Thursday, July 24, 2003


Yesterday, for the day job, my cohorts and I visited a marine institute in Panacea, Florida. It had begun as a procurement center through which universities could acquire marine specimens, but gradually, over time, became devoted more to education and eco-tourism. Now, the tanks, which are really "vats" or "containers," few of them with glass sides, but built so that you can easily put your hands in them and pick up things, are used as much for letting school groups pass through and touch sea urchins, crabs, snail shells, as for any other reason. For me, it was a kind of nostalgic experience. Seeing the hawksbill turtles at the marine institute reminded me of when my mom, a biological illustrator at the time, would draw turtles while a Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji. We'd watch as the turtles dragged themselves over the grass of our front yard, and Mom would create these scientifically-accurate drawings of them.

And, as a kid growing up in Fiji, one of my fondest memories was wading through the tidal pools and reefs. Those tanks at the institute were like miniature versions of those adventures, and it was both fun and odd to watch kids interacting with the sea life. On the one hand, it was great for them. On the other, they were missing the context of those creatures in a truly wild place.

Strangely, I've never been able to write Fiji into any of my stories. It is the first place I have vivid memories of as a child. I've been able to write about every country I've ever visited, but not the one (other than the U.S.) that I spent any amount of time in. I'm not quite sure why. It might be that the place is already mythologized in my memories.

I have taken a stab at some nonfiction about Fiji from time to time--here's a passage that epitomizes what I loved about the place:

Some nights--the best nights--Mom and Dad would take my sister and me to the shallows of offshore reefs. In sneakers and shorts we would shine our flashlights into that miraculous darkness, revealing bridges and stairwells and thoroughfares of red, yellow, orange coral. Phosphorescent squid shot through the breaches in the coral like miniature balloons rapidly losing air. Drab brown moray eels with gold-veined eyes hissed from worn worm holes while cumbersome cowrie shells with lip-pink snails lumbered gracefully through the sudden spotlight. Tiny emerald fish schooled together, then broke apart into a hundred jeweled tears at the first hint of danger, before coming back together again to form a sparkling chandelier. Against this backdrop, striped Spanish Dancers, living skirts of jelly-like flesh, danced their slow fandangos, oblivious to our intrusion.

The wind, cool and rhythmic, would lull our senses, while on the nearby shore, ghost crabs shadowed our progress and the distant lights of civilization seemed deliciously inconsequential, even ridiculous, in comparison with the smooth, sleek-black world we had entered . . .

One night, with the sea murmuring and gasping all around, we walked farther than we had ever walked before, so that the lights of the shore were only a memory and our flashlights as small against the night as the moon reflected in a man's eyes.

The reef cut against our ankles and the water salted the wounds, but we continued on, until, for one frightening moment, we could not tell shore from sea, and if we were to have spun blindly, we would have opened our eyes to a world completely unknown and unknowable.

But we didn't; instead, we started back toward the shore. Half-way back, we came upon a grotto filled with water, and in the water a creature we had never before seen--a Crown of Thorns, a type of beautiful yet deadly starfish, bigger than a dinner plate, bronze-brown, its thousands of thorns glistening like dark gold. Eater of reefs, destroyer of entire tiny worlds. I felt such a thrill of discovery in that moment, to be standing on the reef with only our flashlights for illumination, crouched over that grotto, looking down on this creature that seemed so otherworldly and alien. Such bittersweet juxtapositions of beauty and destruction. In that moment, I thought that there could be no sensation better than this one: the shivering delight upon discovery of the sublime and the unknown.



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