Nantucket Whaler’s Tale, Resurrected

February 11, 2011

Herman Melville, shortly after publishing Moby-Dick to middling reviews, travelled to the island of Nantucket to visit a man he’d never met before, a retired town watchman named George Pollard, Jr. The young writer and the old watchman struck up a warm friendship trading stories about a mutual professional interest: whaling.

Melville had worked whaling boats prior to the publication of his novel and, as whaler and writer both, had plenty of stories to trade. But Pollard had him beat: in 1820 he was given the helm of the Essex, a star-crossed Nantucket whaler, which suffered the fantastic fate of actually being attacked and sunk by an enormous sperm whale. The former Captain Pollard and his crew thereafter took to the sea in small life boats and skiffs made to chase whales, drifting and starving till rescue. Rescue, when it came, had been so delayed that Pollard, starving and mad, had already eaten his cousin.

Apparently an optimist, Pollard accepted command of another ship, the Two Brothers, shortly after. He returned to the whaling waters off the coast of Nantucket with plans to explore the newly opened Japan Ground, but promptly sank again. Pollard then settled on Nantucket island and took the watchman job, living a landed life and enjoying the company of fellow islanders, many of them retired captains also.

Now, marine archeologists have discovered the remains of the Two Brothers and, among them, a trove of whaling treasure: harpoon tips, blubber hooks, whaling lances, and three intact anchors. “Very little material has been recovered from whale ships that foundered because they generally went down far from shore and in the deepest oceans,” Ben Simons, chief curator of the Nantucket Historical Association, recently told The New York Times. “We have a lot of logbooks and journals that record disasters at sea, but to be taken to the actual scene of the sunken vessel — that’s really what is so amazing about this.”

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Acquired Taste

April 5, 2010

There are some shiny new things which are wonderful: a wristwatch is one, a pocketknife another. Sterling silver cufflinks are certainly a third. Each of these things, by their gleaming, announce “I am new, take notice!”

This is wonderful, if something shiny is what you’re after, but it’s not very interesting. Anybody can find a shop and buy a wristwatch, or a pocketknife, or cufflinks. And if they find the same shop as you, they can buy the same wristwatch, pocketknife, or cufflinks as you. So, things gotten that way don’t offer much character of their own, because their character is mass-produced and standardized (which is to say, nonexistent). Character rarely survives the assembly line.

Ah, but what identity might come with a great-grandfather’s watch! An old steel Hamilton, or a leather-strapped Omega, a watch that’s been aboard ships and trains, has travelled, has acquired and displays the ribbons and metals of its campaigns in scratches, chips, and nicks to its case and bracelet… that watch would be worth noticing. And it would lend the man wearing it something more interesting, personal, and stylish than the fact that he can find a watch shop in a phone book. It would lend him some character and, through it, taste.

In this way, men acquire taste. Good taste is an unusual commodity because it is sought by the wealthy but can’t be bought. It isn’t new or shiny; in fact, it’s often old and worn, because having it means having also the ability to enjoy it for itself, without having to stay apace of gaudy fashion; taste is timeless. Relax and imagine two pair of shoes: one is shiny and black and sports an oversized gold buckle, the other is a scuffed old pair of tassel loafers, probably cracked at a seam. Which is more inclined to country club croquet and the gravel driveways of country houses? If you’re not sure, you’re reading the wrong blog. As somebody padding around Nantucket in those beat-up loafers might say, new money shines… old money doesn’t.  

Things, like money and people, acquire taste with age. They all three develop a gloss over time, a texturing and shading that make them more interesting, more distinguished than the newer, shinier models. Of course, there are some regrettable exceptions, things and people incapable of acquiring taste. Hummer H2’s and Arab oil magnates fall into this category.

But luckily for most, age brings restraint, and restraint is the essence of taste. Age means not only having had the time to acquire taste in the form of history and personality, but also the maturity to appreciate it and to recognize in it a worth greater than ephemeral fashion. Many say the journey is more important than the destination, and the journey of life is one of constant acquisition: of things, knowledge, friends, stories, experience, history. The question is, what will we try to acquire while we still have the strength to do it aggressively? Shiny new things… or taste?


Rather Be…

March 12, 2010

It’s past noon on Friday; for most, that means thoughts which quickly turn toward pleasure, rather than work, and preferably some place far-off. Though a half-day’s work remains between now and weekend whimsy, there’s no reason not to indulge briefly in some distraction now. So, presented below, a small sample of the places we’d all rather be right now.

Bar Harbor, ME.

Charleston, South Carolina.

Nantucket Island, MA.

Hanover, NH.

Savannah, GA.