Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Whales of the Dead

Stepan Krasheninnikov:
The Kamchadals regard Mount Kamchatka as the dwelling place of the dead; they say that when it emits flames, it means the dead are heating up their yurts. According to them, the dead live on whale blubber, trap whales in a subterranean sea, and burn whale oil for light. They use whale bones instead of wood to heat their homes. To support their belief, they say that some of their countrymen have gone into the interior of this mountain, where they saw the habitations of their forebears. Steller says that they consider this mountain the home of spirits. When anyone questions them, he adds, about what goes on in this spirit world, they reply that the spirits cook whales. If they are asked where the spirits got the whales, they reply that the whales came from the sea, that the spirits leave the mountains at night and take so many whales that some bring back as many as five or even ten, one on each of their fingers. If they are asked who told them all these things, they reply: Our fathers told us this. As proof they offer the whale bones, which actually are found in large numbers on all the volcanoes.

Explorations of Kamchatka 1735-1741, translation by E. A. P. Crownhart-Vaughan (Oregon Historical Society, 1972). I have modernized the spelling of one word.
Stepan Krasheninnikov was a member of the Second Kamchatka Expedition, led by Vitus Bering and sponsored by the Russian government, which aimed to survey the resources of Russia's possessions in its far northeast, including parts of what is now Alaska, at a time when those regions were all but unknown to science. The Steller mentioned above was the naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, another notable participant in the expedition (and namesake of the extinct Steller's sea cow).

Krasheninnikov's account probably should be better known; he was a pioneering geographer and a capable and relatively unprejudiced anthropologist. Though he was sometimes wrong, as in firmly declaring that whales were fish, there is much of value in his account, which is out of print but not that hard to find. The Oregon Historical Society edition (the only complete English-language version) could have used more explanatory notes but is otherwise a noble undertaking.

Image Credit: "The Volcano of Awatcha (Avacha) in Kamchatka, Siberia." Etching with engraving, from the Wellcome Collection. A different engraving of the same image is reproduced in Explorations of Kamchatka.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Buffon's Ounce, the lonza leggera, and The Long Walk

Slawomir Rawicz was a Polish military officer in World War II who in the 1950s dictated to a ghost-writer a stirring account of how he and several companions engineered their escape from a Siberian prison camp, crossed the Gobi Desert, and then trekked over the Himalayas to safety in British India. Among the incidents he related was a close encounter with two Abominable Snowmen. Just by itself that latter claim might have raised eyebrows, and in fact the consensus now is that Rawicz's account, which was published in 1956 as The Long Walk, celebrated for decades as both an adventure yarn and an anti-Soviet testimony, and eventually filmed (as The Way Back) by Peter Weir, is essentially fictional. Still, at least it makes a good story.

I'm not the only one who has noted the likely influence of Rawicz's book on Harry Mathews's novel Tlooth, which came out in book form in 1966 after having been serialized in the Paris Review. Tlooth, like The Long Walk, describes a clever escape from Siberia and a southward journey over the Himalayas. (It differs from the earlier book in involving, among other things, dental malpractice, obscure religious denominations, and an exploding baseball.) There are no yetis in Mathews's book, but there is a cryptic if not cryptozoological sighting in a chapter entitled "Buffon's Ounce." The narrator and his companions reach a high pass:
There, in midafternoon, a shout stopped us.

"Look!" Beverley pointed uphill.

I saw a pale spotted creature clamber catfashion over snows into the rocks.

Robin remarked, "Una lonza leggiera e presta molto."
That's the last we hear of the animal. The Italian line is from the first canto of the Inferno, where Dante is brought up short by three beasts, the third of which is "a lithe and very swift leopard" — except that what Dante actually meant by lonza has been long debated. Which brings us to the meaning, otherwise unexplained, of the title of the chapter. "Buffon" is Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a French naturalist known, among other things, for disparaging the animals of the New World as being inferior to those of the Old (to the fury of Jefferson*), and "ounce" (or in French, "once") is an obsolete word for a large wild feline, based on an etymological misunderstanding of a derivitive of the Latin word "lynx." (A form like "lonza" was misinterpreted as "l'onza.) What Buffon described — he was the first Westerner to do so — was in fact the snow leopard, shown above in an 18th-century engraving based on his work.

But there's one more weird twist to this convoluted story. Tlooth was published, as I said, in the Paris Review. Its author jokingly claimed that he was often mistakenly assumed to have been in the CIA, and even wrote a novel (My Life in CIA) based on that premise. One reason that Mathews might have plausibly been assumed to have been in the CIA was his connection with the Paris Review, one of whose co-founders, the writer Peter Matthiessen, later admitted that he had used the magazine as cover for his CIA work. In 1979 Matthiessen would win the National Book Award for a book about his travels in the Himalayas. Its title was The Snow Leopard.

* And thus a tale for another time: Jefferson's obsession with the remains of the extinct American mastodon, Charles Willson Peale's excavation of a specimen of the same, Peale's painting of his excavation, an album called Kew. Rhone inspired by the painting, a book, celebrating the album, that includes a contribution by Harry Mathews...

Wednesday, December 08, 2021


I'm walking in the woods at night in the company of Willie McTell. I see three deer standing a few yards away; somehow, in spite of his blindness, McTell is aware of their presence and able to describe them to me. What he doesn't realize is that a half-grown mountain lion has stepped out from among them and begun to approach us.

We climb a series of concrete steps that ascend to an unseen waterfall somewhere ahead. Far below, on the right, is a broad expanse of seething whitewater. The cat is hard on our heels now, drawn by the smell of the sausages I'm carrying wrapped up in deli paper. McTell knows he's there but doesn't seem overly alarmed, and refers to him, jokingly, as "Kitty." Behind us, silently, the mountain lion's parents have begun to follow.

As we climb, the cats press closer and closer to us, bumping us and sniffing at our hands. One opens its mouth tentatively, but for now doesn't bite down. In desperation I unwrap the sausages and drop one on the steps behind us; it rolls off and into the torrent below. The adult male instantly leaps the railing and lands safely on a rock. We leave it behind and continue to climb. I drop the sausages one by one until we're alone. I know that McTell will be disappointed later about losing the sausages, but he'll understand when I explain.

Monday, December 06, 2021

Monday afternoon

I stepped into a little café that was simply a small room with a counter in the rear and a table on either side of the door. The woman behind the counter gestured for me to sit and brought me a menu, which listed just two or three choices. I ordered tea and a pear torte, which turned out to be a delicious warm mélange of fruit and cream swathed in puff pastry, and which was accompanied, for some reason, by a ficelle in a wax bag. When the bill came I was a bit surprised to see that the total came to $60, but even as I reached for my wallet a man strode out of the kitchen, picked up the bill, looked at it, frowned, then began a heated argument with the woman that I couldn't follow, as it was conducted in a language I couldn't identify. I broke off a piece of the ficelle, which was also quite tasty, and waited for the outcome.

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Ambition (II)

Edward Gibbon:
Diocletian, who, from a servile origin, had raised himself to the throne, passed the nine last years of his life in a private condition. Reason had dictated, and content seems to have accompanied, his retreat, in which he enjoyed for a long time the respect of those princes to whom he had resigned the possession of the world. It is seldom that minds long exercised in business have formed any habits of conversing with themselves, and in the loss of power they principally regret the want of occupation. The amusements of letters and of devotion, which afford so many resources in solitude, were incapable of fixing the attention of Diocletian; but he had preserved, or at least he soon recovered, a taste for the most innocent as well as natural pleasures; and his leisure hours were sufficiently employed in building, planting, and gardening. His answer to Maximian is deservedly celebrated. He was solicited by that restless old man to reassume the reins of government and the Imperial purple. He rejected the temptation with a smile of pity, calmly observing that, if he could show Maximian the cabbages which he had planted with his own hands at Salona, he should no longer be urged to relinquish the enjoyment of happiness for the pursuit of power.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
More "Ambition"