Posted by: floridanature | January 27, 2009

Under the Sea: A Memory Shard, Full

Except for a few wayward souls with an obscure interest in liteature, Rachel Carson is known only as the author of “Silent Spring”, the well-informed scientific riff against the gluttonous pesticide industry, and all it was doing to our earth.rachel_carson

But Carson, an aquatic biologist, was also one of those rare writers who could eloquently translate science into the wider ecology of feeling and perception—one who could alert us to the thousand tiny eyelets hidden in a coral reef in the Florida Keys, and then explain why it touched her so. In this way, she was like other scientists who have artistically reveled in the profound and mysterious spirit of the natural world: E. O. Wilson, Archie Carr, Loren Eisley, and of course, William Bartram.

gearing up my tank

me, gearing up my tank

In the posthumous “Lost Woods”, Carson wrote: “I can remember no time when I wasn’t interested in the out-of-doors and the whole world of nature.” Explaining her affinity for discovery, she tells of spending time at sea on a converted fishing trawler being used to seine not for seafood but for scientific specimens. When the trawls dragging the sea bottom were retrieved and their harvest dumped on the stern of the boat, Carson was as excited as a little girl. “I think that first glimpse of the net, a shapeless form, ghostly white, gave me a sense of sea depths I never had before. As the net rises, there is a stir of excitement. What has it brought up ?”

seward_johnsonii_600

I think of that question when I go under the water, in a spring, onto a coral reef, far from land. Once, when I was on an oceanographic expedition to the Galapagos Islands, Dr. Bruce Robison explained to me that —for centuries—seining and fishing the sea were the best humans could do to experience that Other world. It was not unlike a space ship dragging a seine atop skyscrapers in New York: What was revealed was only a tiniest sliver of the earth and people below.

Dr. Bruce Robison

Dr. Bruce Robison

In the Galapagos, we had the chance to immerse ourselves in that world, to become in solution with it. We spent a month there, in that strange archipelego 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, and I can’t think of one morning when I didn’t wake from my bunk without a great sense of anticipation for what the adventure of the day would reveal.

One crisp, sunny November morning, I became separated from the scientists during a descent near an oceanic islet and found myself alone, hovering at 90 feet, the rays of the bright Equatorial sun flashing around me like a giant strobe. Large Galapagos Sharks circled just at the edge of my vision in the clear water. Perhaps they were curious, perhaps predatory.BSK0012

I was either too ignorant or too narced to feel fear—or maybe, my idea of an real and whole experience is so vastly different from most that it simply doesn’t translate well.

The sharks around me moved through the water with an elegant grace, a primal dynamic more graceful and essential than any ballet I have ever seen. This is how a large wild cat, a panther or a jaguar, might dissolve and then reform itself as it stalked its way through the understory of a jungle.

I moved my fins just enough to allow me to rotate in a very slow 360 turn in the water so I could take it all in. After that, I hung there for God knows how long, breathing very slowly and gently so my exhaust wouldn’t frighten the animals around me. I could see a rocky bottom another hundred or so feet below me, but I had no interest in it. I was suspended in another dimension, just for now, and I felt almost transcendent as a result.

me, underwater

me, underwater

Finally, a large school of tiny butterfly fish swayed through the water, surrounding me in a menage of blue and gold, odd little heads pinched into an image that looked more like a small bird than a fish. I was already smiling, and when the little butterflies surrounded me, I actually laughed, blowing my regulator out of my mouth. The fish scattered, and even the sharks widened their range, spooked by the bubbling from this strange alien cobbled together from neoprene and metal and rubber.butterfly-fish-513648-ga

I recovered fairly nicely, and after checking my air pressure gauge, realized that—while time had almost stood still for me, the air in my tank had not, and I begin the slow ascent back to the surface. Once there, I inflated my BC and hung in the water with my mask off and my head back, letting the sun warm my face.

Through the troughs of the waves, I could see the small Zodiac we were diving from, could see the others either in it, or heaving themselves over the gunnels and back into it, clumsy as sea lions would be on land. Those guys were all courageous souls, living their lives like few others, and I miss them. In the distance, a wisp of smoke from the caldera on Isla Fernandina rose into the deep blue Tropical sky. I put my mask back down and finned away towards the boat, making slow, deliberate strokes against the strong current.

I had gone beyond the seines, beyond the tips of the skyscrapers, down to a deep place where the only real shard of the experience was the one that I would forever keep in my memory. It seems as if the times I most cherish are the ones that are also fleeting, ephemeral. They are made more heartbreakingly beautiful and full because of it.

Rachel Carson once wrote of her excited anticipation for the trawl’s harvest: “What has it brought up?”

And, of course, now I understand: It has brought up dreams.

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(Thanks to friend and veteran underwater photographer Norbert Wu for the use of his images of me.)

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