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Page 69


Nothing more happened on the passage worthy the mentioning;
so, after a fine run, we safely arrived in Nantucket.

Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a
real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away
off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at
it—a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a
background. There is more sand there than you would use in
twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some
gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds
there, they don't grow naturally; that they import Canada
thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop
a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are
carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people
there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the
shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an
oasis, three blades in a day's walk a prairie; that they
wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snowshoes;
that they are so shut up, belted about, every way
inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean,
that to their very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes
be found adhering, as to the backs of sea turtles. But these
extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.

Look now at the wondrous traditional story of how this
island was settled by the red-men. Thus goes the legend. In
olden times an eagle swooped down upon the New England
coast, and carried off an infant Indian in his talons. With loud
lament the parents saw their child borne out of sight over the


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wide waters. They resolved to follow in the same direction.
Setting out in their canoes, after a perilous passage they discovered
the island, and there they found an empty ivory casket,
—the poor little Indian's skeleton.

What wonder, then, that these Nantucketers, born on a
beach, should take to the sea for a livelihood! They first caught
crabs and quohogs in the sand; grown bolder, they waded out
with nets for mackerel; more experienced, they pushed off in
boats and captured cod; and at last, launching a navy of great
ships on the sea, explored this watery world; put an incessant
belt of circumavigations round it; peeped in at Bhering's Straits;
and in all seasons and all oceans declared everlasting war with
the mightiest animated mass that has survived the flood; most
monstrous and most mountainous! That Himmalehan, salt-sea
Mastodon, clothed with such portentousness of unconscious
power, that his very panics are more to be dreaded than his
most fearless and malicious assaults!

And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits,
issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered
the watery world like so many Alexanders; parcelling out
among them the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, as the
three pirate powers did Poland. Let America add Mexico to
Texas, and pile Cuba upon Canada; let the English overswarm
all India, and hang out their blazing banner from the sun; two
thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer's. For the
sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires; other seamen
having but a right of way through it. Merchant ships are but
extension bridges; armed ones but floating forts; even pirates
and privateers, though following the sea as highwaymen the
road, they but plunder other ships, other fragments of the land
like themselves, without seeking to draw their living from the
bottomless deep itself. The Nantucketer, he alone resides and
riots on the sea; he alone, in Bible language, goes down to it
in ships; to and fro ploughing it as his own special plantation.


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There is his home; there lies his business, which a Noah's
flood would not interrupt, though it overwhelmed all the millions
in China. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie;
he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters
climb the Alps. For years he knows not the land; so that
when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more
strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the
landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to
sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of
sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while
under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.