Can we ever know whales? Or is the human relationship with whales essentially one of distance, of not knowing? These are some of the questions posed by this interdisciplinary work. Whale books often sit within disciplinary silos. Touching This Leviathan starts a conversation among them. Drawing on biology, theology, natural history, literature, and writing studies, Peter Wayne Moe offers a deep dive into the alluring and impalpable mysteries of Earth’s largest mammal.
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OSU Press: How did an English professor get involved with a whale dissection?
Peter Wayne Moe: When I was a kid my parents took me to a traveling exhibit in Spokane, Washington. It was in a giant warehouse; the lights were off and it was really humid for some reason. The walls were painted blue with green plastic streamers hanging from the ceiling acting as fake seaweed. In the middle of all of that, they had life-sized replicas of whales hanging from the ceiling. Beneath each whale, they had facts about them but all I remember was going in there and being absolutely terrified. It wasn’t supposed to be scary as it was supposed to be educational, but these whales were huge and it was totally dark in there. I remember when we left, we went to the gift shop and I left with two plastic whales which sparked my curiosity. Pretty soon I was at the library checking out every whale book I could find. I started reading Erich Hoyt's 1981 book, A Whale Called Killer, and I’m 8 years old reading this scientific book (which is not the normal thing an 8-year-old reads), but I start reading it over and over and that was my book. Pretty soon I was drawing whales all the time. Fast forward 20 years when I was a grad student working on my doctorate, I was still thinking a lot about whales and I thought I should try to write something.
At Seattle Pacific University, we have this giant science building on campus with this huge empty space and I was standing in there one day looking up at it and thinking, you could hang a whale up there someday. And what do you know, the next week a whale washes up on the beach and I go to the dean and ask if we could get that skeleton and hang it up in the science building? The dean tells me the story that when they built the building, the architect left that giant empty area so that they could hang a whale up there someday. I worked with the state to get the permits and after 10 minutes on the phone, they gave me the permits! The problem was is that I’m an English professor and I don’t know anything about science. Thankfully, NOAA told me to contact Russ Higley who is the whale builder in Washington and he held my hand through the whole thing. It’s such a cool story of science and the humanities working together.
OSU Press: How did Moby Dick influence your writing?
Moe: There’s this Theologian from Duke University, Stanley Hauerwas, who has this line that I love, “Theologians do not get to choose the words they use…because they don’t get to choose the words they use, they have to think really hard about why are these the words that have to be used and think hard about what order the words have to go in to do the kind of work they’re supposed to do.” I just love that because it’s not just theologians, it’s any discipline. We English people get words like postmodernism or metaphor and we have to figure out what it means. Or if you’re an artist, you get words like acrylic and color wheel. Or if you’re in biology you get cell membrane or mucoprotein gel or apex predator. You’re given these words as part of the discipline and you have to figure out what to do with them. When I sat down to do a book about whales, Melville is one of the words I don’t get to choose. There’s this challenge as a writer to figure out how to use the work of Moby Dick and The Book of Jonah and decide what they have to do with my book. I feel like as a writer there’s this beautiful tension that not one of us owns language—we inherit the language and find a way to make it our own and we have to shape it into something new. As far as how did Moby Dick influence the book, I knew I had to write about Moby Dick. There came to a point after the fourth chapter that I had to cool it on the Melville stuff because it’s not a book about Moby Dick.
OSU Press: What was your writing process like for this book?
Moe: I ended up getting this giant stack of notecards and for 3-4 years, whenever I had a thought about whales I would jot it down on these notecards. So that quote from Hauerwas shows up quite a bit in the book and when I first heard that I was really taken with it and I wrote it down on a notecard. After three to four years of doing this, I had 368 notecards. One day I was looking at the stack and it looked like there was enough content for a book. I went up to a seminar room, got this giant table and started sorting them out, and drew connections between the notecards.
When the dust settled, I had nine different piles and I thought, I have nine chapters. I read this trick in a book from John McPhee called, Draft No. 4. He’s a writer for the New Yorker and this is a trick that he uses. So, I thought if he’s writing for the New Yorker, I should give it a shot. I took this stack and then would move the cards around and tried to line them up to build the structure of my book. The first draft had nine chapters and the final version has six chapters. Once I got it drafted, I let it sit for about a year without touching it. Apparently, Stephen King does that and he says you have to sober up after writing. This is true because after I finished it, I was drunk on my first book draft thinking that this was the best thing ever and I needed to sober up and take a cold shower and I’m happy I did that.
OSU Press: You waited two years for this whale, how did this project and ultimately the production of your book teach you about patience?
Moe: There’s some material in this book that I wrote in 2005. For me in terms of patience, it’s taught me that things take time and you can’t rush things. In the book, there’s a chapter discussing my wife and I’s struggle to conceive a child and enter into parenthood. Ostensibly the book is about how do we come to know the unknowable and whales are that stand-in. But as I’ve been re-reading the book, I realized that the book is really a book about the birth of my son. There’s so much mystery to even how my wife and I got pregnant and why we couldn’t conceive. When you get married, people always ask, “When are you going to have kids?” and when you can’t have kids, that question gets difficult because it’s a reminder of this absence and a deep yearning in your life. Ultimately, it’s understanding that we can’t control everything, and sometimes when you’re trying so hard all you can do is wait.
OSU Press: What did you have to overcome to write Touching This Leviathan?
Moe: I knew I wanted the book to be really interdisciplinary because there’s this line from Nick Pyenson who’s a whale paleontologist at the Smithsonian and he says, “to know the unfathomable lives of whales you need multiple kinds of science coming together—biologists have to work with chemists and have to work with paleontologists.” To that, I would argue that you need the humanities as well. If you look at the work cited list it is all over the place. You have rock stars next to theologians next to literary artists next to biologists. And part of the joy of the book is getting these people to talk to each other. When I had the draft finished the book was really incoherent and the first draft didn’t make any sense at all because I was trying to pull from so many places and I didn’t know what I was trying to do. The biggest challenge was making the book coherent and come together. What really helped was that Kim Hogeland, OSU Press acquisitions editor, told me to write a preface to the book which really helped. That forced me to try and articulate the central question of the book and how I would approach it.
OSU Press: How can whales give humans perspective on life?
Moe: Phillip Hoare has this great book called The Whale and he makes this startling observation in there that I love and he says, “that it wasn’t until 1987 that we had underwater footage of sperm whales swimming…we put a man on the moon before we knew what a whale looked like swimming underwater.” That just blew my mind. I love that idea so much and as I talk in the book, we don’t even know how many species of whales there are. In terms of what we can learn from whales, I think there’s this sense of humility that we don’t know everything and we can’t know everything. As humans we have this tendency to think that we can control everything and whales for me is that reminder that we don’t know everything out in the ocean and we never will—and I take great delight in that.
Peter Wayne Moe is an assistant professor of English and oversees the writing program at Seattle Pacific University, where, in the summer of 2020, he led 158 volunteers in hanging a whale skeleton in the school’s science building.