Deep Water, Horizons: Artificial Reef Communities, Above and Below the Water Line
Submitted January 26th, 2016
2 Epeli St, Suva, Fiji
To the members of the Watson Committee,
My grandfather had big hands. Paw hands. I am on his computer in an overheated library, feet of blue-white snow outside the window and sharp wind coming through the cracked window, stretching my fingers to reach the keys. I am in the United States. This was not the plan. I don’t think one can plan catharsis; how it hatches, falls out of the nest, tentatively stretches its wings. I felt cold air on my face stepping out of JFK airport, and I realized just how necessary and how hard this week was going to be.
When I first drafted this report, Fiji’s sidewalks were shimmering. It’s the end of summer in the South Pacific, the stores packed with students buying books for the new year and the heavy humidity shoving people into banks to find air conditioning. I was halfway into my three month stay in Fiji, ploddingly uncovering my project after the holidays essentially put it on hold. I never realized how much the world slows down in December, had never really felt so acutely assaulted by Christmas music. Knowing the holidays were going to be hard did not, ultimately, make them any easier. I’ve spent so much of the past six months trying to understand the difference between anticipating and experiencing discomfort. So much of the past six months has been a constant debate between self-deprecation and self-preservation in my overheated head.
As you might have guessed, almost immediately after I sent my last quarterly report (I love how hard Brunei is! I am finding so much for myself! I can deal with solitude!) everything changed. I wrote last from Brunei, where I was grinding myself into a pulp trying to do my project from a poor position. Yes, I found unexpected aspects to the project, like the importance of shipwrecks as artificial reefs and to the dive industry. Sure, I got a real sense of the sisyphean effort it can take to get a dive operation going, but I took all my perceived project failures out on myself. I was in a community of people who didn’t particularly want to engage my project, and I blamed myself more and more for feeling trapped.
In frustration I took a couple of days away from the dive shop to adjust my project: I rented a car, drove south to Miri, Malaysia, and dove a few converted oil rigs. I saw huge caves and palm oil plantations. It felt right. A local fisheries agent was about to leave Malaysia when I called to interview him, and instead invited me along to Semporna, Malaysia to observe how he and his team deploy artificial reefs. Five hours later I was packed. I’d been ready to leave Brunei for weeks. I cut my losses and executed Plan C.
“Cutting my losses” always tangles me up. When I miss an event, or leave a place, or give up on an idea, I leave a piece of myself with that thing. More accurately, I leave a whole idea of myself behind. Connections I could have made, photos I could have taken, another sunset I could have seen, all suddenly are ghosts. In a year dedicated to connecting and being-with, the sense of liberation and freedom I get when I step out the door with my bags is quickly followed with anxiety and self-criticism. I think I spend far too much of my time thinking about what I’m doing wrong, but it’s hard not to do so. I feel so deeply privileged to be where I am that I’m not inclined to be particularly generous with myself. I am always earning what I already have.
I understand that, from the perspective of the Foundation, I don’t have to necessarily “earn” anything – funds have already been allocated and the parameters for the fellowship year already established. But the opportunity is the challenge. I don’t know if I’ll ever have an another chance to so immediately go with my gut, to share the world with people I’d never meet otherwise. I don’t know how much it goes unsaid that part of this adventure is about professional development, if at all. And I have no idea how much I want it to be about professional development. Every day I re-evaluate where and what I am.
After spending November in Sabah, however, I felt satisfied. I was active every day, diving constantly and taking hundreds of photos, asking questions and finally feeling like people wanted me there. I followed the fisheries officer and his team as they reviewed local fisheries projects and coral frame sites. I stayed with the Tropical Research and Conservation Center (TRACC) on a small and undeveloped island, critically observing their conservation projects. I visited award-winning dive resorts known for their conservation efforts. I lived on a rig-turned-resort and observed how the dive industry attempts to self-regulate in ways that benefit the local environment and community. In my final week in Kota Kinabalu, I made friends, ate fresh fish, and explored the gateway to Borneo. Unexpectedly, I got a glimpse into the ecotourism industry on Borneo through the lense of artificial reefs. I fell a little in love with Sabah. I left feeling a firm sense of self through my project.
Now I’ve been in Fiji, quite literally in entirely different terrain: I was, intentionally, landlocked. In the strangest of good fortunes, my first homestay fell through. I ended up on the farm of one of the first coral gardeners, Austin Bowden Kerby. He runs a permaculture learning farm for local kids (it’s still under development) and the Happy Chicken program with his family and small staff. The farm was for the most part built in the name of coral reef conservation, meant to inspire sustainable agricultural systems and provide poultry as an alternative protein to fish. I stayed in their homestay for three weeks getting a sense for how the farm works and helping with their educational materials before moving to Suva to get some writing done. We come to another point of concern.
After working in coral restoration in Thailand, I submitted an abstract to a journal on resilience and the Anthropocene. The article goes into climate change narratives depicted by underwater sculpture that is both about and in the marine environment, and the ecological and economical implications therein. This research collective accepted the abstract and the article is due in March. I’m really excited and daunted by this piece, and am learning so much about my time in Thailand as I look back with this lens. The challenge is balancing my writing time with other activities.
For better or for worse, there were some menial tasks I need to do during my time in Fiji. I’m interested in marine park management and coral mariculture companies that do community development, which requires a little mobility. I take the GREs on my birthday, then have to submit my graduate school application. I need to take care of some chronic medical problems. None of these items were part of my anticipated discomfort, and some days it is so hard to accept that I need to spend some time working on myself. I was more stably housed in Suva than I’d been since Thailand. I finally caught up with my debit card after 4 months, got a membership to the aquatic center, and have a routine. Sometimes you just have to stay put for a second, but personally I find staying put far more difficult than moving on.
Why? This is my year. I do not need to worry about how relevant my work is, how much writing I get done, who features my work. I don’t even need to worry about who I meet as long as I see something new every day. All I need to worry about is what I wouldn’t have learned if I wasn’t here. These beliefs provide as much anxiety as they do relief, and only if I heed them. Before I left for this year, I wanted obligations and tangibles like tests and articles. Now, it’s frustrating that it gets in the way of letting the project develop in place, which can lead to new works and people I’d never had met otherwise.
Other fellows are going to understand this feeling, I know it. Once you arrive in a new place, there's a sense of unfolding that happens every time you make a small choice. The reasons why you chose to go somewhere become more complicated, and while negotiating conflicting interests and worldviews you grasp at your project. While seeking answers to your questions, the questions slowly change. On bad days you’re little more than seafoam spinning away until you wash up on the shore, or find oblivion on the horizon. On good days, you gently square your shoulders and ask the world for something.
All the best,