Observation to a Whail


Julia Pepper

Recited by Alanna Grace Self (@Smolichthys on Twitter).

"(Dug up in Sharlot, Vt. and now on exerbishon at the Stait Hous.)

By Miss Julia Pepper, a poess (?)"      

Big Reptile! Did you expect
To rub out your foot tracks by
The trail of your AbDomen
So that Hager couldn’t find you?
Ef so, your’e sold – Great Blubber!
He knew your hand riting, soon’s
He see it! Better not jump’d
Outer the ark, quite
So much in a hurry.
P’raps your’s riding on an Ice Burg
And stopt to warm to Branden
By a Lignite fire. Or may be
You considered Lake Shamplane
Was the Pacific Oshun! Great
Setashus Mammalia, Ain’t
You took in? Mounted on
Paddles how’d you expect to travil
I sh’d like to now, on the Clay
Called Plisterseen? Gess you
Felt like a fish out er water
Throw’d up by Joner onto
Dry Land. Ichthyosorrus,

Julia Pepper - 1868

Black and white lineart. In the centre of the piece is an illustration of a beluga skeleton mounted as the Charlotte whale is mounted in Virginia. Behind the skeleton is an illustration of a beluga, with some shading to show off the body shape. The beluga is positioned so she looks like she is swimming. The illustration is bordered by a frame that looks like an undersea scene. At the bottom are anemones on the sandy ground, with starfish and an octopus visible among them. The sides and top of the frame are made of kelp and schools of fish.
Guest art by John Meszaros (Twitter: @johnjmeszaros, DeviantArt: NocturnalSea)

We found this poem in the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology News Bulletin from 1952 (Number 34). The poem was originally published in the Vermont Historical Gazetteer, Volume 1. The News Bulletin reports that it was “re-discovered by Mr. Robert G. Chaffee in his library browsing.”

The science behind the poem

The focal animal of Julia Pepper’s “Observation to a Whail” is a fossil skeleton known as the Charlotte Whale. The Charlotte Whale is a Beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) skeleton that was unearthed near Charlotte, Vermont, U.S.A. around 1849 by Zadock Thompson. The skeleton dates to the Late Pleistocene Epoch, making it around 13000 to 10000 years old. It is now mounted in the Perkins Museum at the University of Vermont, where it was reconstructed by geologist Alfred Hager after he purchased it in 1861. This led to the skeleton having several inaccurate features, most notably in the shape of the skull (held together with burlap and boot polish) and some backwards bones. Historians and scientists have agreed that it is historically more important to keep the skeleton as is. The artwork featured here, by John Meszaros, depicts the appearance of the skeleton as it is mounted today alongside an inquisitive living beluga whale.

Beluga whales are cetaceans (referenced in the poem as “Setashus Mammalia”), the mammal group that contains whales, dolphins, porpoises, and other marine mammals like them. It was a shock to everyone when a whale skeleton was found in the middle of Vermont, a state that has no coastlines. This was not always the case though: in the Late Pleistocene, parts of Canada and the United States along the St. Lawrence seaway (including Vermont) were covered by an ocean inlet known as the Champlain Sea. The Champlain Sea formed after the retreat of the last Pleistocene glaciers (around 13000 years ago) which weighed so much that they physically pushed down the ground beneath them below sea-level, allowing the ocean to fill in the space where the glaciers once were. The Sea was home to several whale and fish species seen in the ocean today, but it eventually retreated as the ground that made up its floor began to rebound without the weight of glacier to keep it depressed. As it retreated, large deposits of marine clay were left behind and now underly the soil of the areas once covered by the ocean. In some areas, this clay preserves the skeletons of whales like the beluga, as well as larger whales and other marine life.

Julia Pepper

Along with her name and occupation (“a poess(?)”), the Vermont Historical Gazetteer only includes one line of information about Miss Julia Pepper: “a young lady of Montpelier, we have been told.” This leads us to believe that the poem could have been written at any time between 1861 (when the whale was put on display by Alfred Hager) and 1868 (the poem’s appearance in “The Gazetteer”). Pepper was a very common last name at the time, and was also Julia’s maiden name (presuming she married), so it is extremely difficult to find out more about her. What we do know is that she was quite knowledgeable in the local geology of the area: her poem mentions differently geological deposits within Vermont, including specific references to the types of stratigraphy. For example, “the Clay Called Plisterseen” references the Pleistocene clay deposits that the Charlotte Whale was found in.

Notably, this is the only poem we’ve featured that seems to have been written phonetically. Considering that her poem includes references not only to local geology, but also to Biblical stories, Julia probably had a relatively standard education for her time and social status (either homeschooling by her mother or some amount of formal schooling). She lived in Montpelier, about an hour or two from Charlotte by train, which means her family was probably wealthy enough to take leisure trips to the State House. It could be that she was not required to learn extensive spelling and grammar, or she may have been a child when she wrote the poem and was not yet taught those things. It could also be that as a poem she wrote for fun, she did not feel the need to adhere to strict spelling rules, or maybe the spelling was supposed to be humourous. Unfortunately, without knowing more about Julia’s life, we can’t know what her intentions with this poem were.