An essay extracted from Patrick Barkham’s ‘Wild Green Wonders’.
When a sperm whale was washed up on the Norfolk coast, the great polymath Thomas Browne raced from his home to inspect the animal. Braving an ‘abominable scent’, Browne took samples and roasted some flesh in an attempt to discover the secret of the ‘oyl’ or spermaceti after which the whale is named.
The seventeenth-century scientist wasn’t the only disrespectful whale poker. A 1602 engraving by Dutch artist Jan Saenredam depicts crowds around another stranded whale: people clamber on it; one holds up a toddler to see it better. Our curiosity when these deep-sea mammals are washed into our shallows is timeless. But our condemnation is a very modern phenomenon.
There has been anger over the fact that a few people took smiling selfies by three sperm whales found dead on Skegness beach this weekend. Particular rage has been directed against a dad and his toddler son, grinning together, in front of a mighty jaw. The authorities erect cordons and warn that dead whales are a health risk but these dead creatures still apparently made Skegness as busy as a bank holiday. In Hunstanton, where a fourth whale distressingly died on Friday night, hundreds of people clambered over rocks to view it. A fifth washed up yesterday in Wainfleet.
I think it’s heartening that we are still so curious about a dead whale – it would be more tragic if one was stranded and no one took a look. What if that smiling toddler’s cetacean encounter bequeaths a lifelong love?
Obviously we shouldn’t spray ‘CND’ on a whale tail (as has happened in Skegness) or ride the carcass (as people did on a minke whale washed ashore in Barry in 2009). It is right that only scientists are allowed to cut away the jaw or flesh to discover why these animals died. But can’t we admire these whales without inhibition? The reason we are expected to behave in the presence of a dead whale with the same decorum as when attending a funeral is because the whale is such a powerful symbol of the harm we are inflicting on our wild world.
As Hugh Aldersey-Williams writes in The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century, whale strandings were considered an ominous symbol of squandered riches 400 years ago. ‘We read a different loss,’ he writes, ‘the loss that we are inflicting upon nature, and the loss that this in turn threatens to inflict on our own species. The vast, ungainly mammal, crashing blindly round the planet, is us.’
‘Wild Green Wonders’ is out now, published by Guardian Faber. Buy a copy here (£13.94). You can read Sue Brooks’ glowing review here.
Patrick reads from the book, as well as interviewing Peter Riley about his book ‘Strandings’ (our current Book of the Month) at our event at The Social, London, on Monday 7 March. More information/tickets here.