Deep Water, Horizons: Artificial Reef Communities, Above and Below the Water Line
Submitted April 26th, 2016
Bahama Residential Complex, Sanya, China
My last quarterly report begins with failure. In a year defined by opportunity, where you feel like the sole object and master of your experience, accepting failure for itself can reset expectations. I was coordinating the construction of coral nursery trees for The Nature Conservancy in China’s southernmost city, Sanya. The puzzle of palm trees and umbrellas set over the grassy lawn provided little relief from the humidity and heat as we glued PVC and meticulously crimped pieces of metal. While the main project coordinators were in the water working with coral colonies, I’d been delegated the final construction of the “trees” on land. I couldn’t dive, anyway – my skin was still too sensitive to get in the ocean, and a couple new medical scares had made me anxious to test my physical limits. Maybe that’s why I missed a step in construction, such that when the coordinators came up from their dive we realized we had to undo everything we’d done that day. I needed a moment to quietly combust.
No one was particularly angry or disappointed, except for me. My friend and coordinator teased me for being dour about the restart, generously. “The trees were done on time anyway,” she consoled, noting that I am in fact only a volunteer, that I was coordinating across languages. But it didn’t matter to me. I am tired of my body failing me, of being open for comment, of undercutting my ambition, of being a valid excuse. I am also thankful for how it has made me reconsider ambition in the first place.
I want to take failure seriously. I want to put the break on achievement. As much as my parents’ pride means to me, and as much as I feel like “success” means I’m actually making a difference, what does “achievement” really do? Who is achievement for? Maybe achievement would be if I could spell “achievement” without autocorrect? What’s the difference between achievement and doing? More does not mean better. A CV does not change the world. I want depth.
I am tired of trying to transcend struggle, because that hides how hard the Watson can be, hides the reality of a body. I wish I had a different one, often. What can sometimes feel redeeming, and other times trite, is that the very fact that I managed to get myself to the small corner of the world is an accomplishment in itself. But even now I wonder if I am being too easy on myself when the world has so much in it, that there is so much to do that I am deeply privileged to be able to afford financially but not physically. When I take a moment for myself I immediately question whether I physically did enough, even though I got a lot done. When I can’t put my body where my mouth is I’ve had to turn to the written word, which is only sometimes what is required.
Or to the selfie.
The past nine months that have brought me to this final quarter have certainly pointed out my priorities. That I feel like I can work with artificial reefs for a long time, that my family is really important to me, that I am resilient – these are things I thought I knew but now know deeply. So many dips and hurdles, losing and finding myself again. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration, actually. My entire itinerary flipped on its head. Since my last quarterly report, I escaped Fiji, recovered in Hong Kong and Japan, and eventually made my way to China to work on this nursery installation with The Nature Conservancy. I haven’t slept in the same bed for longer than three weeks, which undercuts my approach to my Watson, but the past nine months have, if anything, pointed out the utter futility of having expectations. In these months, I had to look more closely at the lines between me, my happiness, and my project. I find myself, now, in China, which was never part of the plan. But, then again, absolutely nothing in the past three months lined up like I anticipated.
I write from The Nature Conservancy Office in Sanya, China. Sanya is China’s southernmost city, something like Florida, opening up to the South China Sea and the dense light you can only find at the equator. My very first day on my very first site (Koh Tao, Thailand), I met Jun – now my friend and colleague here in Sanya – while she made an hour-long pit-stop at the dive shop. It feels like what the Japanese call “hitzuen” – the scheme, design, or plan that lends teleological sense to an event that otherwise seems random. Meeting someone on a project site is not random, even though sitting down with Jun and ultimately being offered this visit certainly seemed improbable at the time.
The Nature Conservancy is developing its Chinese division, and only recently opened up its Marine branch in Sanya. Like another TNC project I worked on in the Bahamas (just as I was developing my application for the Watson, actually), they’re building coral nurseries with a local developer interested in having a coral restoration facility on site. I get to be here for the nursery installation as well as the TNC Global Board Meeting, which I’m so excited for. I’ve met inspiring scientists already, and more are on their way. Sanya has been great for its stability and simplicity. That is – the project is already managed by another organization, and I don’t have to create opportunities. I have enough to work on as is (article revisions, really developing my site, taking care of my body), and I’m really grateful I’m here. It was a long trip, even since I left Fiji.
My last week in Fiji was utterly miserable. I took the GREs on my birthday in 100+ degree heat, my chronic medical condition expressing all of the anxiety, pain, and frustration I’d built up in and around Fiji. There were lessons learned in Fiji, but I learn/ed them grudgingly. Fiji was, by and large, a mistake. All the other places I could have gone – Bali! Palau! Anywhere else! – make me grind my teeth. When I got on the plane to Hong Kong to get my visa for China, I didn’t look back. This was a first, in my travels so far.
Hong Kong was a happy reunion with Asia. Hosted by a college acquaintance turned friend over a muggy week, I took in the Chinese New Year, finagled a visa, and got some much needed medical attention before jetting off to Japan. (I flirted with a trip to Palau, but needed to take care of myself somewhere with better medical care.) In Japan, I fell in love like I knew I would. I refreshed my very basic Japanese, made friends, recorded jazz songs in a neighbor’s studio, healed up with some hiccups. I explored a fascinating and wonderful corner of Western Japan while I wrote about “Satoumi,” the artificial ecologies valued by fisherfolk in the Noto Peninsula. I saw spring matsuris and ate a lot. I know I’ll be back to Japan soon, but leaving was still bittersweet. Then, China.
After the Board meeting and a quick stop in Beijing and Tokyo, I finally leave Asia the last day of May. I am ready. I have loved so many parts of this corner of the world I left totally unturned, and now I am ready to go. I’m taking on Spain! A new leg of my trip feels in order – instead of going straight to the Canary Islands, I’ll check out the Rigs2Reef program in the Strait of Gibraltar before taking a ferry to Lanzarote. I’m excited. If Lanzarote isn’t particularly fruitful, I’ve got plans in London and Jordan on retainer.
When I lay my year out visually is when I begin to feel the shortness of the next three months. I built up a map on my website (check here), which was surprisingly useful in four ways:
- It reminded me how much ground I’ve covered (literally, figuratively).
- It frustrated me, pointing out all the places I could’ve and maybe should’ve gone had I known about them a year ago.
- It is a really engaging part of my project to keep working on – my goal is to make my site an index of restoration projects and groups and help to develop global priorities for designing reefs.
- Visual communication is way more efficient for my readership.
There’s so much work in the Caribbean and South America I consciously avoided since I live so close to them, but all of a sudden I’m desperate to see it all. Part of me croons that the world will wait, and the climate scientist clicks her tongue.
When I am my most exhausted is when I feel my most brave, but I’m not upset that I’m sleeping better these days either. I keep having these moments where I look back on my year almost dismissively and am caught off guard by how thick my file of memories has grown. Even when I couldn’t get in the water, the contexts in which people undertake artificial reef projects were still productive spaces to be in. I’m most grateful for the moments when someone expands my understanding of artificial reefs with a simple comment or explanation, grateful I get to know these things in my body-as-it-is. Well, second to the people from home who remind me to be kind (to myself, to them). As chaos at home abates, I can set my eyes more firmly on the horizon and put my failures to work.
See you in August! Wow.