I hadn’t planned on sitting in Herman Melville’s pew, but there I was in New Bedford, MA, in the Seaman’s Bethel, when I realized that just a few rows behind me had sat the author of “Moby Dick.” I got up and moved to his seat, hoping to absorb his affinity for words by osmosis.
Apparently he didn’t live in this city as long as most of us think. He had sailed out of New Bedford aboard the Acushnet in 1841 which inspired his great whaling epic, but spent only several weeks eighteen months later, attending this church. However, there is no doubt that he captured an era of seafaring adventure and left an indelible mark on the region.
I don’t remember being enraptured when studying “Moby Dick; ” I recall it more as required reading. However, more recently, someone introduced me to Sena Jeter Naslund’s historic fiction called “Ahab’s wife – Or, The Star-Gazer.” While she uses the Ahab story as a foundation, it is merely a springboard for what has turned out being one of my favorite reads … and it was her words that echoed in my head as I sat in the chapel: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” Her well-crafted words truly set the stage for my experience in this quaint corner of a city once teeming with Quakers, runaway slaves, and purveyors of the China trade.
In touring the Whaling Museum, I learned of words that have long since slipped from common usage: “scrimshaw busks” (the ivory corset stays that a sailor would laboriously craft but could only “properly” give to a wife or close family member because of their “private” nature)… “fo’c’sle” – adapted from “forecastle,” the unbearably dark, stifling “dorm room” where sailors bunked – and “krill,” that shrimp-like critter which whales still eat but which I had completely forgotten since my high school biology class. Wouldn’t that make a great name for a rock band? Busk Krill – playing at the roadhouse Saturday night.
History has a way with words which often resonate most dramatically in the oral tradition. A few years ago, we heard a docent at the Kit Carson house in Taos, New Mexico, tell the story of Carson and his young wife, Josefa, who were often separated by distance, and of his anguish at the inability to reach her in time before she died from complications of childbirth. Recounted under the hand-hewn beams and low adobe ceiling of their sitting room, the words came alive.
So what makes words cause the hair on your arms to stand up? I think the power rests in their ability to unlock the imagination, to rekindle a repressed memory, to trigger some genetic coding. For example, I can’t hear the words “paraffin wax” without thinking of berry picking and making jam as a child. Even then, the phrase seemed “old” and intriguing. After hours in the sun, we’d come home sticky and sweet, covered with fiber from dry black raspberry blossoms… fingers stained blue from contact. Sometimes mosquito bites and poison ivy were also part of the prize.
We’d crank up a big, dented aluminum pot filled with our bounty and boil it down, adding pectin and sugar, and pouring the purple elixir into still-hot canning jars. We’d top them off with pools of melted wax which would harden magically even on a hot summer’s night. There was something about that ritual — the perfume of the berried air, the chemical smell of wax — that conjured up kitchens of long ago, gingham aprons, and pantries abundant in sparse winter months.
Writers who can draw from lost language will have a vault of fresh material, so don’t hesitate to pick up that yellowed book in the library to find some vintage words. Troll your local antique store to learn the names of items that are no longer made. Old, authentic words can lend credibility to that dark mystery, western saga, or personal diary for a character from the past.