Beqa, Fiji. Saturday, February 6, 2010
. . . the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I cannot, the wisdom to know the difference . . .
We’re on Beqa Island, Fiji, the first stop in a five month exploration of the Southern Hemisphere. “We” is me, my husband Brian, Brynn, age 15, and Marley, 13, and we’re here in Fiji to get Brynn and Marley dive certified before heading to the Great Barrier Reef. Wednesday, while the girls are locked in the bure (cabana) watching Padi training DVD’s, Brian and I head out for our first dive. “Sea Fan Coral” is the name of the dive site, but there isn’t any left. On that dive, faced with the coral that isn’t, I am forced out of what has been a tenuous denial. I accept, finally, that for me a part of this trip will be about letting go–about coming to terms with the fact that I am living in the time of the Sixth Great Extinction.
Letting go comes hard to me. My mother is a hoarder, a knick knack and scrap keeper who taught me to treasure old things: the moth eaten Navajo blanket that her father gave her mother on their first trip west (they don’t make them with those natural colors anymore), buttons made of brass or shell or plastic (you never know when you’ll need one), alpine heather (one boot-step can crush thirty years of growth). In Mom’s system, the older things are, the more reverence they deserve, but stuff in general is worth taking care of and tucking away for the future, because you don’t know what that future will bring.
Mom grew up in a downwardly mobile family. Her father, who had lost one arm in a hunting accident, moved his wife and daughter to Colorado Springs, a town booming with opportunity. But he died of kidney disease when Mom was a teen, and her mother got by on a book-keeper’s meager income and frugality. Every penny of expenditure was recorded in a small worn book, and things no longer used or useful went in the basement. Mom worked through high school in a laundromat where she learned to fold sheets right and iron the yoke of the shirt first, and take a load out of the drier fast so you don’t get burns on your arms from metal buttons and snaps.
Surrounded by the residual of better times – an old pump organ, a cherry-wood buffet, the walnut desk her father had made out of a broken player piano, Mom grew up with a keen sense that you should guard the treasures handed down to you, because if they get ruined you may not be able to afford new ones. Take care of what you’ve got and you won’t end up wanting: This message was so strong in our family that even my most spendy sibling had a savings account in high school and even the most right wing sibling has conservationist sympathies.
Such an attitude, handed down, is a blessing and a curse. For me, for example, it has made wandering through the cathedrals of Europe or even small country churches acutely wonderful. The glint of green hand -painted grass at the feet of a saint or the dimples worn in a stone floor are somehow magnified by the wonder of the lives given to create such beauty and the lives touched since. But I also carry a personal scar –you can bump it with a comment about Churchill or Vonnegut —left by the firebombing of Dresden, that wonder of ancient spires and sun-through-glass and lives given and lives lived that was destroyed on three February days before I even was born.
Last spring, when the girls were on break, we all piled into the Prius and drove the California coast, the land of redwoods and sequoias. Standing beside the Ancient Ones, breathing in the earth-rich air, I felt my right place in the world, and my right size. Pressed against one sequoia, I stretched up and touched the bark as high as my fingers could reach, and I was glad to be small and transient, glad that this tree had lived ten human lifetimes before me or more, and might live ten after. And I was glad that my hands and teeth couldn’t harm these trees even if I wanted to, that I didn’t have that power, and that their skin and branches hosted forms of life beyond my paltry capacity for knowledge. But when we stopped in museums and in restaurants, there were old black and white pictures–of twenty school children posed on a stump, or a crew of proud, grimy loggers with their saws as long as a man was tall– and I knew deeply, painfully, like I know of Dresden, that once there were beauties grown up over millennia, that now, in our own little flash of geologic time, are gone. And even as I touched and breathed and was glad, glad, glad to stand among the remaining giants, that ache never quite left.
That first Fiji dive has the same bittersweet quality. We descend through silted water to a reef with bits of moving color: swaying yellow soft corals, the occasional wrasse or butterfly fish, here an anemone hosting a black-and-white or black-and-orange family of clownfish, there a feather star with yellow tipped fronds. But the scattering of hard corals mostly looks ill, with a gray creeping algae lapping over their edges or covering patches in the middle or eating away at one side or the other, and I have to resist a constant urge to brush the shapeless growth away. You can’t.
All around us, the gray skeletal remains of old table corals, mounding corals, bigger and more numerous than anything now living say that this reef once looked different. Once there were giants here. How long ago, I wonder? And how different was it? I think about the schools of tuna and big fat parrot fish, and spotted eagle rays that were our frequent companions when Brian and I first learned to dive off the coast of Honduras fifteen years ago. Were they here, too, back then?
Let it go, I tell myself. Let it go.
And mostly I do. The next dive, and the next day, and the next, I wiggle in close to the underwater wonders that can, even now, surround us. An outrageously blue and yellow ribbon eel the diameter of my finger reaches out of her hole and snaps as if she could drive off the whole lot of us intruding primates. A pair of feathery lionfish, a lumpy scorpion fish lurk in the crags. A yellow and black angelfish saunters by. A puffer fish makes such a ball out of himself that I laugh out loud. A Spanish dancer flatworm floats from the dive-master’s hand to the bottom, its ruffled edge fluttering, sure enough, just like edges of the Flamenco dress Brynn wore when she was three.
On the third day, there is the wonder –thrilling only to me and Brian—of encountering Brynn and Marley underwater with their infinitely patient instructor. Our kids, thirty feet under and breathing! Over there is the one who used to whisper her bedtime fears into a purple-paint- and- glitter covered dream jar. And there, the one who still scooches over so I can snuggle her at night. I recognize them first by their movement s, those teeny idiosyncrasies of motion that are like a handprint or voice, that let you pick out your kid on the soccer field– or in the water– even if your eyes are permanently blurry from too much time at the computer. They twist and wave and then vanish through the muted light as they go on their way and we ours.
This morning we are to leave Beqa, and I want to see the shore reef before we go. We have been on boats each morning and then hiding away from the sun in the afternoons. But before our arrival, Brian had done a fair bit of research to land us here specifically for the dive course because people said that along with warm staff and incredible food (both confirmed) it had the best snorkeling around. He knows that I love drifting with a snorkel over a shallow reef where the sun is warm and the colors bright, even more sometimes than diving.
So we walk to the cove by our bure and across a mudflat exposed by the tide, and we slosh through waving grasses and past a place where spiny stars hid in all the little holes with their too-long tendrils hanging out, and then finally we get to the point that the water is deep enough that we can float, just barely, and paddle along with our hands hoping that the next rise won’t scrape our tummies. Then, abruptly we are at a sea wall, with fifteen feet of water beneath us and the edge of a huge, complex reef stretching off to the left around the point that separates us from another small cove where the dive boats anchor. It is by far the biggest colony of corals I have ever seen.
But it isn’t. A colony, I mean. It is a vast gray landscape of bones—of small spiky bones and bold branching bones, and boney mounds that standing alone rise ten feet from the sandy bottom just off of the wall. It is a science fiction dystopia for fish, a world that evokes Blade Runner or Mad Max or The Lathe of Heaven or the ruin outside the Matrix. From where we float, you can look down on the ruins of a vast city with its towers and crevices, passages and hiding places. And you can see survivors, alone, or in small bands, making their way through the ruins into which they were born, the road warriors eking a living out of the remains of a civilization advanced beyond their knowing (or ours). A crown-of-thorns prowls for a meal of living coral.
Let it go, I tell myself. Let it go. And a pair of black-tipped reef sharks swim by.
Twice I see a beautiful, perfect healthy coral. I’m not talking about the fragments that are ill and dying, tenacious hold-outs where the creeping algae covers only parts of a colony, where a few branch tips are putting up a fight, where one curve of a green mound seems to be growing even as the other side is slowly subducted beneath the gray. There are, among the skeletons, plenty of these. A bit of yellow here, a blue prong, a green curve. I’m talking about the kind of specimen that, like a giant sequoia, makes you want to kneel and breathe in the whole sensory experience so that you can go there again in your own mind when you need to be small, when you need to worship.
The first is a creamy staghorn, rising out of a crumbled brown and pink substrate. Each limb has the sturdy girth of a baby’s arm but is fuzzy- the tip of a budding antler in the spring. The whole living surface has the same translucent glow of a new sprout or a fern fiddlehead. I hang above it suspended till a slight current pulls me away.
The second is a spiky little rose-colored bush. It hosts a cloud of blue fish that range from the size of guppies to the size of those goldfish they call feeders at the pet store. As Brian dives close the cloud shrinks, like a blue puff, into their coral sanctuary and then puffs back out again as we move past, kicking slowly.
Each time, after, I catch myself thinking, Please, please be a mutant. Please be alive because you are different, because you and your offspring can flourish in this brave new world of our making. Please let there be corals in the next round of life on earth.
Let it go, I say. But as I round the corner into the second cove, I start crying through my snorkel, just a little catch at first, then big sobs that won’t stop. I kick and cry, past the last of the dying corals and defiant survivors. Then, gradually, I get intrigued by the sounds I am making, whimpering noises that seem more like a little kid than a Valerie, and that uh-uh-uh when you can’t quite get your breath—it sounds different underwater—and wheezy squeaks; and as I notice the noises, they fade away.
I swim on away from the reef and over the sea grass and sand toward the shore, on and on, and the world is just water and air and sunlight streaming through both. As it was in the beginning.