Rocky Dundas

March 19, 2015

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Fowl Cay to the left and Rocky Dundas to the right, seen from Compass Cay

We are still in the beautiful anchorage at Fowl Cay.  The horseshoe opens up to the north, where  two enormous rocks called Rocky Dundas hide deep caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites.  Cathedrals to nature’s splendor.  Fabulous elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata)  at the mouth of one cave.  

The water is clear and aquamarine…you must get tired of hearing about it.  I wonder at it and think how to describe it to convey the extreme pleasure of looking at it, of being in Yesterday was sweaty hot, even while sailing, the kind of heat that robs you of all energy and leaves you languid and parched.  So just after we anchored here, I jumped into the water.  The shock of the salt surprised me, as it does every time.  Extreme salt that stings your eyeballs and clears out your sinuses and wrings through you like a healing tonic. 

One of the reasons the water is so clear is that the salt kills most of the bacteria.  There is very little algae, no bloom of brown gray green organisms, only sharks and sting rays.  Coral seems to start out as small clumps of anemones and branches out into red candelabras and mustard-colored clumps that you dare not touch.  The sand waves in little hillocks, blown by the currant.  The needle sharp rocks are gray on the top, ochre underneath, where the waves runs in waterfalls back down into the sea.  There is a narrow pale beach here and a small airplane that crashed in the sand a few feet from the waterline.  Beside it is a grave marked with conch shells and a stone that reads, “Dilo, the island dog.” 

I am in heaven because I am here and I am reading Little Women, which I have read many times but not for many years.  What a warm and joyous imagination Louisa May Alcott had.  I love living again among Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and Marmee.  And Hannah.  No one ever talks about Hannah, the servant who lives with them and who is not described except through her speech.  Is she African-American?  And their father is away serving as chaplain in a war which is never indicated but which must be the Civil War.  It is an interesting counterpoint to Moby Dick, which I am still dutifully recounting. 

It is interesting to think about race, especially here in this nation in populated and governed primarily by the descendants of slaves. 

I would love to have a conversation with two people: a Black Bahamian who has lived in the United States, and a Black American who has lived in the Bahamas.  I would actually not have any pre-considered questions other than, “what is is like to live there as opposed to where you grew up?”  “What are the pros and cons of each society?”  This interests me because the ancestors of both groups came unwillingly from Africa, and also because my own ancestors held slaves in North Carolina, from whence many of the Bahamian slaveowners and their slaves came.  In fact, it would be fun to study the traffic between the two places.  No doubt someone has already done this. I can’t really speculate about how Black Bahamians or Black Americans think about their history, but I can ask. 

What I can talk about is how I, a White descendant of slaveowners in North Carolina during the 18th century, respond to Bahamian society.  What I notice, briefly, is a great friendliness and confidence among the people here, but not a great deal of intermingling between Blacks and Whites.  There is commerce, yes, and great warmth.  But I can’t help but wonder how the Bahamians respond to the subtle racism of the all-White cruising crowd, who must seem incredibly affluent to the locals, who are poor in materials as well as education.

Chapter 28: Ahab

Once again Ishmael draws a contrast between the dark-skinned harpooners,

a far more barbaric, heathenish, and motley set than any of the tame merchant-ship companies which  my previous experiences had made me acquainted with,

and the three White sea-officers,

every one of them Americans; a Nantucketer, a Vinyarder, a Cape man.

Race is on Melville’s mind.  No doubt about it.  But where he stood on the issue, how he felt about slavery, that’s the question that critics can’t decide on.  Because the novel is not simplistic.  It’s not a pro- or con-anything kind of book.  It’s not a politician, or a manifesto, or a vehicle for any particular ideology, but rather a complex portrait of a complex, violent society of violent injustices.

At last, also, we meet Ahab, who emerges on deck for longer and longer periods the further south the ship sails.  Ishmael compares the Captain’s “whole high, broad form” to a Cellini bronze statue of Perseus.

The myth of Perseus,son of Danaë, whom Zeus impregnated as a shower of gold, is worth considering here, for it is deeply bound up with the sea, with brutality, murder, and money.  Again and again, beginning in his infancy, Perseus is exposed to terrible dangers that should but don’t kill him.   

Here is the story that Robert Graves assembled from various ancient sources, which suspiciously blame women for starting all the trouble:  

Danaë’s father, Acrisius, having heard that his grandson would kill him, locked Danaë and the infant Perseus into a wooden ark, which he cast into the sea.  It washed to Seriphos, where a fisherman, Dictys, nets it and takes it ashore.  The King of that place, Polydectes, adopts Perseus and tries to marry his mother, who resists him.  Polydectes tries to trick Perseus by sending him after the Gorgon Medusa’s head, which he ostensibly wishes to present to another princess as a marriage gift.  

Athene helps Perseus because she hates Medusa, originally a beautiful woman who led the Libyans of Lake Tritonis in battle.  Somehow she offended Athene, who transformed her into a hideous creature with venom-dripping snakes for hair and a face so ugly that she turns all who look upon her to stone.  Hermes also helps Perseus to kill Medusa by teaching him how to obtain winged sandals and a helmut that renders its wearer invisible.

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Pompeiian fresco depicting Andromeda and Persesus.

On his way back to save his mother from Polydectes, Perseus falls in love with Andromeda, the Ethiopian princess chained to a cliff to be devoured by a female sea-monster.  Andromeda’s mother, Cassiopeia, had boasted that her daughter was more beautiful than the Nereids, and Poseidon responded by insisting that she be sacrificed to the beast. Perseus slays the beast and wants to marry Andromeda, but her parents attack him with a force of 200.  Perseus turns them all to stone with the Medusa’s head and returns home with the marriage-gift and discovers his adoptive father threatening his mother, Danaë, and the fisherman Dictys.  He rescues them, turns Polydectes and his aggressors to stone, and then gives the kingdom to Dictys.  Then he sails with his mother and Andromeda to Argos, where he accidentally kills his grandfather with a discus.

Perseus is a tragic hero who, like Ahab, kills female monsters and sails oceans.  He murders the King who wishes to marry his mother, his wife’s parents, and his only grandfather, along with hundreds of others who oppose him.  The gods help him to commit these deeds for arbitrary reasons of their own.

persee-florence1The author of an on-line guide to reading Moby Dick observes that Melville alludes again to Perseus, whom he calls the first whaleman.  He leaves out Medusa’s head altogether and suggests that the monster the demigod slays to save Andromeda is a Leviathan. Ahab’s skin is bronzed from his time at sea and his singular, mad pursuit has made him hard.

What strikes me when I look at Cellini’s statue is the prone, sensuous body of the Medusa under Perseus’s feet and the beautiful visage on the head he holds up.  I’m wondering if Melville, whether consciously or not, imagined Ahab as a dominating man, whose patriarchal power derives from his ability to conquer the dangerously sensuous feminine elements in the world?

The Brutal Business of Butchering, aka Whaling: Reading Melville at Sea: Chapter 24 – 27

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My anchorage in Georgetown.  Early morning.  No whales here.

Written over three days with nasty winds whipping the waves into froth and rocking the boat uncomfortably.  It is not too bad as long as you don’t try to do anything, like move.  I have been sitting in the cockpit reading books that keep my mind off my troubles.  I finished Julie Czerneda’s Beholder’s Eye, about a feminine being who can transform herself into any life-form in the galaxy.  It was mildly entertaining.  Much better, totally compelling, in fact, was Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies.  Beautifully written, thoughtful, literary science fiction.   A meditation on what it means to be human, individual.  “The job of words,” he writes, “is to construct the fiction of our separate identity.” 

I really am finding Melville tedious these days.  Here we go:

Chapter 24 The Advocate

Ishmael—or is this a different narrator?  advocates for “the business of whaling” as a poetical and reputable pursuit, not the “butchering” that the world perceives. 

Butchers we are, that is true.  But butchers, also, and butchers of the bloodiest badge have been all Martial Commanders whom the world invariably delights to honor.…what disordered slippery decks of a whaleship are comparable to the unspeakable carrion of those battle-fields from which so many soldiers return to drink in all ladies’ plaudits?

I found this rant a bit tedious and difficult to take seriously.   Whaling is butchery and the 19th century whaling adventurers, the White financiers who slaughtered these highly intelligent ocean mammals nearly into extinction, are indefensible.  Melville’s advocate fails to persuade. Or perhaps he does succeed.  Whaling is butchery, like warfare, he says, and Yale and Harvard are involved in this butchering business. 

“A whaling ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”

Perhaps that is the point, and the elevated tone of this and the next few chapters is meant the paean to sound like the farce it is. 

Chapter 25: Postscript

Ishmael is still ranting in defense of the dignity of whaling, unfortunately..

Chapter 26: Knights and Squires

Our narrator introduces us to the commanders on the ship, the higher-ranking “Knights” and then invokes the “just spirit of Equality, at the end of the chapter.  He begs this spirit to lift him up, as the “great democratic God” lifted John Bunyan, and fill him with the power to continue to celebrate the allegedly noble men who make a living slaughtering majestic mammals. 

Chapter 27: Knights and Squires, Round 2

For all his cant about the “just spirit of Equality,” Ishmael reminds us that there is a hierarchy aboard the ship.  It is racial and repugnant, even though the ridiculous rhapsodic tones suggest that Ishmael—our naive narrator—finds it all too wonderful to bear.  He tells us that White “native American” men command while “the rest of the world” do the hard labor.  Bizarrely, the indigenous peoples of North America somehow count as foreigners.  Tashtego’s eyes are

“Oriental in their largeness, but Antarctic in their glittering expression.” 

Indeed, he hardly seems human:

To look at the tawney brown of his lithe snaky limbs, you would have almost have credited the superstitions of some of the earlier Puritans and half-believed this wild Indian to be a son of the Prince of the Powers of the Air.

Daggoo, a “gigantic, coal-black negro-savage” who “retained all his barbaric virtues” is one revolting racial stereotype.  

Reading Melville at Sea. Chapters 22-23

After a Storm on the Lee Shore.jpgWhat does it mean to be reading at sea?  To be reading while at sea, at loss, in grief, in loss of sense, in madness.

at sea confused, perplexed, puzzled, baffled, mystified, bemused, bewildered, nonplussed, disconcerted, disoriented, dumbfounded, at a loss, at sixes and sevens; informal flummoxed, bamboozled, fazed, discombobulated; archaic mazed. 

For personal reasons which have nothing to do with sailing or cruising, I am very much at sea for the past few months.  Lately things have gotten worse.

Chapter 22: Merry Christmas. 

No tree, no candles, no singing, no feasting, no warmth at all.

Parsimonious Bildad pilots the boat out of the harbor while drunken Peleg kicks sailors to make them “jump.”  Ahab remains below, unseen, unheard, allegedly ill, possibly mad. Ishmael stands on board shivering with “wet feet and a wetter jacket” and describes the ship moving out of the harbor:

…as the short northern day merged into night, we found ourselves almost broad upon the wintry ocean, whose freezing spray cased us in ice, as in polished armor.  The long rows of teeth on the bulwarks glistened in the moonlight; and like the white ivory tusks of some huge elephant, vast curiving icicles depended from the bows.

Bildad, at the helm, sings “Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood/ Stand dressed in living green,” and shivering Ishmael dreams of “many a pleasant haven in store.”  Bildad and Peleg take their leave of the ship and drop into a boat that will carry them back to shore. 

Ship and boat diverged; the cold, damp night breeze blew between; a screaming gull flew overhead; the two hulls wildly rolled; we gave three heavy-hearted cheers, and blindly plunged like fate into the Atlantic.

Interesting that Melville writes that they plunged “like fate” as thought fate were a thing that could plunge or dive or swim through an ocean.

Chapter 23: The Lee Shore

The Pequod is like fate.  It “thrust her vindictive bows into the cold malicious waves.”  And as it does so, Ishmael spies Bulkington, the gnarly old sailor previously encountered in the dismal New Bedford pub, a man who had only just returned from one dangerous ocean voyage to head out for another.

  The chapter is called “the lee shore,” which is the line of land downwind from you on a boat.  It is dangerous to sail along a lee shore, because the wind constantly blows you against it, and you have to work hard to stay off the rocks.  Our narrator observes,

deep memories yield no epitaphs; this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington. Let me only say that it fared with him as the storm-tossed ship, that miserably drives along the leeward land…in that gale, the port, the land, is that ships direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through.  With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing fights ‘gainst the winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks asll the lashed sea’s landlessness again; for refuge’s sake forlorly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!

Melville compares the paradox of seeking shelter where none can be had to the search for truth itself:

“all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea.”

Reading Melville at Sea: Going Aboard

Chapter 21:

Whaling
Whaling boat, 19th Century

Somehow I have gotten off track.  Or got off track.  Now not sure.  As am off track.   I thought I was writing about chapter 21 but seem to have commented twice on chapter 20.  Not as though I kept track of these things.  Clearly I don’t as a rule.  And therefore am frequently off track.

At any rate have a general thought about Moby Dick as it pertains to our times.  Melville wrote this novel about different cultural actors interacting with one another during a period of intense political poloarization.  We as a nation are horribly fractured, divided, at odds, off track. Radical Right versus Radical Left, and deadly divisions within each party.  As it was so it shall be.  So what can we learn about this world that we live in by meditating upon a mirror nearly 200 years old?

What’s interesting about chapter 21, ‘Going Aboard” ?

Elijah once again accosts Ishmael and Queequeg the night before they sail, with impertinent and nonsensical questions, such as

“See if you can find ‘em now, will ye?”

Perplexed, without maps, Ishmael and Queequeg step aboard the Pequod and go below, where they find a man sleeping across two chests. Queequeg sits on the man’s face.  Ishmael protests that he is grinding the face of the poor and makes him get off.  Then Queequeg tells Ishmael that in his country the wealthy people enslave poor people and make them serve as cushions and couches.  Queequeg flourishes his tommahawk and boasts that it would be very easy to kill the man sleeping before them. That unfortunate awakens.  Queequeg and Ishmael hear a noise upon deck.  It is Starbuck.  The sun comes up and more crew boards.  But Ahab does not appear from his cabin. 

I have gone off track. I have nightly nightmares about being lost.  I want to go home to “rescue” my son who can’t be rescued, who seems determined to drown. I will stay here, grit my teeth, set my sails and keep my own vessel on course.

Thinking about it Queequeg is pretty scary and unpredictable.  So Ishmael is one brave dude.

I have so many regrets but also believe I have had a very happy life.  So many happy experiences, such great passions, such rich encounters.  And also great sorrows and heartbreaks and frustrations and periods of intense pain and yet still perhaps not as much as I could bear.  No, it has been largely good, rich, and beautiful.   But so intensely painful, like a blade sharp and cold, at times.  The immense losses: mother father husband sister son.  Not that last loss, no, no. Please no. 

Reading Melville at Sea: On Women

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My friend Karen driving her dinghy in the Ragged Islands.

Captain Bildad’s sister, Charity, steps into and out of the narrative in the blink of an eye in this chapter.  She seems more like a symbol than a character, for she really plays no role in the movement of the plot.  She personifies goodness, largesse, generosity, thoughtfulness:

Never did any woman better deserve her name…and like a sister of charity did this charitable Aunt Charity bustle about hither and thither, ready to turn her hand and heart to anything that promised to yield safety, comfort, and consolation to all on board a ship in which her beloved brother Bildad was concerned, and in which she herself owned a score or two of well-saved dollars.

She’s sexless and, interestingly enough, an investor in the whaling ship.  Not simply a fountain of good works for others, but also a woman who promotes her own financial interests, and seeks to make a profit through her good works.  She’s the perfect Protestant capitalist. 

She’s also a Quaker.  Melville’s Puritan ancestors used to strip and whip Quaker women through the streets of town, punishing them for thinking differently, indeed for thinking at all, and for speaking their thoughts in church.  Ishmael seems to regard her as a somewhat frightening force:

But it was startling to see this excellent hearted Quakeress coming on board, as she did the last day, with a long oil-ladle in one hand, and a still longer whaling lance in the other.

The oil-ladle for dispensing the substance that burns and provides light; the lance the weapon that castrates. 

It seems that many male sailors still regard women in these absolute, polarized terms.  They want us to be kind and merciful to them, to cook and clean and shop and provide, but they don’t want us to drive the dinghy or steer the main vessel, and they certainly don’t want us to have the upper hand. How many women captains do you know?  How many men would consent to the status of “admiral” or “first mate?”  None that I know.  And we women go along with the game, and fail to do our homework and allow them to wield the power. 

At any rate, we’ll hear no more about Aunt Charity in this novel, and no women will sail with the Pequog.  Does that make it a “man’s book,” as many of my women cruiser friends assert?  More to follow.

Reading Melville at Sea: Provisioning

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Plant growing out of sand at Wardrick Wells.  There are no fruit trees or crops of any kind on this rocky, barren island. 

Chapter 20

Provisioning.

Interesting chapter.  The Pequod requires, as Melville puts it,

“a three-year’s housekeeping upon the wide ocean, far from all grocers, costermongers, doctors, bakers, and bankers.” 

The amount of goods and provisions that a whaling vessel must store aboard is impossible to imagine.  Where did they find the room for everything they would need?  Do you know that they cooked with FIRE on board the old ships? 

But so many things have not changed in 175 years.  You still have to bring

“spare everythings, almost, but a spare Captain and duplicate ship,”

when you set out.  Everything breaks.  You can’t predict what you will need, so you bring it all.

I did my best to bring all the foodstuffs, basic medical supplies, and galley items that we would need, figuring three months out. I brought powdered milk, evaporated milk, 15 pounds of beans and 15 pounds of flour, 5 pounds of butter, pasta, rice, and canned vegetables and fruit.  I didn’t know what to expect, even though I had done my research, reading on line as well as in books, and talking to every sailor who would answer me.   There are things you can get down here in the Bahamas, and things you can’t find.   

Off the top of my head, what you can’t find anywhere in the Bahamas:

  1. Good peanut butter.
  2. Good cheese (if you have a freezer, fill it with cheese and meat).
  3. Good bread (plan to bake your own, unless you’re okay with Weber’s White and its variations.)
  4. Good wine or beer.
  5. Good pasta.
  6. Wild Rice or brown rice.
  7. Good meats, especially beef or pork.  You can occasionally find decent chicken.   
  8. Good chocolate.
  9. Good olive oil
  10. Good balsamic vinegar

The following things can be bought, but at a premium, as the Bahamian government taxes everything two or three times, especially now that they have introduced the V.A.T.  Foodstuff from the U.S., is taxed far more than stuff from the U.K, so if you MUST have your favorite American crackers and pasta and so forth, prepare to pay twice or three times as much as you would back home. 

  1. Crackers and chips and nuts (junk food)
  2. Pasta
  3. Soft drinks (you can, however, get good ginger beer and other interesting soft drinks).
  4. Fruit juice without corn syrup and added sugar
  5. Anything without added sugar.

Suprisingly, it is also very difficult to get decent fruit and vegetables here.  You can find potatoes, onions, garlic, and cabbage.  Fresh lettuce, greens, and green vegetables show up in the markets, but they have all been shipped from somewhere else and are not very good.  Forget about good tomatoes or fresh parsley or basil, even though the inhabitants have the ability to grow them here.  They don’t grow them or, if they do, they don’t offer them for sale to the public. 

You would think that you could get tropical fruits here for cheap, since they used to grow the on these islands—papayas and guava and pineapple and oranges.  But if you are lucky enough to find them in the markets, you will find that they have been imported and are outrageously expensive.