Friday, March 25, 2005

Thirst, abandonment, and "Great Novels of the Sea"

Like many, I find great literature a source of knowledge, pleasure and escape; but more importantly-insight.

Those who make their living on the sea have a great respect for the power, beauty, and totally unforgiving nature of the open ocean. Many a nightmare is filled with visions of being adrift and being alone. From the story of the
USS Indianapolis to Eddie Rickenbacker adrift in the Pacific, to many others, the stories are amazing.

The Corner, Wittingshire reminded me of one of the best, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.

This true story inspired

people think dying by thirst is a "peaceful death." Well, from In the Heart of the Sea,lets look what an eyewitness account used by the author as research for his book says:
In 1906, W.J. McGee, Director of the St. Louis Public museum, published one of the most detailed and graphic descriptions of the ravages of extreme dehydration ever recorded. McGee's account was based on the experiences of Pablo Valencia, a forty-year-old sailor-turned-prospector, who survived almost seven days in the Arizona desert without water....

Saliva becomes thick and foul-tasting; the tongue clings irritatingly to the teeth and the roof of the mouth .... A lump seems to form in the throat ... severe pain is felt in the head and neck. The face feels full due to the shrinking of the skin. Hearing is affected, and many people begin to hallucinate... [then come] the agonies of a mouth that has ceased to generate saliva. The tongue hardens into what McGee describes as "a senseless weight, swinging on the still-soft root and striking foreignly against the teeth." Speech becomes impossible, although sufferers have been known to moan and bellow.

Next is the "blood sweats" phase, involving "a progressive mummification of the initially living body." The tongue swells to such proportions that it squeezes past the jaws. The eyelids crack and the eyeballs begin to weep tears of blood. The throat is so swollen that breathing becomes difficult, creating an incongruous yet terrifying
sense of drowning.

Finally ... there is living death, the state into which Pablo Valencia had entered when McGee discovered him on a desert trail, crawling on his hands and knees: "His lips had disappeared as if amputated, leaving low edges of blackened tissue; his teeth and gums projected like those of a skinned animal, but the flesh was black and dry as a hank of jerky; his nose was withered and shrunken to half its length, and the nostril-lining showing black; his eyes were set in a winkless stare, with surrounding skin so contracted as to expose the conjunctiva, itself as black as the gums...; his skin [had] generally turned a ghastly purplish yet ashen gray, with great livid blotches and streaks; his lower legs and feet ... were torn and scratched by contact with thorns and sharp rocks, yet even the freshest cuts were so many scratches in dry leather, without trace of blood" (Philbrick, 126-128).
Nuff said.

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