My normal reading diet consists almost exclusively of nonfiction (most recently Lance Armstrong's War, because I've been on a cycling kick), but every year I try to read one great classic of literature. In recent years I've read things like David Copperfield, Native Son, Treasure Island, and In Cold Blood. I have Proust and The Grapes of Wrath on the shelf, waiting. Last year I tried to read Moby-Dick for about the third time in my life. Alas, Ishmael and I don't get along; I realized the other day my ambition had been inadvertently harpooned—I set the book aside one day and just never took it up again. The fate of all too many books. Fiction, to echo what Richard Hugo said of flying, is unnatural.
Ironically, I lapped up the two current non-fiction books about the historical incident, Thomas Farel Heffernan's Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex and Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, as well as the first-person account of the Essex that Melville was familiar with, Owen Chase's The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex (The Essex, if you don't know the story, was the only real whaling ship ever attacked and sunk by a mad whale. The meaning of the story has changed somewhat nowadays; in light of the remorseless factory ships and the sad tragedy of overfishing, some of us find ourselves inclined to root for the whale).
But I know the story, of course. The brooding, Old Testament prophet of a whaling captain, Ahab, obsessed with the albino whale who took his leg, intent upon revenge at any cost.
"Vengeance on a dumb brute!" cried Starbuck, "that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."
"Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me."
Which brings me to the albino squirrel.
Months ago, in June I think it was, I caught sight of a white squirrel in the alley adjacent to ours. I turned up the alley in the car, gave chase, and just glimpsed his tail as he disappeared behind a fence. I meant to walk up there later with a camera, and see if I could get a shot of him to post on the blog. But of course I forgot about it.
The days of the summer passed by. Had it really been a white squirrel? It might have been an apparition. Or a cat.
Then, months later, pottering about the neighborhood on my new bike, which I love, and have named Gruesome—no, not Pequod—I saw the white squirrel again—unmistakeably, this time, from my perch high atop my two-wheeled crow's nest. He was gamboling happily by the side of the road, in plain view, some two blocks from where I'd originally espied him. Again, poor wretch that I was, I had no camera with me. I swear to God this was the reason I subsequently bought the handlebar bag for the bike which I wrote about in this watery vastness not long ago—so I could take the camera on the bike. The white squirrel was the reason. I'm not saying I've been obsessed, at least not Ahab-level obsessed, but I had in mind that one day I was going to encounter the elusive white squirrel again. I intended to be ready. Well, sort of ready, given that I don't have a zoom or a tele. As I've reported, I went on several rides with the GF1 nestled in the bag's well-padded hold.
It's an internet truism that "the best camera is the one you have with you," but it's a lesson I don't think I'll ever entirely learn. Last weekend we were enjoying what around here is called "Indian Summer," a brief warm respite at the end of the autumn—summer's last gasp before the frigid nor'westers arrive. On one of those balmy days I interrupted my work at the computer to drive Zander to band practice at a friend's house. The friend lives near the dog park, and Lulu, who knows exactly where she is whenever she gets within a mile of the park, made such a fuss that I gave in to her pathetic whimpers and whining and we made an unplanned stop. I've taken too many pictures at the dog park, so it's normally no hardship to be there without a camera, but wouldn't you know it—being that it was probably one of the last warm weekend days of the year, our local dog owners were out in force that day. The one time I didn't have the camera with me, and there were more people and dogs at the park than I'd ever encountered, and not by any small margin. There must have been 150 dogs meandering happily around, if not 200, and half again as many owners.
A lovely sight, if you love dogs. I would have liked to have a picture or two to remember it by. So on the way home, I was once again castigating myself for not bringing the camera, because the fact is that you just never know when you're going to want it, when—you guessed it: there he was, unexpectedly, in the grassy strip beside the busy road—the white squirrel! Where was my weapon? I could have turned the corner, departed the ship—er, the car—stalked him, maybe gotten lucky. But no camera. I felt the mute admonishments of all you TOP readers at the back of my mind. Lesson learned that day, yet again—once, and then again, an exclamation point added, like the stinging of the lash-end.
Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals—morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge.
So anyway, the other day I sent the Panasonic GF1 back to its owner. As if on schedule*, a boxlike brown truck hove into view on the swell of our hill, and a box fetched up on the lee side of the porch—a Sony A850 to test, courtesy of B&H Photo.
Alas! The A850, beauteous though it undoubtedly is, will not fit in the handlebar bag.
I took Gruesome on several long rides during our warm spell. Because the Sony is too big for the bag, no camera, again, on these rides. On one occasion, I beat to the top of a long hill, and turned into a cemetery there. At the back edge of the cemetery I was surprised by an unexpected view. The grateful dead have a spectacular vista, from their hilltop, of the industrial side of town. The light was delicate and lovely; I regretted, again, that I didn't have a camera with me. And of course, all this while, I continually had it in the back of my mind—since I don't have a camera with me, I'll probably see the white squirrel—.
But I didn't.
Yesterday, I did something else that I too often do—another lesson that I never learn. I drove back to the cemetery, in the car this time, with the camera. I had it in mind to re-create my first encounter with that fine view, and make a panorama with the Sony. This never works; no matter how similar the conditions seem, the light is never the same. I took a few pictures, here and there, a headstone, a statue, a bush. Nothing much.
And then, as I was walking back to the car, I froze—there he was! Me with a camera in my very hand, and the Great White Squirrel was not twenty yards away, frolicking among the tombstones! I had him!
"Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!"
I stalked steadily toward him, and he took refuge in a bush. Which might afford some protection for him from me, but not from the camera. Alas, he seemed to realize this as suddenly as I did, because the infernal little bugger leapt for the ground and made a run for the tallest nearby tree!
I made a quick snapshot**, and then he was up it.
He's canny, the White Squirrel. He never showed me more than the edge of his head, as he watched patiently from behind the body of the tree. He seemed to know I was after him, and he had a much better reason to be patient than I did. And of course I only have a 50mm lens for the Sony. I waited a while, wandered off, returned. No wildlife photographer I, this was the best I could get, because it was the most he showed of himself, the whole time:
But it was him, all right! A detail:
Down to his beady red albino eye.
He really is a cute little bugger. You're just going to have to take my word for it.
But don't think it's done between us yet. I still have a date with the Great White Squirrel. I'll get a halfway decent picture of him one day, or my name's not Ahab—er, Mike.
**The word "snapshot" was first applied to photographs by Sir John Herschel, the Victorian polymath who discovered the image-fixing properties to hypo. It originally meant a shot by a hunter who, surprised by a sudden encounter with game, quickly snapped shut his broken shotgun and fired without taking careful aim.