It's time, I told myself. You really should read some of these reports in detail, not just the headlines. You should look at more of the pictures, read the eyewitness accounts. So this morning I did. Or at least I tried, until I got so depressed I couldn't continue. That took maybe half an hour, maybe even less.
Over the last month, J. and I have been watching David Attenborough's amazing multi-episode nature programs for the BBC, "Planet Earth" and its predecessor, "Blue Planet," which is about the oceans. In both, Attenborough and his team made a conscious decision to focus on the beauty and wonder of the natural world rather than harping on the problems. Global warming, threats to biodiversity, endangerment, environmental pressure, habitat diminishment and species adaptation are all mentioned, but in the context of, for example, a near-starving polar bear having to range much much farther in her quest for food and becoming exhausted swimming in open water - something she never used to have to do. Still, the focus is on the creatures and plants themselves and the worlds they inhabit, which include many places few people visit and most of us will never have the opportunity to see. In general, I think it was an effective strategy: the despair and numbness I felt after only a few minutes of looking at environmental disaster is almost paralyzing, but look we must. What I'm thinking about this morning is the contrast.
"The Blue Planet" taught me, a woman who's lived most of her life far from the ocean, so much about the seas. I watched in utter amazement as the videos revealed so much more than I'd ever known about the migrations of herring; the electric creatures of the blacks depths; the intelligence and play of dolphins; the songs and journeys of the great whales; the vast forests of giant kelp and astounding color of coral reefs; the teeming colonies of tube worms living on deep-ocean volcanic vents untouched by the light we always thought was necessary for life; the unbelievable camouflage that's evolved to protect fish, crustaceans, invertebrates and given rise to creatures stranger than science fiction; the bloom of plankton so extensive that it colors the oceans when seen from space; and above all the endless struggle to eat and to reproduce in a ruthless watery world of hunters and the hunted.
Last night I began reading "Champlain's Dream," a biography by David Hackett of the French explorer who mapped and greatly influenced most of the places I've lived in my life. The frontispiece of the book is a map of "New France" drawn by Champlain himself in 1612, and I noticed his labels and drawings off the coast, including figures of whales and cod along the Grand Banks. It reminded me of the teeming abundance of the untouched oceans, the wonder of the first explorers, and the almost immediate exploitation of that abundance by human beings convinced both that the resources were theirs for the taking and that whatever it was - fish, forests, seals -- couldn't possibly run out. Without any oil disaster at all, how much has changed off our own coast since Champlain's time! How dare we have the audacity and hubris to disturb the complexity and balance of such an ecosystem? What's happening in the Gulf is an underwater Hiroshima, and as much as I deplore the economic cost to those whose livelihood depends on industries like fishing and tourism, I can't help but weep more for the creatures who live there, and who I've recently come to know and love even more.
The emotions we feel when we see a whale breach and dive, or a flock of seabirds lift into the sky, are not merely wonder but awe. And awe, I think, is an emotion that is meant to include recognition of our own smallness. How far we've come from both Old Testament fear and aboriginal wisdom! Our scientific and technological prowess allows us to think there's always a solution, a mechanical finger for the leaking dike, but what I see this morning are waves crashing over our own heads, full of wrath.