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skin 13
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blood 4
man 4
any 4
great 4
indian 3
too 3
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blanket 3
very 3
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thickness 2
sometimes 2
whales 2
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use 2
entire 2
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barrels 2
three 2
already 2
know 2
something 2
consistence 2
oil 2
weight 2
some 2
much 2

Chapter 68: The Blanket.

	


I have given no small attention to that not unvexed subject, the skin of
the whale. I have had controversies about it with experienced whalemen
afloat, and learned naturalists ashore. My original opinion remains
unchanged; but it is only an opinion.

The question is, what and where is the skin of the whale? Already you
know what his blubber is. That blubber is something of the consistence
of firm, close-grained beef, but tougher, more elastic and compact, and
ranges from eight or ten to twelve and fifteen inches in thickness.

Now, however preposterous it may at first seem to talk of any creature's
skin as being of that sort of consistence and thickness, yet in point
of fact these are no arguments against such a presumption; because you
cannot raise any other dense enveloping layer from the whale's body but
that same blubber; and the outermost enveloping layer of any animal, if
reasonably dense, what can that be but the skin? True, from the unmarred
dead body of the whale, you may scrape off with your hand an infinitely
thin, transparent substance, somewhat resembling the thinnest shreds
of isinglass, only it is almost as flexible and soft as satin; that is,
previous to being dried, when it not only contracts and thickens, but
becomes rather hard and brittle. I have several such dried bits, which
I use for marks in my whale-books. It is transparent, as I said before;
and being laid upon the printed page, I have sometimes pleased myself
with fancying it exerted a magnifying influence. At any rate, it is
pleasant to read about whales through their own spectacles, as you may
say. But what I am driving at here is this. That same infinitely thin,
isinglass substance, which, I admit, invests the entire body of the
whale, is not so much to be regarded as the skin of the creature, as
the skin of the skin, so to speak; for it were simply ridiculous to say,
that the proper skin of the tremendous whale is thinner and more tender
than the skin of a new-born child. But no more of this.

Assuming the blubber to be the skin of the whale; then, when this skin,
as in the case of a very large Sperm Whale, will yield the bulk of one
hundred barrels of oil; and, when it is considered that, in quantity, or
rather weight, that oil, in its expressed state, is only three fourths,
and not the entire substance of the coat; some idea may hence be had
of the enormousness of that animated mass, a mere part of whose mere
integument yields such a lake of liquid as that. Reckoning ten barrels
to the ton, you have ten tons for the net weight of only three quarters
of the stuff of the whale's skin.

In life, the visible surface of the Sperm Whale is not the least among
the many marvels he presents. Almost invariably it is all over obliquely
crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array,
something like those in the finest Italian line engravings. But these
marks do not seem to be impressed upon the isinglass substance above
mentioned, but seem to be seen through it, as if they were engraved
upon the body itself. Nor is this all. In some instances, to the quick,
observant eye, those linear marks, as in a veritable engraving, but
afford the ground for far other delineations. These are hieroglyphical;
that is, if you call those mysterious cyphers on the walls of pyramids
hieroglyphics, then that is the proper word to use in the present
connexion. By my retentive memory of the hieroglyphics upon one Sperm
Whale in particular, I was much struck with a plate representing the old
Indian characters chiselled on the famous hieroglyphic palisades on
the banks of the Upper Mississippi. Like those mystic rocks, too, the
mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable. This allusion to the Indian
rocks reminds me of another thing. Besides all the other phenomena which
the exterior of the Sperm Whale presents, he not seldom displays the
back, and more especially his flanks, effaced in great part of the
regular linear appearance, by reason of numerous rude scratches,
altogether of an irregular, random aspect. I should say that those New
England rocks on the sea-coast, which Agassiz imagines to bear the marks
of violent scraping contact with vast floating icebergs--I should say,
that those rocks must not a little resemble the Sperm Whale in this
particular. It also seems to me that such scratches in the whale are
probably made by hostile contact with other whales; for I have most
remarked them in the large, full-grown bulls of the species.

A word or two more concerning this matter of the skin or blubber of
the whale. It has already been said, that it is stript from him in long
pieces, called blanket-pieces. Like most sea-terms, this one is very
happy and significant. For the whale is indeed wrapt up in his blubber
as in a real blanket or counterpane; or, still better, an Indian poncho
slipt over his head, and skirting his extremity. It is by reason of this
cosy blanketing of his body, that the whale is enabled to keep himself
comfortable in all weathers, in all seas, times, and tides. What would
become of a Greenland whale, say, in those shuddering, icy seas of the
North, if unsupplied with his cosy surtout? True, other fish are
found exceedingly brisk in those Hyperborean waters; but these, be it
observed, are your cold-blooded, lungless fish, whose very bellies
are refrigerators; creatures, that warm themselves under the lee of
an iceberg, as a traveller in winter would bask before an inn fire;
whereas, like man, the whale has lungs and warm blood. Freeze his blood,
and he dies. How wonderful is it then--except after explanation--that
this great monster, to whom corporeal warmth is as indispensable as it
is to man; how wonderful that he should be found at home, immersed
to his lips for life in those Arctic waters! where, when seamen fall
overboard, they are sometimes found, months afterwards, perpendicularly
frozen into the hearts of fields of ice, as a fly is found glued
in amber. But more surprising is it to know, as has been proved by
experiment, that the blood of a Polar whale is warmer than that of a
Borneo negro in summer.

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong
individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare
virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after
the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in
this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood
fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter's, and like the
great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.

But how easy and how hopeless to teach these fine things! Of erections,
how few are domed like St. Peter's! of creatures, how few vast as the
whale!