all around the world, in-season and out, legally and illegally, in numbers that are simply too great to produce any happy long-term picture. Humans almost always sanctify what they’re in the process of destroying, so books come out every season extolling the mystical nature of whales.

D. Graham Burnett’s The Sounding of the Whale isn’t that kind of book. It brims with an intense appreciation of whales, but it takes as its principal subject the vastly complex details of cetaceans’ disastrous experience of mankind. The result is a stupendous (and wonderfully readable) work of scholarship and narrative, an extended study of atrocities that somehow manages to be hopeful – or at least retains its sense of wonder.

Burnett’s personal register of that wonder sounds on opposite ends of the spectrum: his (one suspects) insatiable curiosity has led him both to encounter breaching whales on the open water and to eat whale meat in a Norway restaurant, and his lively, pointedly detailed reporting of both encounters is a sign of the The Sounding of the Whale as a whole: beyond a certain baseline partisanship (Burnett would rather that there be whales – free and unmolested – in the world than that there be any of whale-based commercial products instead)(in the sense that a famous 19th Century naturalist roundly declared “If a man would rather there be beaver-pelts in the world than beavers, that man is a monster”), this is a stunningly even-handed examination of mankind’s murderous interactions with cetaceans.

Toward the end of this 800-page footnote-heavy tome, Burnett professes an only human exhaustion:

On the whole, I would have been delighted to write a better book: the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. And truth is, even the spirit can flag a bit at a certain point. I was taught, long ago, that if you fell asleep while praying, the angels would complete (and thereby perfect) your orations. This does not work with whale books, I can assure you.

But objectively speaking, it’s hard to see how this book could be bettered. Here are the stories – bottomlessly researched and artfully, enthusiastically told – of the various whalers, researchers, natural historians, and crackpots who comprised all the different sides of humanity’s race to understand the world’s cetacean populations before the weaponized whaling technologies of the 20th century rendered all of those populations extinct. Here are the earliest cetacean specialists, hurrying out to stranded whale carcasses intent on harvesting anything they could haul away before decay set in. Here are the labs those specialists built – often groping their way toward technological improvement in eerie lock-step with the technological refinements in hunting whales and reducing their corpses to usable market-products. And here are vivid portraits of the many eccentric individuals involved – and how their views changed over time, as in the case of Florida Marineland curator and sadistic dolphin-torturer Forrest Glenn Wood (not a fabricated name) and demented compulsive animal-torturer (macaques for many years before dolphins) John Lilly:

He and Lily were emphatically headed in different directions in May 1968. And in this sense, their confrontation back in August 1963 must be understood as the first cracking sound of what rapidly opened into a splitting fissure in cetacean research in the United States in a critical decade. Tectonic plates were moving under that local flare-up of scientific infighting: Lilly, increasingly preoccupied in the mid-1960s with erotic and ecstatic exploration of his own mind and that of his animal subjects, eventually came to feel that the dolphins – sexually liberated, stereophonic, non-manipulative superintelligences – were leading him to a new kind of self. Tuning in, turning on, and effectively dropping out, John Lilly left the world that made him – the world of the Cold War biosciences – behind and went on to become a major-minor figure of the pacifist, drug-friendly, eco-sensitized counterculture. Wood, by contrast, still clipped his hair close, and his well-trained dolphins had serial numbers. They, too, possessed remarkable abilities, but about them he and his fellow scientists and trainers could not speak.

Greenpeace is here in these pages, given an account that will satisfy neither they nor their detractors completely (a sure sign that it’s a very good account), as is the International Whaling Commission in all its incredibly flawed ambiguity. Here also, of course, are the whales themselves, magnificent, inquisitive, and extremely gentle creatures whose true natures and intelligences remain almost as much of a mystery in the 21st century as they were in the 19th. And through every page of this book there’s our author, leaping gamely into every subject connected with his inquiry, always willing to trust his own bravura style to carry him over the rough patches:

… I became a historian precisely because I am consistently more interested in resolving these Gordian-knotty challenges with the knife of narrative than with the awl of analysis. So I will forgo a preemptive defense of my account on theoretical grounds and see if the story can, by the end, defend itself from excessive methodological heckling.

It all works, astoundingly well. The Sounding of the Whale may just be the single best work of science and history every devoted to its great subjects. It’s a masterpiece, and its passionate young author deserves a pat on the back from every whale in the world.



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