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The Unaccountable Stupidity of Living Things

by Anca Vlasopolos

"[W]hat havoc the introduction of any new beast of prey must cause in a country, before the instincts of the indigenous inhabitants have become adapted to the stranger’s craft or power."
   — Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle

"[In 1742] they found an immense, slow-moving, previously unknown creature living in the shallows.... By 1768, Steller’s Sea Cow was gone."
   — Carl Safina, Eye of the Albatross

In his journal of the whaling trip on which his health was restored, Olmsted writes of the boring days at sea, when the ship, becalmed in equatorial zones, barely moved on the surface of the water. He recounts how he amused himself by shooting the many seabirds that scavenged on the refuse thrown from the ship or just happened to travel nearby: speckled haglets, six albatrosses in one day, petrels, the black Monimoke. He is not after specimens, but he does desultorily collect feathers, generously distributes them among others on board, and occasionally takes measurements, so as to tell the folks back home of the wondrous properties of the corpses he observes. Often, like most warm-blooded things living in and on the sea and easily caught by men on board, these birds end up in the cook’s pantry. Albatross, as we know, makes delicious fricassee. Alaskan sea cows, who from white men’s discovery to species extinction had twenty years left in which to mate, according to Steller, like human beings, face to face in languorous embrace, also possessed to their detriment meat that tasted like tender veal and fat that had the fragrance of toasted almonds.

On Desolation Island, men feasted on sea elephant. Desolation for whom? Of the seal colonies, by 1817 only four animals remained, which the British ship Eagle promptly dispatched. Clubbed to death, their meat prepared for eating, the sea elephant carcasses yielded oil in much the same way as the whales, through fat rendered in tryworks erected on shore. On this island barren of trees, crushed bodies and feathers of penguins fueled the fires. By 1892, only a little over fifty Pacific sea elephants remained.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Galapagos became the meat locker of whaling, merchant, military, and exploring ships. Boys with switches, Darwin tells us, stood idly by a spring and whacked songbirds over the head when they came to drink, so stupid were those isolated species at guessing the malignity of the biped invaders. Two-hundred-year-old tortoises, six-hundred-pound terrapins “surpassed by nothing in the catalogue of gastromanie,” young seal, whose flesh “was tender and delicate like that of a pig,” porpoises whose dark meat is like liver, sea turtles, seabird and turtle eggs, all made excellent provisions on ships, where men hungered for bloody flesh instead of the rancid salt strips handed out from the store provisioned at the beginning of voyages that sometimes lasted for years. When they could, the men took these wild animals live, as they took goats and pigs and chickens and other fowl from the natives all over the South Pacific, trading beads and cloth and tobacco and cordage and knives, leaving behind syphilis, rats, roaches, a missionary, a couple of deserters, some bibles. They kept the animals on board in pens until they ate them.

Whaling journals are full of passages of sailors’ delight at the sport of dolphins around the ship, their joyful leaps, and then the delicious steaks made of the ones speared, whose oil, superior to all whale oil except spermaceti, would be sold to watchmakers, music-box makers, and other handlers of fine machinery. The ships landed on uninhabited islands that were breeding grounds for many of Steller’s species, as well as for others, some of which somehow remain. The men would kill deer, boars, monkeys, seals, sea lions, petrels, eider geese, albatrosses, dodos, finches, lizards, turtles, tortoises. They would take eggs, they’d skin the animal, eat, or waste the meat, depending on its resemblance to what the men were used to—the cows, chickens, pigs at home. They balked at eating dog.

To this day, governments and native-rights groups talk about the use of the sea as agricultural fields, a simile winding from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first. Pro-whaling anthropologists still ask, what if whale-hunting countries “were to decide to focus on the wholesale slaughter of cows, pigs or sheep as an ‘ecological’ issue?” (Japanese Whaling, 8), as if such a question did not already set off a thousand bells sounding the alarm for global ecologies. The sea, God’s pasture, provides us with the harvest that is ours to take, not by neither spinning nor toiling, but by dangerous exertion—our culling, our gleaning, our spilling, our eating.

In 1887, Manjiro’s entrepreneur friend, Nakaemon Tamaoiki, showed up on Torishima, accompanied by about twelve men and women. They set up camp and began building more permanent habitations. They had come, as Manjiro had advised Tamaoiki, to kill the large birds whose pretty feathers would make them a good living, whose flesh, depending on the season, would make fair eating or good fertilizer for the island’s arid land, whose rendered fat would light their lamps and oil their equipment. Nothing wasted. Everything used, even the beaks, the pink and gray-hued feet. And the birds were there, just as Tamaoiki told them, from November to May like clockwork each year, in multitudes so thick the slopes looked like the sacred tip of Fuji-san, snow-pure. They were there for the taking, so many that in two years the people built a light rail to transport the corpses from the nesting slopes to the makeshift factory where they skinned them. So many that more people came, and they had to set up a primary school for the children. Numberless birds; well, not numberless, since Tamaoiki kept ledgers in good order. About three hundred thousand a year. Nearly forty tons of feathers to be sent to the West through the trade routes now definitively opened by Perry and his black ships.

By December, the birds had settled in breeding colonies on the ridiculous ground nests they’d made, hardly respectable, just indentations in the gravel and grasses, and so stupid. What brainless creature puts its eggs on the ground, where any predator can get to them? And they only laid one or two eggs at most. One egg! Easy to roll off and big enough, six or seven times as big as a chicken egg, to make a good meal for a whole family. Break it over some nice hot rice. Use it, like the Taiwanese, in special moon cookies whose luck potential rises from the moon-like yolk of birds that despite their heft defied gravity and rose, like dreams, high, so high, like dreams, fading into the horizon. The men were still curious about these creatures. Would nothing move the birds? They’d got sackfuls and wagonfuls of them just by clubbing them in mid-air, as they came swarming back to the island, or while they were hatching the eggs. The other birds watched as their comrades fell over, like toys, like pins in a game, and they still didn’t move. They must be the stupidest things in Creation.

Then the men thought that perhaps something different, a new danger, would wake the self-preserving instinct in these dumb birds, which almost didn’t make the killing fun. The slicing blades of the grasses had gone dry again, and the men set fire to a clump close to a nesting albatross. The bird let out a guttural roar—what ugly voices they had, too. The clump started burning briskly. The men began to worry just a bit since the breeze could fan the fire over the whole slope, and they did want the feathers, not just grilled meat. They began stomping out the flames in a circle around the nest, but they let the fire spread toward the bird sitting, moving its head and roaring, till its feathers were on fire, too, and it still did not abandon its egg, and it roared louder now. As the men, mesmerized, watched it go up in smoke, it stopped making any but the fire’s sound. And the men did have roast bird and roast egg for supper, and they shook their heads and laughed at nature’s quirks, the way it made such stupid creatures, just for the humans’ taking.

More and more men and women came to the island where the living was hard but the hunt was easy, and the money brought by the feathers would give them and their families, and even their parents back on the mainland, a bit more of a future. They built little houses that resembled, insofar as the material could be brought over, the fishing-village houses at home, straw and mud and paper. They settled in, on Bird Island, a chunk of rock barely rising from the ocean, heaved up by the volcano’s belch, this volcano whose crater breathed steam each day. Once the albatrosses left for their summer grounds, the settlers spent their time processing what they hadn’t already turned over to the merchant ships that carried the bounty back to the Tokyo markets. They did what little farming could be done on a rockbed, with precious water saved in makeshift cisterns.

By 1902, a mere fifteen years from the first “harvest,” five million birds had died at the hands of the Japanese so as to adorn the bodies and headdresses of Europeans and Americans. One fine August night on this island bathed by the Black Current, whose angry waters were nonetheless balmy and brought such warmth, the volcano woke up. And this time it wasn’t just steam. Like tongues of a gigantic dragon, the lava flows came slithering down the slopes, so fast that not one of the people asleep in their huddled village, with its miniature rail and its small school, heard them, or heard them in time. Fire burned all ahead of the dragon tongues. Ash and cooling rocks covered everything after, spilling into the harbor so as to make landing even more dangerous. All the humans on the island died that night. Only when a ship came from the mainland to check on the water supply of the islanders did the story reach Japan. Torishima had erupted, again, but this time the nation’s eye was upon it, so the eruption was noted and recorded, as was the human toll, something over a hundred—the entire hunting colony.


Anca Vlasopolos is the author of The New Bedford Samurai (Twilight Times Books, 2007); Penguins in a Warming World (Ragged Sky Press, 2007); No Return Address: A Memoir of Displacement (Columbia University Press, 2000); a poetry e-chapbook, Sidereal and Closer Griefs, print chapbooks Through the Straits, at Large and The Evidence of Spring; and a detective novel, Missing Members (trans. Miembros Ausentes, Madrid, 2009). She has also placed over two-hundred poems and short stories in literary magazines.

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"The Unaccountable Stupidity of Living Things" originally appeared in The New Bedford Samurai, by Anca Vlasopolos (Twilight Times Books, 2007). It is reprinted with permission.

The New Bedford Samurai, by Anca Vlasopolos

The New Bedford Samurai is a non-fiction novel blending the life of Manjiro Nakahama—a runaway, illiterate Japanese boy who in 1841 embarked on a fishing boat alongside four older men—with meditative chapters on the environmental effects of 19th-century globalization.


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