The place is a boat; I am seven. My family is going on a tourist’s fishing trip out to the reef crest on the Great Barrier Reef. Adults chatter and laugh and I feel the deck on my feet, the hot steel wire of the guardrail. The catamaran moves out across the wide blue water and it moves in a way I’ve never felt before. When we cross over reef, the colour and distortion that seems just below intrigues me. Years later, in Antarctica, the clearness of the water intrigues me as well and I get a bolt from the engine-room, drop it into the ocean and watch it fall upward away from me. The bolt doesn’t vanish but simply dwindles away.
The cat slips into blue water and slows to drift, people get more excited and purposeful. Being small I sit to the side, looking at the sky move with the boat, turning to watch the water rise up and down with the boat, smell the sea and hear the waves. I’m given a fishing line, not a flash thing with a rod but a humble hand roller. The hook is baited and plops over the side, I see it distort and drift down, pulled by the sinker. I’m sort of excited, what’s going to happen? I’m doing something with the group, the adults, participating. Time passes, the fishing line is interesting as it moves with the water, the sun gets hotter and the sea is bigger than the sky.
There are cries of excitement something has been caught! Lying on the hot white plastic deck, on the textured non-slip surface there is a fish. I know now that it was a coral trout and it was beautiful. To me it was big and the colours were glistening, vibrant, deep under the skin, filling the fish with life. It flapped and then stilled. Then it began to convulsively move its mouth and gills. The hook was still through its bottom lip and as I watched, I saw it doing its best to spit the hook from its body. The eye stared, seemed inward, and I saw this little animal fighting for life. I think people were talking, excited and thrilled at the catch, but I only have a vague memory; I was only watching the fish. As it tried to spit the hook out, it made a noise, a cheep, just like a duckling. Cheep-cheep, cheep-cheep as it tried to live.
I went to my Dad. “Can we put it back into the sea?” I asked. It doesn’t belong here, it’s hurting! My Dad explained that the man had caught the fish, it was that man’s fish and he could do what he wanted with it. That man took the hook out, baited it, and cast again. More fish were caught and I went to look with everybody else, but there was always that coral trout on the deck. The afternoon came late, I was getting a bit bored. My fishing line went taught and I got very excited, I couldn’t pull up the line; it pulled against me. People laughed and one of the crew said that I must have caught a shark! He came and gave me a hand. But, after playing the line for a while he announced that the hook had probably snagged on the bottom or had caught under the boat. He cut the line and as if that were the end, the catamaran headed back to port.
The sun was setting and it was getting dark as we left the boat, I saw that man and asked him what he was going to do with the fish. He wasn’t sure if he wanted it as he had several others and generously he gave it to me. I stepped from the boat holding the dead fish in my arms but it slipped and fell into the dockside water. I can still remember that water, the oily surface, the dead smell, the flat slap of water against the dock, the rubbish floating. Into that water the coral trout slipped, no beautiful colours, just a silvery leaf that moved from side-to-side, spiralling as it sank to the scrap and mud at bottom. That night we ate the fish my Dad caught but I never have had a desire to fish again.
Across time, as I have occasionally thought on this, I ask why did that happen. That coral trout was in its place and it died and ended up in a silty, polluted, estuary kilometres from where it lived for no other reason than entertainment. Its reason for life, its place in the life of the sea was taken and its potential and role in the life of the reef was wasted. It’s hard to explain but that fish had a meaning, a place, where it was, every bit of its body came from the reef and would have returned to it in the tight economy of the reef.
How does that fish’s place exist for us? That is an important thing I think. There seems to be little sense of the purpose and place of other life on Earth. Nature is stuff and resource. Organisms, ecologies; the very life that is interwoven and interconnected through all places and all times figure little in our conscience although we share that space with them absolutely. We do not breathe water and we cannot stand on water; the ocean rolls on, in writing and life, seemingly unperturbed by human disturbance. Most people conceive the sea in terms of their favourite beach; the rest is ‘out there’. Once we enter the water we leave our world and enter another, we are only travellers on the sea. Where is the ocean in our world?
Deeply ingrained in our society, I think, is a belief that the sea as something to be challenged, something that is threatening, something that is a physical presence, an object only. Like the rocks that make the mountains, water makes the sea; it is essentially inanimate to us. For me the ocean is alive and has no end, all life exists in the sea and is connected. We carry the ocean in our blood. Nearly everything I have read about the sea has been, no matter how lyrical, about the experience of the sea as a physical challenge to the individual, or tries to explain the ocean as a system. Trying to communicate the sea as a place of being is difficult when we cannot be in the ocean, yet we cause so much unknowable damage and hurt. How can someone write about this place that doesn’t exist for most people but that is the essence of life? How to communicate connectedness with something that is separate: there is ‘the sea’ and then there is ‘life in the sea’. Bringing them together, uniting as one place that exists everywhere and giving that unison is the challenge. To me a sense of place is the particular place or environment that allows you to feel and connect with the wholeness of life, to feel and be part of the pulse of the world-animal.
Trying to communicate that sense to others without sounding like a dickhead, trippy hippie, or new-ager is the challenge (‘so, you hug trees?’). Hugging trees is fine, a connection, and if that’s how you commune that’s the way it is. I’ve seen a photograph of a Polish Catholic priest communing with God by lying flat upon the soil and pressing his face into the Earth. But to get back to the fish: what right do we have to pull it out of its place for our pleasure? It reminds me of a Larson ‘Far Side’ cartoon of two aliens who have hooked a human on a street; ‘Whoa, Larry, play ‘im…play ‘im!’ (or something like that). Most people have a disconnection with the real world, and not only that, an aversion to approaching that disconnection, fuelled by a socialisation, dæmonization, from the media and peers about greenies, hippies, animal-libbers, new-age, and anything ‘left’ of the status quo. Interestingly, ‘left’ is historically and etymologically the sinister; the untrustworthy; the female. To reach past that aversion, or disbelief, and then to experience wholeness is a special thing, it is an experiential thing, something that sometimes never happens. In the course of my time, I’ve heard the phrase ‘wake up’. I’ve used it myself, and other people have told me how they ‘woke up’, and I’ve tried to teach and wake people up. How do you communicate the death of a fish to people who think nothing of killing fish? Of killing the ocean?
‘One of the real mistakes in the conservation movement in the last few years is the tendency to see nature simply as natural resources: Use it or lose it. Yet conservation without moral values cannot sustain itself. Unless we reach people through beauty, ethics, spiritual or religious values, or whatever; we’re not going to keep our wilderness areas.’ — George Schaller
Deeply ingrained in our society, I think, is a belief that the sea as something to be challenged, something that is threatening, something that is a physical presence, an object only. Like the rocks that make the mountains, water makes the sea; it is essentially inanimate to us. For me the ocean is alive and has no end, all life exists in the sea and is connected.