Notes from My Knapsack 6-3-10
Artifacts of a Bygone Age
When you describe it matter-of-factly, it sounds a bit insane.
Go far off around the world, to find a substance out of nature and the deep which you must, at great cost simply to extract and transport, bring home to light your living room or illuminate public space, fuel your devices, and even transmute chemically for making other materials.
Oh, and it almost inevitably must run out, but we keep using it faster and faster and more wastefully, only occasionally confronting the human cost, let alone the natural impact of what we're doing.
Oil drilling, right? Or maybe coal mining? Well, it could describe those economic activities as well. With what's playing out in the Gulf of Mexico, and why we have to treat the Persian Gulf's distant geography like our backyard, all of the above is grimly true for our current dependence on fossil fuels.
The reason my hopes for the future are not so grim can be seen, so to speak, in the display window of Taylor Drug (koff), I mean, the CVS pharmacy on Broadway. The next time you stop by Victoria's Ice Cream Parlor or Whit's Frozen Custard, walk as you eat across Prospect, and check out the old time pharmacy windows Greg is kind enough to keep in front of us in 2010.
In a large glass jar marked "Spermaceti" is a lump of white waxy stuff. The name is no doubt good for a few jokes from the adolescents on bikes who cluster on that broad stretch of sidewalk, but when you look at it, think of a vast sperm whale plumbing the many thousand foot depths of the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean.
The whaling industry of the 1800s traveled the globe in search of the sperm and right whales, the latter of which was "right" because of all the ocean going cetaceans, it was the right one to come upon and harpoon. You could more easily kill, flense, and render a "right" next to your whaling ship, which would float (usually) even when dead, allowing you to cook down the abundant fats from the thick hide in kettles amidships. Those resulting barrels of whale oil were valuable for lamps, making candles, and for lubricating machinery. If you sighted a sperm whale, a riskier proposition, it was perhaps worth pursuit because, if you could keep the body from sinking, at a certain point you would lower a crewman down into the skull case of this aquatic mammal, yards across, where tons of a waxy material called "spermaceti" was even more useful and much more valuable.
Along with whalebone going into corsets and umbrellas and such, the reason a pharmacist would have a supply of spermaceti on hand was that it made for an ideal neutral substance when making up pills, as well as helping make the most clear, bright, steady-burning candles.
In the 1850s, a remarkable amount of American life was made from, lit by, or facilitated by products derived from whaling. We couldn't do without it.
Can you imagine a day, perhaps a century hence, when using hydrocarbon rich fossil remnants of ancient swamps, drilled from under the oceans or pulled out of distant deserts, will seem just as fantastic? And what technology will replace it?
That I don't entirely know, but the likelihood that it will be replaced is summed up by that white waxy lump, harvested a century and more ago from a faraway ocean, now in a jar visible along a Granville sidewalk. Take a look, tell me what you think.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; yes, he's read "Moby-Dick." Tell him a fantastic tale at email@example.com or follow Knapsack @Twitter.