Stitching Across Oceans

Entry begun on Friday, June 13, 10:30 am

With Kevin and Tammy Muente at Stitches in Time exhibition

With Kevin and Tammy Muente at Stitches in Time exhibition

The first time I wrote a journal in which to record immediate sensations I might later convert to a published text was in July 2008 during a trip to the Olympic Peninsula in my home state of Washington with Kevin Muente, a landscape painter, and his wife Tammy, a curator and free-lance writer. The original idea was for me to keep a running journal during our two-week loop of the peninsula and for Kevin to make open-air paintings in addition to taking photos as the basis for studio paintings he would make back home. I ended up with a substantial journal which led to considerable historical research after I got home. Kevin created seven open-air paintings to which he added 19 studio paintings after he got back home. The immediate result of the trip and its follow-up was an exhibition in NKU’s Third Floor Gallery from August – September 2009. We called the exhibition Stitches in Time on the Olympic Peninsula, which was also the title of the catalog of the exhibition, edited by Tammy.  The catalog included all twenty-six of Kevin’s paintings accompanied by photographs from the trip and my essay “Stitches in Time: Kevin Muente at Work.”

Coastlines from Neah Bay, south to Ozette, southeast to Sekiu, National Park Service map

Coastlines from Neah Bay, south to Ozette, southeast to Sekiu, National Park Service map

I loved the challenge—and the discipline—of writing that journal on the run. The experience became especially rich during two days with the Makah Indians at Neah Bay, followed by a day-long trip to the site of the ancient whaling village at Ozette. So much happened in those three days on the extreme Northwest Coast of the continental United States that I was still writing it up in my journal after we had moved on to Forks, La Push, Ruby Beach, and Quinault. That visit to the Pacific connects with my imminent visit to the Atlantic coast because each was very much about whaling. The Makah had resumed their ancestral cultural practice of hunting whales in 1995—until a ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals forbid its continuance in spite of (a) the tribe’s conscientious adherence to the regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency and (b) the explicit rights the Makah had been given in the Treaty of Neah Bay in 1855 to hunt the whale “at usual and accustomed grounds and stations.” At the time of our visit, the Makah, under the leadership of Micah McCarty, the tribal chair, were working hard to comply with a new set or regulations adapted to the language of the court’s decision. We were hoping to meet Micah McCarty during our visit to Neah Bay, and we were also planning to see the Makah Research and Cultural Center, a museum that preserves the excavated remains of the ancient Makah whaling village at Ozette, fifteen miles down the Pacific Coast, which had been obliterated by a landslide around 1500 A.D.

Ridge of gray whale's back, Strait of Juan de Fuca, July 2008

Ridge of gray whale’s back, Strait of Juan de Fuca, July 2008

We knew we wanted to see the Makah Research and Cultural Center, so we did that our first afternoon in town. We did not know that Micah McCarty would invite us to meet in an outdoor campground near Hobuck Beach to hear him give a talk on the history of the Makah whaling culture to a class of biology students from Evergreen College. Nor did we know that we would meet John Scordino, the Makah’s marine biologist, who invited Kevin and me to accompany him on a four-hour grey-whale census down the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Sekiu and back in a small Zodiac boat. The first whale we saw announced himself with a spouting that hovered and glistened in the air like those fireworks sparkles that seem like they will never fall from the sky. The next one surfaced right next to us, a magnifying gray blur in the clear blue water until his back, a ridge long enough to walk on, broke into view. The third gray whale we sighted was charcoal black; we did not get as close to him, but we felt he was elderly, as he kept in the part of the kelp garden nearest the shore, and rose or sank quite slowly.

Still life of stones and bones commemorating the ancient Ozette

Still life of stones and bones commemorating the ancient Ozette

To get to the site of ancient Ozette the next day, we had to drive almost all the way to Sekiu and then back across the Peninsula, because the topography along the coast line is impassable even today. From the Ozette Ranger Station we knew we had a three-mile hike down to the shore before walking a mile up the beach to the site of the ancient Ozette landslide. We did not know that along that shore we would see a little open-air shed filled with improvised tributes to the ancient Ozette who had perished. These poignant memorials included a still life composed of shoreline stones and gray whale bones with grass growing through it like the green verdure that weaves through the sperm whale skeleton in “A Bower in the Arsacides” in Moby-Dick, symbolizing for Ishmael the loom of time in which “Life folded Death; Death trellised Life” (chapter 102).

Corpse of ship-struck whale on the shore of Cannonball Island, July 2008

Corpse of ship-struck whale on the shore of Cannonball Island, July 2008

The Ranger had told us that if the tide had gone out far enough we might be able hike beyond the ancient Ozette site to Point Avala and wade out to Cannonball Island. She said that a whale had been stranded there about a month ago and parts of its body might still be on the rocks. The tide was out far enough for us to carefully step through the receding water and onto the island shore. None of us had ever seen a stranded whale. It was flat as a pancake, raw pink in color, and putrid in smell. Its striped pouch showed that it was a baleen whale. We later learned that it was a juvenile humpback who had been killed by a ship strike as it was peacefully feeding on krill in the Pacific Ocean Natural Marine Sanctuary extending far out from this shore. On the Atlantic Coast, legislation has been implemented to regulate the speed of cargo ships passing through waters in which whales customarily congregate. Such legislation has not yet come to the Pacific Northwest Coast. It just happened that the tail of the flattened whale pointed straight to the spot along the shore where the ancient Ozette had lived five hundred years ago. Ishmael begins is examination of the skin of the whale in the “Blanket” chapter by celebrating its subtle beauties “in life” (chapter 68). We were seeing a much sorrier spectacle in death, under conditions that made me feel a new poignancy for those right whales who are peacefully feeding at the beginning of the “Brit” chapter, but are themselves subject to the sea that “dashes even the mightiest whales against the rocks, and leaves them side by side with the split wrecks of ships” (chapter 58).

Ancient Ozette petroglyph of mother and infant whale

Ancient Ozette petroglyph of mother and infant whale

We knew from the guide book that there was a second trail from the shoreline back up to the Ranger Station from Sand Point—and that if we hiked the three miles south from the trail we had descended we would have a nine-mile triangular loop. This can be done only when the tide is out, as the shore is impassable at high tide. I had checked the tide chart on the bulletin board at the Ranger Station and we were in luck. The tide was beginning to ebb as we began our hike down to the shore and would be out long enough for us to take the long way back if we desired. We had loved our time along the shore and we decided to extend it even though it would mean getting to our bed-and-breakfast in Forks late at night. I wanted to explore the three-mile shore between the two trails because there were known to be ancient Makah petroglyphs there, one of which I had seen on the cover of a book, incising the shape of one of the first colonial sailing ships that had come along this shore. We never found that petroglyph, but we found many more, some representing whales, some delineating human figures, some showing human and whales together. My favorite is the one that Kevin found carved into the spacious face of a rock resting flat on the shore, showing a mother whale with its baby calf. This is the ancient Ozette equivalent of one of my favorite passages in Moby-Dick, the one in the “Grand Armada” chapter in which Ishmael’s whaleboat slips into a magical calm within the murderous action of the chase.  He sees “suspended” deep below him “the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales.” Ishmael notices that the “delicate side-fins” of one of the “infant” whales “still freshly retained the plaited crumpled appearance of a baby’s ears newly arrived from foreign parts” (chapter 87).

Stone lance-head from Dorset website; try to get image from Makah museum

Stone lance-head from Dorset website; try to get image from Makah museum

This was a magical day, and a perfect complement to the surprise encounters with living whales the day before. Each new stop seemed like a fresh new step in to the material and spiritual substratum of Melville’s Moby-Dick. During our walk along the Ozette shore I remembered that Ishmael had mentioned Northwest Coast Indians somewhere in Moby-Dick but I could not remember where. When I got home I found the passage I was looking for at the end of chapter 81, “The Pequod Meets the Virgin.”  Ishmael is looking closely at the ulcerous spot in the flesh of the aged bull whale that Flask had cruelly “pricked” with his lance, provoking the already captured creature into “more than sufferable anguish” during its final, bloody flurry. Moments later, the fresh corpse of this “piteous” whale would break free of the chains of the ship and sink with “all its treasures unrifled.” Before that happens, however, as the whalers are “are cutting into him with a spade” near the ulcerous spot, “the entire length of a corroded harpoon was found embedded in his flesh. . . . But still more curious was the fact of a lance-head of stone being found in him, not far from the buried iron, the flesh perfectly firm about it. Who had darted that stone lance? And when? It might have been darted by some Nor’ West Indian long before America was discovered.”

How did Melville know, when he was writing Moby-Dick between 1850 and 1851, or when he was at sea between 1841 and 1844, that the Northwest Coast Indians had been hunting whales long before the time of Columbus? Did he know, one wonders, about the Ozette whaling village that was buried by a landslide around the year 1500? If so, from whom? From whalers at sea? Whatever he knew, and how, what I see as most interesting about Ishmael’s observation is that the round stone lance-head cast by the Northeest Coast Indian left the surrounding flesh undisturbed for centuries, where as the “corroded” modern harpoon had spread the ulcer.

The schooner Exact, courtesy MOHAI

The schooner Exact, courtesy MOHAI

When Melville published the first American edition Moby-Dick in New York City on November 15, 1851, the virgin forests of the Northwest Coast were beyond the reach of East Coast industry. Two days earlier, however, the schooner Exact had dropped the Denny party who became the founders of Seattle at Alki Point. By October of the next year, Henry Yesler was in the process of building the first steam-powered sawmill on Puget Sound, leading to the founding of Seattle in 1853. The Treaty of Neah Bay was one of several treaties in 1855 which helped open the forests of the Olympic Peninsula to the new sawmills. On January 26, 1856, Herman Melville’s cousin Guert Gansevoort commanded the frigate USS Decatur in the one-day Battle of Seattle that crushed the last substantial Native American uprising in the wake of the recent treaties. The way was now secure for the East Coast industrialists to invest heavily in harvesting Northwest Coast forests—and for noble Douglass fir to be cut from the rugged slopes of the Cascade and Olympic mountains, dragged down to the shore, and shipped around Cape Horn to become the keels of East Coast whaling and sailing ships.

Catalog cover for the 2009 Stitches exhibitioni

Catalog cover for the 2009 Stitches exhibition

We were invited to include a writing sample in our application to become a 38th Voyager. I submitted my transcription of the Ozette section of my Olympic Peninsula journal, even though it has never been published, because its spirit and texture seemed closest to what I hoped to be able to do in response to a voyage on the Morgan. If I had known how to blog in 2008, that would have been a perfect way to share my experiences on that trip. In 2009, we called our exhibition catalog Stitches in Time because many of the sites Kevin painted looked as we imagined they might have looked hundreds of years before. We also used that title because Kevin’s camera had a “stitching” function that allowed separate photographs he had taken of adjacent scenes to be stitched together into a single panorama he would later use as a guide for studio paintings.

Gp Pro Hero 3 Silver Editioin

Gp Pro Hero 3 Silver Editioin

For my voyage that is now ten days away, I have just bought a GoPro camera that will allow me to record panoramic images of the ship and its surroundings in video as I climb the rigging. When I went to Target to buy a few accessories for the GoPro camera that I had ordered from Amazon, I learned that the new iPhone 5S that Joan had given me for Christmas can itself automatically stitch together a quick sequence of adjacent stills into an integrated panoramic image by panning the camera from one side to another of the desired subject–just as the landscape painter must do mentally in integrating a flood of impressions from a single scene.

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