A Trail of Herrings

A Trail of Herrings

The Herring Net by Winslow Homer                    via Wikimedia

In Winslow Homer’s The Herring Net you don’t see the mens’ faces, but their hats take on the wet sheen of fish.  A beautiful passage of painting.  And in all that thunderous sea attention is lavished on the cold reality of toiling humans in its midst.

Homer is among the great American painters.  Look for his compassionate love of humans, his drama, his telling use of light and temperamental seas.


The herrings in the painting are as unalive as the boat.  Props.  They reminded me of an image I’d seen yesterday on the BBC Nature site.  The story is about humpback whales mass feeding on herring in a Norwegian fjord.  The sounds of the breathing humpbacks all over the fjord.

Herrings flee hunting humpback whales near Norway        via BBC Nature

In this photo

“You have no clue where [the whales] are before you see hundreds of scared herrings jumping out of the water, followed by humpbacks with wide open mouths.”                                  via BBC Nature

An eloquent image.  Who knew that panicked fish would fling themselves into thin air?  And in such numbers.

Humpbacks cooperate in hunting and have developed a method of rounding up highly concentrated masses of prey that is called bubble-net feeding. The hunting members of a pod form a circle 10-100 feet (3.1-31 m) across and about 50 feet (15 m) under the water. Then the humpbacks blow a wall of bubbles as they swim to the surface in a spiral path. The cylindrical wall of bubbles makes the trapped krill, plankton, and/or small fish move to the surface of the water in a giant, concentrated mass.               via Enchanted Learning

Humpback whale bubble net seen from above      via Neutrinos for Breakfast

A single humpback making a bubble net      via Neutrinos for Breakfast


But wait, we were talking about herrings.  This animation shows that juvenile herring have a hunting choreography of their own.

Herring Synchropredation animation by Mr Kils       via Wikipedia

Juvenile herring hunt for the very alert and evasive copepods [crustaceans 1-2 millimetres long] in schools: The copepods can sense with their antennae the pressure wave of the approaching herring and react with a fast escape jump.  The length of the jump is quite consistent.  The fish arrange in a grid of this characteristic jumplength.  The copepods can dart for about 80 times before they tire out.  It takes 60 milliseconds to spread out the antennae again, and this timeslot is is utilized by the herring to finally snap a copepod.  A single juvenile herring would never be able to catch a large copepod.                    via Wikipedia

There is an Atlantic herring but it turns out that other species can be meant by the term herring as well. So the sardines you stir into a pasta sauce may not be strictly Clupea harengus but will still taste mighty fine. Herring played a pivotal role in the histories of marine fisheries in Europe, and early in the twentieth century was fundamental to the evolution of fisheries science.  [Wikipedia]
A few weeks ago I wrote a post called Massive Motions about the millions of creatures who migrate seasonally.  I like to think about the amount of energy implicit on our green Earth.  The ergs that life generates daily  here.  Think of the Martian desolation and then think that the impact energy of a small mosquito flying into a wall is about an erg.  Earth has Life and all the ergs that Life entails.  Compare the ill-fated mosquito to a pack of 40-ton humpback whales blasting upwards in a bubble net.  The same whales who migrate 16,000 miles yearly.  Ergs.  By definition life cannot be inert.  To belong on a planet that has life is to exist inside the great pulse where young herring hunt prey in calculated grids and whale round up prey — including herring — in up-swooping spirals.
I’m not daft enough to believe in a bosomy goddess Gaea, but the interconnections of a living planet are profound.  Life creates energy, life expends energy.  Mars is not a roistering world.


Herring Coda for Booklovers

Bookcover of Lawrence Norfolk’s The Pope’s Rhinoceros   via lawrencenorfolk.com

In this sea a barrel is sinking, and in this barrel is a man.  The barrel is a herring barrel and Lawrence Norfolk’s novel is notable for its herring lore, amongst a hundred other things.  The novel has no easy comparison.   A masterful, boggling, language-loving compendium of such imagination that your inner jaw will drop.  It’s a feast, a romp, a crazy tale.  If you don’t require a quick read treat yourself to this book.

If you need more encouragement, his four historical novels have been translated into 24 languages.  The fourth book, John Saturnall’s Feast, was just released in September.  I hope to find it under the Christmas tree.


look further:

Winslow Homer


Humpback whales

Gaea [I prefer the -ea spelling]
Lawrence Norfolk
  • About Norfolk
  • Lawrence Norfolk: A life in writing  in The Guardian, September 7, 2012
  • per Amazon:  (see the site for embedded links)
  • Lawrence Norfolk (born 1963) is a British novelist known for historical works with complex plots and intricate detail. His novels also feature an unusually large vocabulary.In 1992 he won the Somerset Maugham Award for his first novel, Lemprière’s Dictionary, about events surrounding the publication, in 1788, of John Lemprière’s Bibliotheca Classica on classical mythology and history. The novel starts out as a detective story and mixes historical elements with steampunk-style fiction.It imagines the writing of Lemprière’s dictionary as tied to the founding of the British East India Company and the Siege of La Rochelle generations before; it also visits the Austro-Turkish War.Norfolk based his second novel, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, on the story of an actual animal; see Dürer’s Rhinoceros. Themes in the work include the lost city of Vineta in the Baltic, the sack of Prato, and the Benin bronze-making culture on the river Niger.The third novel, In the Shape of a Boar, juxtaposes the flight of a Bukovina Jew in World War II with the legend of Atalanta in Calydon.

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