Yesterday was one of those days that reminds me exactly why I love London. Having had the good fortune to learn about the last few days of an exhibition on ambergris by AVM Curiosities, founded in 2011 by food historian Tasha Marks and hosted by the Herrick Gallery, 1 French Place, E1, I hastily made an arrangement with Gallery owner Alice Herrick to see it (the exhibit closes today).
The substance ambergris has fascinated me since I studied Moby-Dick, first in my final year of my English BA, and the following summer when I completed an essay on the history of cetology in Moby-Dick and the writings of naturalists Scoresby, Bennet and Beale, as a student at the Munson Institute for Maritime Studies at the Mystic Seaport, CT.
So, literarily and historically, ambergris has intrigued me, but I’ve never had the chance to see it. ‘Ambergris,’ Tasha’s exhibit, allowed me to not only see it, but to smell and even taste it! (I haven’t actually tasted it yet because the ‘ambergris lozenges’ I bought, I’m saving to share with my poetry group, to whom I gave an impromptu lecture on ambergris some time ago. Happily the information I told them was confirmed accurate when I saw Tasha’s exhibit, so I’m glad I’ve got my marine biology straight.)
The Herrick Gallery is a small, beautiful space, and I had a lovely time chatting with the curator, Alice. I’m impressed by what they do with the space. For Tasha’s exhibit, the walls were painted a muted, elegant pale grey, displaying to perfection the centrepiece – a big chunk of ambergris in a tall glass jar. Guests were invited to lift the top off of and inhale the unique scent, which I did three or four times throughout my visit. This was called the ‘scenterpiece’ and the ambergris was on loan from an anonymous donor, whom I learned used to work in the perfume industry. This mysterious lump of organic matter, worth its weight in gold (or perhaps more) was going back to its owner shortly. Ambergris is a scent fixative: it makes scent stick to our skin – so it is used in the finest perfumes, hence its great value.
‘Ambergris’ the exhibit also displayed two beautiful prints of cephalopods, a pomander locket with ambergris inside, two wet specimens – one an octopus, one a squid – in glass jars, the suspended beak of a Humboldt squid in an antique model ship cabinet, and edible oceanic prints of antique etchings of cephalopods and cetaceans. Yes, it was all as magnificent as it sounds. The exhibit was small, but perfectly formed, all of the work created by Tasha, from the edible art to the prints to the specimens.
In case you’re still wondering just what ambergris is, I tend to explain it first with an analogy. You know how a pearl comes from a tiny piece of grit or sand that gets into the soft part of an oyster, and the irritation of this grit actually causes the oyster to throw over layer after layer of nacre to soften and ‘wrap’ the irritant? Or how gallstones form in the human stomach – not quite the same as a pearl, but similarly a hard ‘stone’ ‘growing’ inside the gut of an animal?
Ambergris is like the pearl of a whale, or the gallstone of a whale, and only a sperm whale at that. Why? Because sperm whales are the only cetaceans who will take on giant squid. The only hard part of a cephalopod (‘head’ = ‘cepha’ | ‘foot’ = ‘poda’) is the beak. Inside the long head, if you splayed out all the arms and tentacles (those aren’t the same thing, by the way,) you would find, at the centre of the beast, a beak much like a parrot’s, made of hard, hard keratin, the stuff our fingernails and hair is made from. Within the beak is a radula, a gyrating scraping tongue (like a cat’s, but more like a razor,) that grinds up the flesh of its prey (fish, mostly, but sometimes other squid). So, when a sperm whale ingests squid, it can’t happily digest the beak.
Tasha’s exhibition explained that a small proportion of sperm whales have an intestinal defect which causes a reaction to the squid beaks, and this is what throws layers of organic matter over the hard object to effectively ‘wrap’ it up. And this, my friends, is ambergris. I have no idea how anyone could know that it comes from an intestinal defect in a whale (‘I’m sorry, is this sandwich cephalopod-free?’) rather than just a normal whale…not to say she’s wrong, as she’s clearly done more research on this than I have. (I guess through dissecting dead whales and finding ambergris in whales with a noticeable defect.)
Ambergris, which is understandably extremely rare, is mostly found either washed up on the beach, or within a dead whale (back in the days of the whaling industry and probably, horribly, still in China,it would have been more actively sought – though I think most of the species of whale they are ‘collecting for scientific research’ in China wouldn’t be sperm whales).
All in all a fascinating hour, and I’m sorry the exhibit isn’t on for longer (or that I didn’t know about it sooner!). I’ll look forward to seeing more work from Tasha and from the Herrick Gallery.
After my ambergris-infused visit, I went up to Portobello Road for Sarah Westcott’s reading from her debut poetry pamphlet, ‘Inklings,’ produced beautifully by Flipped Eye Publishing. I’m really proud of Sarah, one of the Nevada Street Poets, and it was a pleasure to hear so many poems that had been thorough our workshop. ‘Inklings’ was a Venture Award Finalist, and is part of Flipped Eye’s ‘flap series’ (number 6). Sarah’s poems are rich with organic experience and exhibit a sensitivity down to the quiver of an eyelash, the pollen on a flower, or the electricity of bats in the air. I highly recommend it, and I know she’s planning more readings soon…