The Bowhead whales are fascinating creatures, almost like mythological beasts to us on a St. Croix Valley farm, daily meeting with nothing larger than dairy goats and sheep. They never migrate from the Artic Ocean waters. They grow slowly after their first year, usually nore more than inches a year. Their heart rate slows to 5 or 6 beats per minutes when they dive. Incredibly they can live for 120 to even 200 years. Scientists have found hand-hewn spearheads that have not been in use since the late 1800s in scar tissue on the backs of these whales. It is as if their austere life so far North causes them to conserve energy, and thus, nibbling at life, they can each span several human lifetimes.
With all these interesting facts about these Great Polar baleen whales, I was surprised that Una’s takeaway point from our lessons was that the Inapiaq give thanks for the whale when it is harvested, and pulled onto the ice. She was moved by the human aspect of the hunt, the culture surrounding it. As a community there is a prayer of thanks on site, and broadcasted over the VHF radio. We read about how one whale, landed in late April 2007 took 8 hours to haul onto the ice. It is a community effort, with blocks and tackle and pulleys, and in this particular instance there was an accident with the ice auger that drills holes in the ice to secure the ropes, and a man’s wrist was nearly severed. He had to be airlifted out to a hospital. This description, combined with the fact that so far North, in Alaska, the sun shines only half the year, and then, for the entire 24 hour period of each day left Una wondering why people do this. “It seems a very hard life.” She mused. At the end of the harvest, each family drags away whale meat…and large slabs of maktak (whale blubber) to eat raw for energy. Somehow she didn’t find that inspiring enough.
|seedlings waiting to be watered|
I told her some might think running a small farm not worth the workload as well. The description in Peter Lourie’s book about Craig George and his wife cycling through many ups and downs, wondering if they ought to move away from the small community of Barrow nearer to a place “less raw” is very familiar to us. I once asked Margaret, co-owner of Common Harvest Farm, a veteran CSA farmer of 28 years if they ever wanted to quit and go back to a less frenetic life. “Every fall.” she replied without missing a beat. She described how every Spring would funnel them back into the familier tasks of seeding and greenhouse work, preparing the fields, and advertising for members again with a renewed energy they had thought disappeared. It is very much like what a 75 year old whaling captain of the Inapiaq described to Peter Lourie about what happens within him as the light returns in the Alaskan Spring:
“He can think of nothing else but whaling. He feels the Spring whales coming, and he’s dying to get out to whale camp. There’s a delight in his face as he thinks of the upcoming chase and harvest, and of all the harvest of pervious decades.”
Of the 9 years we have been farming we have done CSA for 5 of those years. We have often remarked that it is during the CSA years that we really feal we are participating in life, marking the time in a profound way, and experiencing the season in such a visceral way, that the memories from the CSA years are so vivid and so lasting…whereas the memories from the non CSA years are fuzzy and few. I think this is because so much of farming is seasonal, and time sensitive. You must seize your sunny days for hay-making, you must dash out to greenhouse before 10 am when the sun climbs and overheats it, so that you can vent it in time, you must seed your successions of broccoli and cabbage and lettuce at certain intervals to ensure a harvest throughout the season, you must weed all of the month of June, so as to have the growth needed for fruiting in mid-summer. Paradoxically, while there are things to fill up so much of our time, they never steal our time, these tasks seem to christen it.
Even the Scientist can get romantic about the whales that he has studied for 30 years.
“The Eskimos believe the whale gives itself. And you can see why. All the whale has to do is swim a couple miles offshore and it would be very difficult to catch one. But a few whales come in close to the ice right near the whaling camps.”
I am so stuck by this description. It is how I often feel looking at seedlings coming up, or the obvious new growth in the field by July. Every year when the earth slowly reveals itself as the sun peals back it’s blanket of snow, it is as if the farm is giving itself up anew for us again. Its so easy to feel disconnected to this process if you are not farming. Just like Una, trying to understand why an entire community will band together to haul a 12 ton mammal onto the ice and divvy it up. The whale means more than just food for the native communities. The whaling seasons bind the communities together, as all monumental efforts do which require many hands working for the common good.
This is very much like small farming. The whale is the harvest, the field our ocean. Our family works at farming as a way to work at family. Shared work as well as shared leisure bind us together. We can commit to ecological farming because of our commitment to family. We are intentionally small-scaled. If we weren’t, if shear profit was our goal, we’d grow too large to give the bulk our attention to our children and to the ecological needs of the organism-like whole that is our farm. There are many responsibilities involved in this kind of farming that makes our focus necessarily streamlined, and our offerings concentrated on what the farm produces well. A member who signs for our farm allows himself to be guided by what the earth provides in season, rather than his or her desires of the moment. This is like riding on the back of a whale, and what a ride it is! This kind of farming results in a bounty beyond the vegetable and meat and milk harvest, it results in healthy social culture as well, just as whaling does for the Inapiaq communities of Alaska. Join us!