Fire and Ice, On Whales and Oil

“Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create. The making of a fish-hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away.” W.G. Sebald

The world we inhabit exists because of fire. Fire produces heat and heat produces energy, fueling the otherwise impossible project of civilization. The mastery of fire marks one of the distinct differences between humans and all other species.  Without it, we never could have cooked our food, leaving our physical and mental evolution foreclosed. Without it, we never could have spread across the planet. Our ingenuity in its application has made nearly every technology we’ve innovated possible.

And Zeus who thunders on high was stung in spirit, and his dear heart was angered when he saw amongst men the far-seen ray of fire. Forthwith he made an evil thing for men as the price of fire. - Hesiod

Fire is our gift and our curse. Gifted by the gods, our earliest cultures saw fire and the technology it brought, as something bestowed upon us by outside forces. This mythology raises questions as to whether our use and pursuit of fire and the technology it allows for, is driven solely by our own self-interest (1).  But, as combustion is essential to civilization, we have always pursued it.

In search of sources to keep this flame alive, English and Dutch whalers began venturing into the seas around Svalbard in the 17th century. They came seeking whale oil to use as fuel for household lamps. Compared to fossil fuels, what now may seem like an innocuous and low impact source of illumination, would drive the bowhead whales that lived in those waters to near extinction in roughly 200 years.

While it’s original discovery is not entirely settled, the first historical record available confirms the Dutch explorer William Barentsz spotted Spitsbergen in 1596 while searching for a Northeast passage around Russia to the Pacific. In 1604, an English whaling ship set anchor at Bjørnøya, Bear Island, which sits halfway between Norway and the archipelago. The English landed to kill walruses but discovered bowhead whales in the waters around the small island. The whales' presence would bring the previously uninhabited and unexplored region into the fold of European consciousness, first as a region to be mapped, objectified and exploited for the resource it provided and second, as a gateway to more northern and unexplored portions of the globe. After the whales were exterminated, it would become a source of fur pelts for the European market, and when that resource was depleted, its mountains would be discovered to hold coal deposits that could be extracted to fuel an industrial civilization that was spreading around the globe. In time, the Arctic region would become one of the most visibly affected landscapes by this massive release of energy that has occurred over the past two centuries. Thus Svalbard, an isolated, barren and predominately frozen chain of islands, has become inextricably linked to heat.

By 1612, Dutch, English and Spanish ships were traversing the ocean around Spitsbergen. The English Captain Jonas Poole reported that same year that whales were so numerous around the seas of Spitsbergen his ships nearly had to plow through them.

“They look very beautiful when the Sun shines upon them, the small clear Waves of the Sea that are over him glisten like Silver,” wrote Martens in his diary.

Initially led by a small number of Basque whalers, who had an established whaling tradition, the crews grew increasingly self-sufficient in whaling techniques in a short period of time, and the numbers of ships and men off the coast of Svalbard soon exploded. Within 80 years, those waters would offer no resistance for passing ships.

After whale stocks were depleted by the mid 17th century in the easily accessible fjords and bays of Spitsbergen, whalers were forced to take their hunt to the open sea, which required a more strenuous effort. Despite the challenges of open sea hunting, the whaling industry grew. Near the end of the 1600’s, there were hundreds of ships crewed by thousands of men in the sea around Svalbard in search of whales. 

 Dutch Whalers near Spitsbergen - Abraham Storck, 1690

Dutch Whalers near Spitsbergen - Abraham Storck, 1690

The whale slaughter worked like this. After spotting a whale from the crow’s nest, a long, wooden skiff was lowered off the side of the tall ship. Six to eight men rowed out over the open waves of the ocean, their only guide a hump occasionally rising and falling through the water. As gulls and cormorants squawked overhead in the cold summer air, the men rowed furiously to close the distance between themselves and the whale. Then they slowed, pulling up their oars and gently rowing as quietly as possible, in order not to spook their prey, as they drifted and bobbed slowly towards it, the black hump a symbol of mystery, fear, excitement, and death on the open water. If the whaler's had sufficient experience, they would try and wait till the whale surfaced to expel air from its blowhole, at which point the whale was rendered temporarily deaf. With a thick, metal, V-shaped harpoon tip attached to a long, wooden pole, a man at the front of the boat drew his arm back and then snapped it forward, plunging the spear into the exposed surface of the whale.  If it was well aimed, the spear punctured the layer of thick blubber that encapsulated the whale, tearing into its flesh. Then, all hell broke loose. If the crew had judged their distance correctly and had some luck on their side, the whale plunged below the surface of the water, as the harpoon line spun around the loggerhead it was secured to, smoke rising off the cord from the speed and tension of its rapid unraveling, before the boat lurched in the direction the whale swam. “The Whale doth swim sometimes away with some thousand fathoms of Rope-line, swifter a great deal than a Ship can sail, or a Bird can fly, so that it makes their Heads giddy…” wrote Martens. The boat and crew were at the mercy of the whale as it raced through the dark waters beneath them, the vessel rising and falling as it was rapidly dragged through the waves, the crew clinging to whatever they could hold fast.

This ride could last for hours if the harpoon was not well placed. Behind them, if the weather permitted, the tall ship raced to catch up.  Eventually, the whale would exhaust itself, and as the boat came to a rest, they pulled themselves along the line towards this alien Other. Suffering unimaginable pain, as whales have an unusually sensitive nervous system, the whale floated gently along the ocean surface. This buoyancy earned the bowhead the nickname the Right Whale, as it was the easiest to hunt. The boat drew close, and crew members plunged their lances deep into its body, aiming for the lungs or heart. Blood spurted into the water around it, and the whale lurched away again, slowly this time. As the water around its black body filled with red foam, it began a death spiral that grew tighter and tighter, before it finally expired.

Often, the hunt did not go so smoothly. Martens wrote:

“I did never see nor hear, that out of his own Malice he endeavour'd to hurt any Man, but when he is in danger; what then he doth is of necessity, and then he doth not value a man no more than a Sand, nor a Longboat, for he doth beat them all into Splinters.”

The whale, in its injured thrashing after the initial harpoon thrust, may have swiped the boat with its tail, tipping it over or smashing it, sending the crew into the Arctic sea, where they had little chance of survival unless the mother ship could rapidly cover the distance.

Despite the slaughter the whaler’s initiated from the 17th century on, it did not go unchallenged by the environment. Between the whales and the weather, the hunters put their lives on their line by merely arriving in Svalbard. Even if they survived the hunt, there was always the possibility the weather turned during the day, stranding the men at sea during a storm in their small whaling skiffs, where they might drown beneath the storm black water as they tried to return to their boats. Their graves, marked by piles of stones to secure the coffins that could not be buried beneath the ground, can be found around the shores of Svalbard. I could not locate any records confirming the total number of deaths - it's doubtful any were kept, but the Norwegian Polar Institute’s guidebook to the region states that on the northwest corner Spitsbergen there are burial grounds containing hundreds of graves. In all my time there however, I would only see one. Four, long pieces of wood sat on top of yellow hued green moss and lichen covered ground. The stones that had once secured the lid now sat inside its frame, pieces of broken wood beneath them. Over the centuries, the wood of the coffin had taken on the color of the rocks inside and around it - spotted, stained blacks surrounded by soft, pastel whites and streaked with various shades of grey. The straight lines of the wooden frame holding the round rocks inside were the only remaining trace of a human presence. Death and the land merged into a singular, subtle monument. In this same region where so many had perished chasing fuel, the Dutch had built what would become the largest of the summer whaling camps, Smeerenburg.

As we approached from the south, the sky was dark, the large, orange moon still resting on the horizon. To the west, isolated mountains rose out of the cold waters of the open ocean, their pointed tops tied to the Dutch name for the land itself, spits - pointed, bergen - mountains. To our east, the mountains of the mainland ran straight into the sea, their surfaces patterned by blacks, whites, and grays. A school of jellyfish passed along the starboard side of the boat, moving quickly through the pale green water. The cold was bracing against my skin. Exhausted from jet lag, poor sleep, and the stress that follows, I felt dislocated, awed by a new world, out of my mind. My eyes teared up. My body became excited. Where was I?

What had the whalers felt when they first passed along this same route? With no Google and no National Geographic to give them a sense of where they were headed and how the land would appear? Their records only detailed weather and wind directions, the tack of their sails, violent encounters with polar bears and walruses that end with the animal tortured, butchered and skinned. Fear is the only emotion recorded in their logs. A singular presence.

 "The train oil cookery of the Amsterdam chamber of the Northern Company at Smeerenburg". Painting by  Cornelis de Man  (1639)

"The train oil cookery of the Amsterdam chamber of the Northern Company at Smeerenburg". Painting by Cornelis de Man (1639)

Built on a flat island covered by small rocks and ringed by the sea and mountains of Fuglefjorden, situated near the top of the northwest coast of Spitsbergen, the site had once been a seasonal camp for Dutch whalers. Although a fort existed alongside 17 other primitive buildings, all that is visible now are the calcified remains of whale oil that built up around the base of the copper smelting pots in semi-circles that appear like ancient rocks stained black by the smoke of a ritual fire. Already abandoned when Martens visited in the summer of 1671, the camp was known in Dutch as Smeerenburg - Blubber Town. While writers made exaggerated claims during its heyday - that thousands of men summered on the island with its own hotel and prostitutes, the truth is that 200-300 men, at most, were present on Smeerenburg during its peak years of activity. Throughout the summer season, before the ice and cold of winter forced the whalers back south, large, copper vats filled with whale blubber slowly cooked down to oil under a sun that never set. The rancid smell of decaying whale flesh and burning blubber filled the air as the men skinned their catch along the beach and stirred the fat in boiling cauldrons. Like almost all work that involves extracting fuel from the earth, it would have appeared hellish. Thick smoke, burning fires, gagging smells - the crepuscular work of a haunted species upon the face of the earth.

The oil here would go on to fuel candles, while the baleen and bone were supplied to a burgeoning fashion industry in Europe, where they could be used to thread corsets, make “knife-hafts” and fashion walking sticks. The oil that formed around the vats, along with a few petrified pieces of timber, are the only artifacts of a former human presence on the island, and they are so natural looking that they might go unnoticed without any context. But this camouflaged historical evidence isn’t necessary to see the human impact on the island. The contemporary evidence is sufficient and more striking.

The slaughter that once took place there is connected to the present by an obtuse circularity. As the site once provided fuel for a civilization, it now plays host to the remnants of that fuel. All along the shoreline, plastic has washed up. The remains of fishing nets, shampoo bottles, buoys, and so many tiny pieces of plastic ephemera, lay stretched out in piles and patches along the rocky shore.


1. There is something Luciferian about the use of fire and by extension, technology. Lucifer, after all, was the light bearer.

Ancient humans saw technology as emerging independently of our minds. Gifted by the gods, our earliest cultures saw technology as something bestowed upon us by outside forces. Rational materialists can provide reams of facts as to why this obviously is not true, but this misses an aspect that may be important and true about those myths.

Within the fields of contemporary philosophy, an increasing number of voices are advocating for animism, panpsychism or object oriented ontology. As gaps in consciousness theory become more difficult to account for, and as data collected by various fields shows intentional behavior and degrees of intelligence among an expanding range of animals, plants, minerals, and cellular organisms, arguments are being put forward that there is a complexity of conscious life among the bodies and objects we share the world with. If life around us is teeming with intentionality and evolutionary drives for survival, we should be consider the idea that technology itself may posses an evolutionary force.

As the theory popularized by Michael Pollan goes, plants have used humans for their evolutionary purposes – enabling their spread, growth, and survival in a manner that would have been impossible without the aid of humans. If the species of wheat could have a perspective, would it not view humans as a vital outside force in their evolutionary success? As Pollan has asked, is it humans who domesticated plants, or plants that have domesticated humans? Of course, if wheat could think, and if it could think like post-Enlightenment thinkers, it would hold its success in high regard, as something accomplished entirely on its own. For all the things we consider marvels – the internet, space travel, medical technology, wheat could care less. All that would matter is that it had escaped its humble origins in Anatolia, spreading around the world, its amber waves spread from sea to shining sea. Our rich inner lives and complex societies incomprehensible, inaccessible and meaningless to the wheat that lords over our species. The truth of the issue of course, is that our trajectories are inseparable.

From this viewpoint, that technology is a co-evolutionary force that has its own evolutionary agenda, rather than solely being randomly discovered and then implemented by humans, is inescapable. Although there should be a high degree of skepticism surrounding claims that AI could someday match the human brain, people are right to be concerned about where technology is leading us. The future of AI might not be in matching human consciousness, as we know it, but in creating something entirely independent and unique. Just as a biologist without an animist worldview might look at a field of wheat and be impressed by human ingenuity, ignoring the wheat’s own contribution to its evolution, we should not mistake our genius in technology as our own private accomplishment. Life, in all its forms, is always struggling to survive, multiply, and carry itself forward.