James Hamilton-Paterson, Seven Tenths, the Sea and its Thresholds
The truth is, remedial work bores me. If one is a fatalist one believes that once something needs to be restored, to be caught and fought for on the edge of extinction, then in a sense it is already gone, has already been lost in the form that had meaning.
The desire to tame a threatening landscape by subjecting it to the control of language can be seen in the old Greek name for the notoriously treacherous Black Sea: the Euxine, or hospitable. An extension of this may result in teh temporary renaming of already well-known places. In World War I when British troops were mired into the static and murderous wastelands of trench warfare, micro-maps were devised fo rthe tiny localities which bounded their lives. London place names were wistfully bestowed on slivers of Belgian and French farmland. What a year or two earlier had been ‘Quineau’s acre’ or ‘Drowned-cow bottom’ were now Haymarket and Leicester Square. This yearning domestication of threatening foreign places is a common enough trope in wartime (‘Hamburger Hill’) and came equally naturally to Pincher Martin, William Golding’s wrecked sailor. Almost his first act on being able physically to patrol the Rockall-like Atlantic islet on which he was washed up was to give its features familiar names like Prospect Cliff, High Street and Piccadilly. This was in recognition that, unnamed, the place of his marooning would have remained inimial to him as well as invisible to rescuers, being quite literally off the map.
A Mozart Seamount does, however, seem particularly arbitrary in the subtropical latitudes around Hawaii. Odder still, it is equally close to Gluck and Puccini Seamounts, just as Haydn is to Mussorgsky and Beethoven Ridges.
The centuries-long dispute about the nature of coral is rendered neither obsolete nor irrelevant by modern science. True, there is no longer any doubt about the organisms responsible for reef building and – broadly – how they do it. At levels of biochemical detail, however, there is still much to learn. Most reef-building corals, for example, exist in symbiosis with microscopic algae. A single coral polyp looks very like a miniature anemone, its close relative. It has rings of stinging tentacles surrounding a mouth, all of which is able to contract defensively into its stalk,. Living within its tissues are the algae which among other things perform photosynthesis and fix nutrients for their host. More than that, the algae enable the polyp to secrete stone. This is a most remarkable attribute and brings a certain accuracy to the old name ‘madrepore.’ Since algae able to photosynthesise are considered plants there arises the peculiar arrangement whereby a plant and an animal combine to produce a mineral – in this case pure limestone. The chemistry by which this is done is not yet entirely understood. There is great complexity in the way these symbionts interact both with each other and with the nutrients in the seawater, with varying temperature, degrees of salinity (fresh water is fatal to corals, which is why fringing reefs are always broken at river mouths), with currents and with light. Not the least striking part of a coral reef’s equivocation, therefore, is that it imprisons at its heart a gigantic plant, while on its surface and slopes there may be few marine plants visible since herbivores such as surgeon fish and sea urchins constantly graze seaweeds back to their roots.
The swimmer among reefs likes to know such things, likes to shine torches into cracks and crevices, takes pleasure in seeing a tube worm sense his presence (smell? sound? shadow?) and retract in a flash, takes pleasure also in knowing the worm ate its tunnel into the coral limestone by secreting acid. It is not only in detail that we experience reefs, though, any more than we experience a forest by examining leaves and marvelling at processes of gas exchange. Both reefs and forests may be studied closely but are experienced as environments. So viewed, coral reefs are true borderlands, abounding in all sorts of ambiguity. Many of these ambiguities are set up by the classificatory systems which have been used to make sense of phenomena that refuse their assigned niches. The swimmer who daily goes down among corals to watch and listen soon becomes aware of something in this rich profusion which corresponds to the so-called ‘dark matter’ postulated by astronomers to account for there not being enough visible matter in the universe to satisfy theory.
Jim said I was a drivelling idealist, flitting about the world like a disdainful butterfly irresistibly attracted to decay, content merely to feed off it rather than do something about it.