Reverence Whale Tails

November 26, 2008 — In my last post, I wrote about Champ, the legendary lake monster of Lake Champlain, and his monument in Burlington, Vermont. But Champ isn’t the only water giant to which Burlington lays claim. Vermont may well be the only New England state without an ocean coastline, but it’s still known for its whales...kinda.

Just before you get to Burlington proper, above the shoulder of the northbound lanes of I-89 between exits 12 and 13, rise a pair of life-sized whale tales from the top of a hill as if they were diving down into the earth. I guess when you’re usually a sub-aqueous species but have a prehistoric monster hogging the nearest body of water, you have to adapt.

It’s a startling sight. You’re driving along the highway, eyes bored from the state-mandated lack of billboards and stomach wishing Vermont had more McDonald’s than it does, and suddenly you come across giant aquatic creatures planted in dirt. The whale tails are also visible from the southbound lanes. From that direction they're majestically backed by Vermont’s Green Mountains.

The whale tails are an art installation called Reverence, created by Jim Sardonis, an artist known for his animal sculptures. He created the work in 1989 out of 36 tons of black granite for a conference center project that never got completed. And what do you do with extraneous objects? You throw them to the side of the highway, of course.

Not content with just a blurry photo taken at highway speeds, I wanted to get up close to these extraneous objects to get more of an accurate sense of their full scale. It’s tempting to pull over to the side of the highway because they are so close to it, but I don’t recommend doing that unless you’re out of gas, have a flat tire, or like the feeling of enormous, inertia-laden tractor trailers whizzing by at highway speeds mere inches away from you.

Instead, take exit 12 off the highway, and then take a right onto the Theodore Roosevelt Highway, paralleling the interstate until you get to a business park called Technology Park. Drive around to the back of the park, which is actually the site of Ben & Jerry’s corporate headquarters, and park in the area dotted by large stone spheres.

At the back of this park is a small overgrown meadow of sorts with a slight path. Take that path past a tiny baseball field right up to the 13-foot-tall whale stems. You will get honked at from the highway, but it'll be jealousy honks.

While you’re in the business park, you might as well see Sarodonis’ other piece on the property, a granite bench-fountain combo in the shape of a spiral ammonite, the shell of a large, extinct mollusk. It's in one of the grassy areas of the parking lot among the earlier mentioned stone spheres. I didn’t find out about this piece until I returned from my jaunt, though, so I can’t vouch for anything other than my lack of preparation.

Strangely enough, Reverence isn’t Burlington’s only connection to these large fish-mammals. You can continue inanimate whale watching at the University of Vermont’s Perkins Geology Museum. The museum has on display Charlotte, a fossilized beluga whale skeleton unearthed near the city in the late 1800s and left over from the days when Vermont wasn’t so much a tourist destination as it was the bottom of a sea.

Fortunately for us in the Holocene Age, Burlington is a tourist destination instead of a sea and well worth visiting for reasons you won’t always find in highway rest stop brochures. With its metal monkeys, driftwood dinosaurs, and stone cetaceans, Burlington is definitely one odd safari.