Reading, Writing, Walking
Monday, July 04, 2005
the paradox of the reef

This is an excerpt from a report entitled, "Shoals of Time (are we witnessing the extinction of the world's coral reefs?)" by Julia Whitty which appeared in Harpers (Jan 2001). It says something about why we rarely (never?) encounter excellent essays from divers (yet).

"...It's rare in the wild to see what is essentially the moment of conception. Yet what we say about it is trivial. Incroyable, eh? Formidable. Still, the mood is joyful and relieved, as if we've conquered some summit and survived. The French divers are happy that their day's work went well and that they were able to show me this secret. I'm pleased that I'll have it to write about. Back in my bungalow I check my underwater slate, anxious to transcribe its notes into my journal, then laugh to discover that there's only a single exclamation point marked on it.

Such is the paradox of the reef: a world that feels purely and extravagantly sensual yet, in reality, happens mostly outside our own sensory realm. Designed for the land, we smell nothing underwater, taste only the metallic twang of compressed air, see poorly, and are reduced to nondirectional hearing; in effect, we're disabled. Nor can we talk. Without language, I believe that human divers revert to an older state of mind in which thoughts are processed nonverbally. So the dive you've just made tends to be felt rather than accurately remembered, and the little plastic slate that you've dutifully carried underwater with you for note-taking reveals only doodles or strange heiroglyphs, made more difficult to decipher by the fact that the pencil marks (supposedly erasable by scrubbing with beach sand) never really do come clean, leaving you to contend with the ghostly outlines of all your previous, equally enigmatic dives. This is the struggle, or at least my struggle, working underwater: how to comprehend and then translate the otherworldly marvels to the world topside."
"So the dive you've just made tends to be felt rather than accurately remembered."

The experience of touch is still a rich resource. I suppose (I've never gone diving, I wouldn't really know) it can be used as a good springboard to illustrate the diving mindset-- reduced to being a foreigner ("designed for the land") in a very basic sense, literally nangangapa. :)

Alex Garland wrote in The Beach about how he doesn't take pictures when he travels because photographs are limiting. They box memories into what appears on frame. In the same way, words can do that. It's the struggle of every writer to "comprehend and then translate" into words what cannot and should not be boxed..
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