Seattle Pacific University associate professor of English and local author Peter Moe knows the frustration of gazing at the ocean in hopes of spotting a whale swimming past and seeing nothing.
He also knows what it is like to lead a team of volunteers and students in removing the flesh from a whale carcass and hang the reassembled skeleton in a building alcove on the SPU campus last summer.
Now, he is sharing his fascination with the ocean creatures — one that began as a child — and his experiences involving whales in his first book, “Touching This Leviathan,” which was published by Oregon State University Press and released this summer.
While whales are a central theme throughout the nonfiction book, Moe considers the large sea mammals through literary, theological and personal perspectives in a series of essays and narratives.
Moe opens his book by pondering the mystery of whales in the form of a question: How does somebody come to know the unknowable — in this case, whales?
“How do you come to know something you never see?” Moe said. “These are the biggest creatures on the earth, and yet we never see them.”
In the following chapters and two “interludes,” Moe then attempts to answer that question in a variety of ways, touching on “Moby Dick” and the Book of Jonah references and personal experiences, throughout.
After posing the question, Moe provides more context to the mystery in the following chapter where he talks about going to the beach and never seeing whales but going back anyway.
Moe then discusses how names have stories attached to them and that those stories and considers how stories influenced the names of different whales.
“For instance, killer whale was first ‘whale killer’ because whalers observed how the orcas were at the top of the food chain and ate everything they came in contact with,” Moe explained.
The next chapter discusses how inherited language can be used to know or understand the unknown, using the Book of Jonah and specifically Jonah’s prayer to God when in the whale’s belly as an example.
Moe said nothing in the prayer Jonah gives is original: It all comes from the Book of Psalms. But when Jonah was in the belly of the whale, he pulls from all of the prayers he has learned or “inherited” to create a new prayer suited for his situation.
“So, the language is inherited from others, and then Jonah must use that language to make sense of his own particular situation,” Moe said, adding that is how language is used by everyone; it is inherited and used in new contexts to address new problems.”
Moe returns to the Book of Jonah again in another chapter, comparing Jonah’s time caught in the belly of the whale to his own feelings when he and his wife struggled with infertility: worrying, despairing, wondering if and when the struggle would end and then rejoicing and celebrating when their son, whom they named appropriately named Jonah, was born.
Moe wraps up his book with a chapter about his own experience with a real, albeit dead whale, recounting the work he and the students did to turn a whale carcass that washed up on a beach into a whale skeleton on display.
“I knew I had to have some sort of physical, tactile experience with a whale in order for it to work,” Moe said.
In between the chapters are two “interludes,” as Moe describes them. The first is 30 short vignettes of whale sightings, all but one witnessed by Moe.
The second interlude explores how the Book of Jonah, or themes from that book, have been retold or alluded to in pop culture and the news, including a Batman comic, a Bruce Springsteen song, “Finding Nemo,” “Pinnochio,” The New York Times and even a Beatrix Potter story where a frog is swallowed by a large fish and spit out again.
Moe said, although being published is good for his academic career, he didn’t write the book for that reason.
“This is more of a passion project,” he said.
Moe’s lifelong interest in whales began as a child, when his parents took him to an exhibit that actually left him scared of the giant creatures. Overtime, his fear turned to fascination and then love.
“I think that horror sort of shifted into mystery and awe,” Moe said.
Moe jokes that he began writing his book 15 years ago as an undergraduate starting with a bad poem about whales, which he included in the book. In actuality, he started it in 2016, finishing three years later.
When approaching the book, Moe considered how whale paleontologist Nick Pyenson said that for people to understand whales, they must draw from all the sciences.
“I knew I couldn’t really offer anything there,” he said, adding he felt the arts must also be considered. “I thought stories and narratives would be a good way at coming at the whale.”
Since the book was released this spring, it has received a favorable response from readers and quickly went into a second print.
“My hope is that people will read the book and realize that there’s a lot out there that we don’t know, and there’s a beauty in that,” Moe said.
With his first book behind him, Moe intends to keep writing books and is currently working on his second.
He thinks it is unlikely, however, that his new writing ventures will have anything to do with whales.
“I think the love will always be there, but I think I’m done writing about whales,” he said.
“Touching this Leviathan” can be purchased at Magnolia’s Bookstore, Queen Anne Book Company, The Elliott Bay Book Company, Amazon and through his website, www.peterwaynemoe.com.