My first word.
My mother heard me say it in our brick house with blue shutters in Jacksonville, Florida. She had sung me the nursery rhyme many times, pretending to paddle a boat with her arms. Four pine saplings were in the front yard, sometimes a heron, sometimes blooms of dollarweed. It was on a wide point where the St. Johns turns and flows ten miles to the ocean. Mornings usually smelled of coffee from the Maxwell House factory, but if the breeze was right, we could smell the brackish tannins of the river, its salty mouth, conjuring a place much safer than that house. One of cordgrass and clam and whiskered manatees. Of mermen who only rescue children who believe. I couldn’t quite pronounce the R in row, so did it sound more like oh, a faint grunt of delight or pain? In any case, it was my OM. It created my universe, bizarre galaxies of hard water, declaring me a strange child. A disloyal Muppet who would conspire with words and tides.
Not Dada or Mama but row—life is but a dream, an echo of a dream, as when you put a conch to your ear.
If row was my essential seed syllable, clean was my mother’s. Her hands were so red and cracked from washing that in winter she wore rubber gloves filled with ointment to bed. After she showered, she didn’t want to touch me. When wet wipes were on sale at Publix, she would buy so many the cashier would ask if she owned a daycare. She used them to wipe off the groceries before she put them away, every toy that left the house and tried to come back. But some, like Inspector Gadget and my teddy bear Farrell, she never bothered to clean. Instead, she kept them in a heap in her bedroom, lost to me forever.
I used to blame myself. My birth was messy, after all. I was so big that after I was born, my mother needed many stitches. “That was the worst pain of my life,” she told me, “and you should’ve been a C-section,” teaching me the word episiotomy from an early age, reminding me how gross it was for her postpartum in the bathroom. She called me her Bouncing Baby Boy, her Gregory Pegory, but I was also Pigpen in a poopy cloud of dirt. Gregory the Terrible Eater, the renegade goat from the children’s book, who dared to eat a cookie without a plate underneath. If she was about to hit me with her wooden spoon, she called me other names and said, “I’m going to spank the living daylights out of you.” By that I think she meant my soul. Couldn’t it just be cleaned instead of driven out of me?
As a young child, I found it hard to sleep at night. My door’s lock had been disabled. A man, I thought, was watching me in the dark, so I slept facing the wall. There was so much I couldn’t perceive, such as the hungry oysters in the marshes, beating algae into the mucus of their gills. Alligators, before mating, fighting one another and touching snouts, hissing. Our power plant burning coal, nuggets of Paleozoic trees. And my mother, as she held her stuffed animal, asking God in a whisper to help us. If I listened hard enough, though, I could follow my father’s snoring after the fights ended. I could make out the barges blowing their horns as if they were Poseidon’s sons, messengers of upcurrents and undertow and ceaseless change. I could hear drips in the drain of our bathtub. The next day it would be refilled with water from the ancient aquifer below.
Row, row, row for your life, away from Jacksonville—away from your mother; your father, who doesn’t protect you from her; your older brother, who said he ’d dredge your favorite reef and dump it onto the lawn—toward beauty and safety, wherever you can find them. Toward superficiality and recklessness masquerading as them, typically New Age spirituality and sex with strangers from the internet. Change course, let it run—row to Indonesia off the western end of New Guinea, to an archipelago called Raja Ampat. The population of fifty thousand, living in tiny villages scattered across an area about the size of Switzerland, depends on fishing, pearl farming, and tourism for survival. Much of it is a steamy wilderness of rainforests and worn limestone peaks, though some islands are dry, flat, and ringed with sandy beaches. Rare birds-of-paradise call out in the morning. The bays shimmer with phosphorescent plankton at night. There’s really no pollution except for swarms of floating plastic.
In Raja’s southwest corner, there’s an hourglass-shaped island where manta rays congregate at cleaning stations and blue starfish hold fast to mangrove roots. I’m standing now on the island’s beach beside a whale backbone and my host, Konstan. It’s 2018 and I’m single, childless, and thirty-eight, but I look younger without a mustache, less like my father—I shaved it to keep my mask from leaking. I’m here on a travel grant from the university in Virginia where I teach poetry and environmental literature. The ecological, I tell my students, is personal. And the personal is ecological. What I don’t tell them is how I’ve been secretly, intensely living out those correspondences. Until I was almost an adult, I was abused in water. I’ve been trying to heal in that element, at the time and place of my choosing. The murky waters of Jacksonville Beach wouldn’t do. Way too close to home. I come instead to Raja Ampat’s reefs, the most biodiverse in the world, among the most protected and pristine. Whatever they really mean, those two adjectives are talismanic for me as a survivor.
I marvel at the paddle Konstan has just handed me. Even though I’m hot, it makes me shiver. Originally carved for his dugout canoe, it’s a gift meant to seal our friendship. I feel the ellipse of the blade and run my fingers down along the shaft to the T-grip shaped like the tail of the surgeonfish that swim off my hut. Except for the pinpricks from woodboring beetles, the handle is smooth, in places worn down by his hands to a glossy amber. Up on the blade, the tree rings radiating out look like one half of Saturn’s rings seen from an angle—even the faintest, farthest ones guarded by shepherd moons like Prometheus, by feeder moons like Enceladus, whose volcanoes eject ice from a subsurface ocean. Like the faint lines of a bleached phonograph, like ripples from a pebble thrown into the south cove here at slack tide. As if rubbed with flour, one side of the blade is whitish from the salt air and sun. The other side, face down in the perpetually beached canoe, is brown. You row with oars and paddle with paddles, but my whole being still says row.
“Thank you,” I say, lifting my sweaty baseball cap, “but don’t you need it?” The paddle is against me, the handle in the sand.
Shaking his head, he points to the speedboat with my bags inside. “That’s faster.”
Twenty years old, with a curly black beard and perfect teeth, Konstan is kind and calm, with a deep undercurrent of sadness. I’m nearly a foot taller, but I feel small. I’m about to depart. I’ve stayed on his island for a week, snorkeling his ancestral reefs most of the day and some of the night, jotting down field notes on the underwater slate strapped to my wrist. It all feels urgent, because it is: over half of the world’s reefs have been destroyed in the past thirty years, and within my lifetime, coral reefs will be gone. This ecosystem—covering 1 percent of the ocean floor but home to 25 percent of marine species—will be the first we’ve caused to go extinct. Konstan and his family depend on it for their survival.
For now, Raja’s reefs are miraculously intact, with more species of fish and coral than the entire Caribbean. They lie at the edge of the Coral Triangle, an area encompassing Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea that is so ecologically important that it’s been called the “Amazon of the Seas.” Raja Ampat walking sharks and Wayag shrimp gobies are found nowhere else but around these islands. Living here are an astounding 75 percent of all known hard coral species, in addition to fifty-seven different species of mantis shrimp, some of which easily shatter camera lenses and masks with their clubs. No wonder international scientists have raced to protect these reefs. And no wonder I’ve come here five times to flee my triggers and write about natural beauty. I don’t believe the author of The Secret Garden when she writes, “If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.” Ten thousand miles from Florida, these reefs hold my panic like nowhere else. They are a Secret Garden in a Walden Pond. They let the trauma breathe.
I don’t want to leave, but it’s time. As I wobble into the boat, I ask Konstan about the paddle’s wood—photosynthesis, like language, is an obsession of mine. Brar, he calls the tree in Biak, his endangered language. Kayu susu in Indonesian. Gray milkwood. The blackboard tree, the devil tree. Alstonia scholaris. White cheesewood. It can reach a height of 130 feet; the big leaves radiate out in threes and tens; too light for heavy-duty construction, the wood is used for corks, coffins, pencils, and school chalkboards. Tradition elsewhere has it that the first of the twenty-eight Buddhas achieved enlightenment in the shade of this species. His father, Leo, Konstan tells me, was ambushed and murdered trying to defend trees like this one from illegal loggers, four of whom he confronted alone one morning in 2010. They sliced his right arm with a machete and speared him in the back and clear out his chest. I never asked Konstan how he copes. If we talked in depth about his pain, I might have to open up about mine—I like diving because it’s in silence.
He pushes us off from shore with a pole. We glide over the reef to deeper water.
Konstan’s paddle and canoe are analogous to the horses and buggies my father’s ancestors in East Tennessee gave up for automobiles. Now that Konstan has a fiberglass boat and Yamaha motor, his family is getting richer in West Papua, the poorest province of Indonesia, where a quarter of people earn less than $1.25 a day. That’s about the price of a liter of fuel. The engine allows him to bring occasional tourists like me to his remote wilderness, enabling his family to visit the doctor, send their children to school, buy food, and have mobile phones. As I well know, even with the motor, the trip to Raja’s remote islands can be long and dangerous. Loud generators provide electricity for only a few hours each night, salt water from rising sea levels is infiltrating wells, and malaria remains a killer. With his motor, Konstan is trying to speed into a better future. Like most of us, he seeks greater security as our planetary emergency unfolds.
And yet what has he lost? As he pulls on the cord to start the motor, it’s a romantic, even colonialist question I can’t help but ask myself. The slap-plash of waves against the hull, the sound of the breeze, the rhythmic paddling, endorphin highs, greater strength and stamina, the melding of body and canoe, slowness itself as normal, boredom—for thousands of years those were the essential elements of ocean travel. As it roars to life, his motor belches smoke. Plastic can get caught in the propellers. The local fuel cartel quadruples prices. When he told me on the beach one night, “The ocean is our mattress, the waves our pillows, the wind our blanket,” I heard a hint of the self-mythologizing nostalgia tourists like me love. His cracked smartphone was glowing in his hand. I see the paddle as a priceless, unsettling relic linking me with his traditional culture and our prehistoric roots, with depths of row I can’t yet plumb. The paddle, I intuit, reminds him of the poverty he’s leaving behind. If he feels ambivalent, he doesn’t say, but I can’t hear him anyway over the motor. We’re zooming north to another island, scattering a huge school of tuna.
But better questions might be: What have we as Earthlings already lost? What future losses have we already committed to? Konstan, in replacing paddle with motor, now emits more carbon. But the amount is minuscule—positively infinitesimal—compared to my footprint. My roundtrip alone will put three tons of carbon into the atmosphere. How many brar trees would have to be planted to suck that up? How many brar paddles would that equal? I calculate it will eventually melt ninety-six square feet of Arctic ice, causing the seas around his village of Yensawai to rise by some fraction of a micron. I did that. He gave me the ironic present of unburned carbon, safely locked away as wood. But since 1751 what has the industrialized world gifted him and his people? 1.5 quadrillion kilograms of carbon, raising average global temperatures 1.2 degrees Celsius. Holding the paddle, I can almost feel that graph’s upward curve with projections for 2050 and beyond. Our collective future worries me to no end, though his is far bleaker: I live in a mountain valley 150 miles from the coast in a nuclear-armed superpower; he’s maybe a foot above sea level on the equator in a nation with an almost nonexistent social safety net. By the end of this century or even sooner, research shows, it could be too hot to live in the tropics. But no matter what we do, in his lifetime his reefs will die, and his island, including his father’s grave, will disappear under the waves. And it’s our carbon, not his, that will be resoundingly responsible. To me, the paddle’s design is wondrous, but it has me future tripping about the Sixth Mass Extinction and the unraveling of organized human life. I know what I am: a white, sunburned emissary from the West, the birthplace of the chainsaw and Agent Orange, of the electric SuperPretzel Soft Pretzel Maker with a cheese-melting pod—of Exxon and Trump and other trademarks that will be curse words on the lips of our descendants. I feel ridiculous and gross.
With the paddle across my lap, a freak wave soaks us. Konstan cuts the motor. There are no towels. Just the sun, trained on us like a heat lamp. Like the eye of a terrible god to be worshipped and appeased two generations from now. Suddenly the future dissolves—not even a degree south of the equator, I’m having another flashback to Jacksonville.
He waits in the bathtub for his mother. His fingers wrinkle, vermiculate as coral, as a scrotum shrinking back up into the body. The calluses of his feet soften, as do the plantar warts rooted deep in his heels. He scrapes them all with his nails until bits of skin float like coral larvae after the annual spawning. He farts underwater, astonished by the burp at the surface. He counts specks of mildew in the grouting, loses count, and starts over. If he were in the twenty-first century and less numb, each black dot would seem a ruined planet or family. Every pockmark in the grout is another excuse for punishment. Every drip down the drain is saying faggot. He rakes the soap holder’s teeth across the folds of his brain. He counts the tiles. He divides that number into pi; the answer is infinite, so he gives up. He waits and waits but she will show up when she feels like it.
That is how he dissociates in water. How he deserts his body when the truth of what’s happening at home is too upsetting to contemplate, to even nod toward. He counts and abrades himself into forgetting that she does this to him once a week, on the day she changes his sheets and makes him play dress-up with what she’s bought him from JCPenney. (When they’re done trying on clothes, she tells him to strip down and run—run!—to the tub and not touch anything, because of the fabric chemicals on his body.) How long would the humiliation of waiting for her last? When would the other humiliations begin? His father isn’t coming to save him. E.T. and Captain Picard aren’t either.
“You think you have the upper hand,” she ’d say when he ’d call out for her to come, “but the more you bug me, the longer I’ll take.”
He doesn’t feel the water any longer. It’s an extension of his body, an aqueous, dirty aura. Or is his watery body a sea within a sea, a skin-encased pool in some godless, dead lagoon? The tub is the color of greenish breast milk—if he could smell that color in some burst of synesthesia, it would be scented with Martha Stewart and My Little Ponies. If he could hear it, he would hear the weeping and slams of his childhood, of hers and his father’s, of the ancestors.
Up on the skylight, he sees shadows of oaks. They rock effortlessly above the roof in the wind. Water trickles through the overflow hole.
Finally, she walks in. She’s wearing her blue romper, her hair curly and tv-ready. She stands above him. He’s naked, of course, his pubes and happy trail swaying like tufts of seaweed. His stubble is wet. He’s so tall his knees are bent, his feet flat against the tub.
She doesn’t even have to ask him for the soap. She starts at his furry nape, getting between the bones. Taking two soapy fingers to wipe behind his ears, swiping around to his throat, she swirls in the hollow below his voice box. She soaps up his nipples, chest, and stomach. Between his shoulder blades. Down to the small of his back. Into the webbing of his fingers, up and down his arms, past the tan line shaped like his wristwatch.
“Give me those chicken legs!” She scrubs his thighs and calves, and gets Mother Goosey with his toes: “Wee, wee, wee, all the way home!”
“Oink,” he says half-heartedly.
“Here,” she says, putting the Zest in his hand, “do your crotch.” As he washes it, she compares his dick to others she’s seen. She digs inside his belly button for the lint.
It’s time: he pulls the lever to get the showerhead going. Over and over she sprays him so the suds fall away. So his girliness is rinsed away. Along with his crush on the zany cross-country runner named Patrick. His love for Orion and Taurus and the star that changes color like a radioactive Skittle. The oils and dander of his father, who gives him the heebie-jeebies. She massages in the Motel 6 shampoo: he closes his eyes or else they will burn. After she douses him again, she cuts off the water and the drain guzzles down his pollution—it will find its way into the river and the sea; it will evaporate and fall as hail and acid rain.
She’s gone. Using the tiny Smurfette towel, he dries himself.
Konstan is calling my name, pointing at a pod of dolphins. The sky and sea are spectacular blues. Why didn’t I spray her in the face with the fucking showerhead? I want to yell. We’re moving again.
When I tried to say no, my mother’s face turned red as her obsessively washed hands, and she would breathe rapidly, loudly, seething like a wounded boar. She ’d clench her fists and make her eyes huge and yell through her wet teeth, “Let me do this!” She frothed at the mouth. Spit on my face. She said she had to wash me, because if I did it myself, I would get water everywhere: there couldn’t be a shower curtain, she said, because it would get mildewy. We are animals, I was taught. Delusional, ultimately suicidal monkeys convinced of our rationality. The woman who forcibly showered me once a week until I was in eleventh grade was the same woman who could make anyone laugh with just a look in her eyes. Who sent the Birthday Man flying to my brother and me every November to leave presents on the stoop. But if I disobeyed her, I felt my life was in danger. She might go get her spoon, which she used to stir macaroni and cheddar in the pot, and agitate peas thawing on the stovetop. She might hit me with it, and not lightly.
Konstan’s paddle, I realize as he and I speed along in the Dampier Strait, is physically a larger version of my mother’s Wal-Mart spoon. Her weapon was the same color as the bleached side of his gift, and a similar shape. It was also made from a light tropical wood, akin to brar, without the extraordinary grain and grooves. There were faint, fuzzy lines in the spoon’s shallow bowl, like dissipating smoke from a doomed aircraft, like ash that would always be a stain. No wonder his gift feels so urgently uncanny in my hands and across my lap. Why I feel so intensely, passionately ambivalent about it.
We arrive at the big dock in Waisai, Raja’s main town. I hug Konstan, but it’s awkward. Men don’t embrace like that in his culture. I guess part of me felt he was almost the younger brother I never had. We wordlessly shared so much. These days I find myself assuming people are family when they aren’t. I don’t intend to do it, but it helps me feel less lonely.
I step off his boat and onto a ferry to the mainland. I’ll go look for someone at the airport to wrap the paddle in plastic, my second piece of checked baggage. In a couple days, I’ll be home.
By the time I snorkeled my first reef, it was already sick. It was off Key Largo, Florida. 1987 or 1988. I was maybe eight. Dodging jellyfish, my mother and I struggled in the waves. We held hands. Bubbles from the divers below effervesced around us. Dozens of other snorkelers yelped and kicked nearby. Our masks were leaking and the visibility was poor, but we could see a black fish, maybe a grouper, cruising out from a ledge. A barracuda sidled up beside us and flew off. Much of the coral was broken or discolored. I could see smutches of blight on overturned colonies. But we didn’t know what global warming was. That the oceans absorb 90 percent of the heat not radiated back into space—that these coral reefs, hypersensitive to temperature changes and pollution, were fortunetellers. Canaries in the coal mine we call Earth. I just knew the heaviness in my stomach and chest—dread that I couldn’t even name as such. The reef was in trouble, and so was my family.
I let go of her hand when we swam toward the statue of Jesus. He was looking up, arms uplifted like elkhorn coral. Parts of him were encrusted with yellow coral and sprigs of purple-brown weeds. Cuffs furry with algae. He was an exultant man, but there was no cross. He was the kind shepherd who dropped his crook to assume the pose of branching coral, imitating the reef in order to praise it, to think like the reef, to stop being human for a while and take on coral consciousness. It’s said God sent Jesus to earth to save humanity—what about longsnout seahorses, mustard-hill coral, and purple sea fans with flamingo-tongue snails? What about the five-hundred-year-old brain coral a short swim from him—absolutely massive, still vibrant, slow-growing? It electrified me. This Jesus was a nine-foot-tall bronze ceremoniously sunk in 1965 on Dry Rocks Reef, then one of the most sublime reefs in Florida. By the time I first visited it in the late 1980s, it was imperiled. Today it’s virtually all dead, even the ancient brain coral. Only 3 percent of the elkhorn coral remains—imagine the redwoods of Yosemite turning white and falling, the saplings too, with no seeds that could germinate.
This was not the Jesus weaponized to make loving my comrades a crime and abomination. In my senior year of high school, I came out to my parents as we sat on my seafoam green bedspread. Sex that wasn’t between a man and woman was still illegal and, just as today, a gay couple with their daughters could be turned away at a hotel or restaurant. Several months before Ellen DeGeneres had come out on the cover of Time. A year later Matthew Shepard would be murdered in Wyoming. When I actually said the words, “I’m gay,” my father went white and held his head in his hands.
“No, you’re not,” my mother said, her voice quavering.
“I’ve known since fifth grade, I was walking to my safety patrol locker and it dawned on me. Remember Doug from Vero, I fell in love—”
“You want to stick your penis in someone’s poo poo hole?” my mother asked, standing up. “No one will want to be around you,” she said. “Oh please, no one goes to a gay doctor or lawyer.”
At the time, we didn’t know anyone who was gay, and besides, I didn’t want to be a surgeon living on a golf course in the evangelical pressure-cooker of Jacksonville anyway. Believe me, it may have an NFL team and a Mayo Clinic, but it’s a big small town of closet cases. We had a city council member, now a Florida state representative, who doesn’t buy candy around Halloween because it’s been “prayed over by witches.” An ordained minister and former sex worker, she also offers her services to the LGBT community as an exorcist for gay demons.
“Did someone molest you?” my father later asked me in front of his closet.
“No, of course not,” I said. What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and truthfully answer his question with my hand on his throat.
A week later, my father announced I needed a booster shot and drove me to a clinic whose waiting room held a complete woolly mammoth skeleton. Inside, the nurse actually drew my blood—to check testosterone levels. A Christian physician my father knew through work told him, despite the utter lack of scientific evidence, that hormonal deficiencies caused homosexuality. I can tell you the hypodermic needle, stealing a vial of my blood, violated me to my core. Today I am thankful for it, though: it punctured my bloodline illusions. Though I didn’t yet understand myself as a survivor, I was beginning to see how fucked up my family was. Going far away for college seemed the only cure. I had about a year to go.
What I didn’t know at eight or seventeen was that feeling exultation like the Jesus statue’s can help me feel less like a mistake. It hacks into my brain to recover my fundamental dignity and gladness, even if it seemed to everyone in my life I already had them. I prove to myself, to every synapse, that I am not a filthy sodomite in need of an overlord’s forced baptisms. I climb every rung of my DNA and ask for help:
Thymines and adenines—unfasten, reshuffle, change your dance, reconfigure the spiral puzzle. My soul is spick-and-span as eggs incubating in a male jawfish’s mouth. Immaculate as the Orion Nebula’s gas and dust, a nursery for baby stars. Cytosines and guanines—revise yourselves and tell me I’m worthy of love. Tell me I’m loved, that we are love itself.
Maybe my darkness can’t be vaporized once and for all, but I talk back to it, expose it patiently to the sunrise-red glow of a ringed pipefish’s paddle tail. The darkness has wanted to bring a gun to my chest, as it had for my great-grandfather. He won a Purple Heart for remaining on the battlefield without a gas mask to save wounded soldiers in WWI. Suffering from lung damage and presumably PTSD, early in the Great Depression he shot himself with his army revolver in the Philadelphia row house where his daughter, my grandmother, still lived. The darkness has also wanted to tie a noose around my neck, as it had for Brian, a man I loved. He did it in Kauai, facing the same ocean as Raja’s.
I thought these coral reefs, before they perished, might save my life. And help me be useful to others. Whether CO2 levels are at 280 or 2,800 parts per million, whether the planet is on fire or locked in ice, whether you and I are climate refugees in Canada or kings and queens safe on a Martian colony, a true curiosity about other beings can be awakened. Compassion, it’s been said, is a verb. It quivers in response to suffering. Think of Konstan’s father before he was killed. For years he risked his life confronting foreign fishermen dynamiting Raja Ampat’s reefs for an easy catch. “I’m an activist,” Leo liked to say, “so my grandchildren can have fish.” And he ended up sacrificing his life protecting his people’s forests, which are essential for healthy reefs. Compassion takes direct action. Mine is my writing—of living to tell the story of these reefs and other threatened, beautiful places that could heal others. As Charlie Veron, the world’s expert on coral, says to an adoring young scientist in the documentary Chasing Coral, “You won’t like yourself when you’re an old man” if you don’t work to save the reefs. “You’re going to like yourself much more if you can say, ‘Well, I sure tried to turn that around.’ Don’t let anything stop you.” Compassion for my future planet keeps me writing. Though my words don’t suck carbon from the atmosphere, they are my offering.
Raja Ampat—on Konstan’s reefs and many others—was my imaginative wormhole back to Florida in 1965, when the Keys had essentially pristine reefs and my mother was an undergrad nearby. I sought a do-over. Physically traveling back to 1988 or 1996 to push my mother away from me—to save that little boy, that confused teenager—was impossible. My unconscious magical thinking: if I could dive a virgin reef, I could be pure again and forgive my family, the circuitry of trauma pulled out of my brain like copper wires from a wall. But more pragmatically, as an adult I can practice feeling loved and whole, and slowly change my brain, as recent research popularized by psychologist Rick Hanson has shown is possible. Like a river carving out a canyon, I have my work cut out for me.
At night beneath shackled Andromeda and the beating wings of Pegasus, Venus laying down a thin trail of light on the lagoon, I’ve prayed to the Holy Ghost of Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to rewire itself, asking the brain regions involved in PTSD to be healed:
O, fill my amygdala with the banded grandeur of a sea snake coiled in a limestone hollow—O, abide in my hippocampus as the tumbling teal of spaghetti sponges—animate, inspire, and guide my prefrontal cortex’s every quark and quirk. And You shall renew the bio-electric face of the earth.
I don’t believe in a male, Caucasian deity, but I am still a man of faith. In the sand forty feet down, an encrusted boulder my altar, I’ve bowed down before the invisible, good work of photosynthesis, which feeds coral and helps convert carbon into an ecosystem that can be seen from space. I glorify the Creator—Artisan of Consciousness, Orb Weaver of Fractal Code, Joy of Joys—I’ll never understand: For this fortress of coral I sing you queer praises—God, when the waters are rising fast, when they’re acidic and hot, will you save us?
Ever since telling Konstan goodbye, I’ve come to better understand what John Keats meant when he wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” It’s not sentimental to me anymore—it’s actually essential wisdom for living on a dying planet. For becoming an author of one’s happiness rather than a victim. A prevailer instead of a survivor. Beauty can be recalled and installed. Sometimes when I’m depressed, to brighten the sad memories as they’re reconsolidated in the brain, I’ll purposely recall the night I walked alone in my wetsuit on Konstan’s narrow beach. The moon was almost full. Like rocks on a dimly lit asteroid, plastic and dead coral cast shadows across the sand. I must have looked extraterrestrial, waddling with my mask to the ruined pier Leo built for the conservation post. I slipped into the water. Submerged on a piling was a white, doily-like creature opening its petals the way ferns unfurl and chameleon tongues unroll. It was an echinoderm called a basket star, but to me it was a lotus blossom I ’d seen frescoed once in a cave. To me it was a woven, living SETI dish broadcasting goodwill messages and listening intently. The mycelia of mushrooms feathered into an antenna conveying chatter and nourishment not among brar trees in Konstan’s rainforest but alien worlds in our curving arm of the Milky Way.
Across the light years, the dark years, I trusted the creature could hear my mother telling me You have no reason to be mad at me, my father saying You’re going to get AIDS, too, you know—and it was beaming back to them loving defiance, frequencies higher than incest and bigotry, repeating ones and zeros of new-covenant rainbows and Walt Whitman’s voice: “I am enamoured of growing outdoors, / Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods . . . I am the poet of the body / And I am the poet of the soul.” My mother would say Night dives are dangerous, get out of the water, but my need to internalize the grace of this animal was stronger. I stayed with the basket star, I breathed slowly, I didn’t have to keep running.
I’m no longer a boy. What happened to me wasn’t my fault, but it’s my responsibility.
When I’m having another traumatic flashback, I practice overwriting them with memories of one especially astonishing section of Konstan’s reef, if even for three seconds. A single coral species dominated, Isopora palifera, roughly shaped like paddles somewhere in size between the wooded spoon and the brar paddle. They didn’t scare me. They make me think of the bajillion daffodils mesmerizing Dorothy Wordsworth and her brother William along Glencoyne Bay in the Lake District. “We saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore,” she would later write of the flowers. “I never saw daffodils so beautiful.” I visualize the paddles of coral propagating inside a much deeper version of my childhood bathtub, the pickle-and-pear green and pale red colonies accreting and thriving along the ceramic-coated steel, sheltering squirrelfish and diadem dottybacks, a sleeping turtle, sweepers in galactic starling flocks, brain coral the color of real brains just after the skull has been lifted away. I float above it all, swimming by myself, whole and complete. Panic gone, despair gone, gently down the stream. The water of that cove-sized tub is stunningly clear.
In the imagination, no one is going to hurt that child again. He’s safe. In his skin, not dissociating, not waiting for anyone to degrade him. In the imagination, the reef is safe; there it can never bleach and die—beauty thrives forever in the mind’s eye, where no species is endangered and safety can be conjured as if from a spell. In “How to Help Your Child Wonder,” an article from 1956 in Woman’s Home Companion, Rachel Carson says of nature lovers, “Whatever the vexations or concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” I’m learning to rely on that reservoir instead of trying to have the angst fucked out of me by men who won’t tell me their names.
When I’m eighty-five in the year 2064, I may have little else to comfort me but memories of living reefs. Perhaps just looking at the ocean will be too upsetting. It might even be dangerous to step outside. I don’t know, but I’ll remember the black manta—you must come early in the morning with Konstan to see her, after the hornbills have stopped honking and sunlight has caused plankton to rise up from the deep. She was jet black with a few white patches, her mouth open to strain the water for food, her gills undulating. She was much bigger than I was. Winged majesty, fifteen feet across, soaring in my presence like a badass starship on a science mission or the hawk of a benevolent god that would save you from drowning if she could. On her back was a furry, bulbous scar it hurt to look at. In the strong current I stretched out my arms, trying to fly into it just like she was. Then she swam up. Her wingtip touched my fingertip, then she veered away, down to the bottom of the channel. Joy filled me, and also sadness. That moment of contact like a tuning fork barely placed against your thumbnail, and you say, Wow, I could feel it all the way down to my feet.
How many times in this life had she been a mother?
After I returned to Virginia and unwrapped the obscene amount of plastic mummifying the paddle, it seemed dull, almost defeated. Adam, my scrappy friend who lives near me on the way to West Virginia, tried restoring it in his wood shop. First he waxed it, but it didn’t change much. He sanded that off and coated it instead with polyurethane. Oily stains, Konstan’s fingerprints probably, were revealed in the process. They’re permanent. It’s still not all that shiny. But now it sort of glows, this carved carbon that recalls an ax and salt, looking less and less like my mother’s spoon.
The night Adam gave it back, we climbed up on his roof to smoke a fat joint, and he asked about my childhood—“What’s your mother like? Your father?”—but I kept it vague. The roof was steep, and I thought we were going to slide off and die. I told him I recently vowed to never speak to my family again and that I feel alone, even doomed, as I approach middle age. He said he loves his family, but he can’t stand most people. He’s prone to anxiety. When it gets to be too much, he tells his girlfriend goodbye and bikes up into the desolate mountains that surround us to camp alone. He still won’t tell me what he does out there to calm down. I’m always looking for new ways to cope.
Does he give the plants and animals new names to pretend he’s on a different planet?
Does he squeeze his eyes shut and take a hammer to rocks? (That’s his favorite task when he’s working in the wilderness as a trail builder.) As he pounds away, does he curse society and his triggers, and the fact he was born at all?
Coming down from the roof like spider crabs, we agree: the future frightens us. No, it terrifies us to no end. Sometimes there’s nothing to do but get the hell out and go into nature.