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Book Review : A Different Kind of War Against Seals

December 20, 1985|MICHAEL PARFIT | Parfit's book on Antarctica, "South Light: A Journey to the Last Continent" will be published by MacMillan in January. Parfit is currently in Antarctica. and

The War Against the Seals: History of the North American Seal Fishery by Briton Cooper Busch (McGill-Queens University: $29.95)

It would be easy to misconstrue from its title that this fine book is another polemic about inhuman humans and childlike sea creatures. It's not. It is more valuable than that, now that other publications have engaged our emotions. The war described here so painstakingly is a historian's war, full of the many shadings of causes, meanings and cultures, and the gentle conclusion is simply that it persists.

The subtitle is misleading too. The story here is of the sealing done by North Americans all over the globe, not just on our shores. Briton Cooper Busch roams the world with the hard, sometimes rancid men who pursued all species of seals for fur, leather and oil. He wanders from the delightful sea otters of the Aleutian chain to the gross, grunting elephant seals of the South Shetland Islands. Unlike most of us, however, he is never tempted by this kind of anthropomorphism. The seduction to which he yields again and again is plied by the wench called detail, and his enthusiasm in that direction is almost always the reader's gain.

Busch is calm and detached, but the detail breaks out all over with fierce little glimpses of life and death among seals and sealers.

In the late 19th Century, a Newfoundland man worked a full season for less than $100--money he'd owe to the company before his share was ever paid, yet when the next season came he'd raise a toast to "bloody decks and a bumper crop" and be glad to go out again. On the Pribilof Islands, where Aleut seal hunters were almost enslaved by Russians and then Americans, a white radio operator was threatened with prosecution for walking across town with a native girl. On South Georgia, the elephant seals slept so soundly on the beach that sealers could shoot them one by one without rousing the group. (Anyone who has listened to elephant seals sleep might suspect that gunfire was not the comparatively loud experience it might be in a more peaceful place, like a barracks.)

Also parenthetically, the only time Busch's passion for detail takes him under is between parentheses, (although some of the best anecdotes appear there, such as his explanation of why ships carried explosives: "(for blowing a way through the ice--in at least one case, that of the 'Viking' in 1931, with the effect of blowing the entire vessel to bits.)"). In one paragraph about Newfoundland, for instance, there are nine parenthetical observations. (Eight too many.)

Although wringing out the parentheses sometimes feels like rendering the last drops of oil from blubber chips, that doesn't detract from the book's value, which is to set present controversies in their context of reality. Busch has some understandable chronological difficulties, and for a book this rich with detail, the index is cheap, but "The War Against the Seals" rings as few polemics can, with clear truth.

And that truth is sad. Killing of baby seals is not something done by warped men; it is part of our culture, perhaps of our blood. In these pages, Elizabeth Taylor models Pribilof seal furs and Brigitte Bardot protests the killing of harp seal pups, yet within those differing attitudes is the single fact--the seals are utterly at our disposal. And mootly, we have disposed. In two centuries, 50 million seals have been killed by human beings.

Maybe for the next two centuries more will live. Busch seems to approve of the remark of biologist Victor Scheffer: "The highest use of a wild animal is to let it be." The well-fed humans of the world are starting to agree. But Busch also quotes the great politician of Newfoundland, Joey Smallwood, who acknowledged that we have always been killers, perhaps to our eternal loss.

"It is a fact that for centuries we have lived by killing cod and other fish; by killing seals in the water and on the ice, and animals on land; by cutting down trees. Has all this developed in us a trait of destructiveness, or narcotized what ought naturally to be an instinct for creativeness? . . . Have we not failed almost completely in the one virtue that the modern world has made an absolute essential the ability and the desire to achieve a commonly desired end?"

Busch makes no statement; his interest is fact. But the fact is, too often we bring death to our precious world. This may well be the way of life itself--seals in turn visit horror upon fish, although they do not, of course, make them into slippers. Our tragedy may be that we know the beauty we destroy.

"The War Against the Seals" bears the same gentle message of grief carried by the lines from Kathleen Raine's "Eileann Chanaidh" with which Busch begins Part Four of his book:

Because I see these mountains

they are brought low,

Because I drink these waters

they are bitter,

Because I tread these black

rocks they are barren,

Because I have found these

islands they are loot;

Upon seal and seabird

dreaming their innocent world

My shadow has fallen.

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