Relics (Coral)

            From my first visit to the Caribbean when I was a boy on vacation with my family, I remember being very intrigued by shells and coral. These remainders of life, these delicate, finely made objects that washed up on a daily basis. I spent a good deal of my time as a child, on our winter visits to Puerto Rico, collecting shells and coral on the beach. These are amazing things, the life’s work or even the remainder of the life, of creatures that live with us on this world.

            I now see them as extraordinary relics of life and creation, and I pick them up when they are in my path, just as I am intrigued by empty abandoned bird nests when I find them fallen from a tree, along the edge of the sidewalk. The work in building these nests, in constructing coral reefs, in making a shell, an animal’s very skeleton and home, is a wonder.

            And they are built in patterns that are essentially foreign to us. With our compulsion to organize, to simplify things into unreal square and symmetrical forms, we impose a structure, a monotony, on the world that is efficient but narrow. We live in our square constructions, instead of making our dwellings like shells, organic, curved, generous. It’s not so much that how we build our worlds, our cities and the networks and infrastructure that join them, is wrong. Maybe it’s fine. I’ve enjoyed myself in many cities and houses. My apartment has straight walls and rectangular rooms, and they are very comfortable, once they are furnished and filled with the right stuff. But there is still a wonder in seeing these thing that are made by other rules, with other calculations.

            I think of the bird weaving together leaves, twigs, bits of cloth and paper, all these myriad materials, into a tight structure to hold her eggs, hold her young, and give her a place to sit and care for them. And I think of the coral, who built, one upon the other, these delicate forms that look like little hands or little creatures. Things that are now close to stone or wood, inanimate, but that have a delicacy and a poetry of life in them. That’s the magic of what life leaves behind, of things made step by step, without a square or a ruler, things that are redolent of the daily business of breathing, consuming, producing waste, and leaving a relic of your passage.


A Walk After Maria

i have been reading and thinking about the idea of intelligent life, and how we imagine it. One of the big questions is our own intelligence, the nature and limits of it. While we have proven able of understanding many aspects of our world an we have produced extraordinary objects, monuments and cultural works (think of music, literature, fashion), there is something disillusioning about our inability or unwillingness to confront injustice and to treat each other and our world better. Often this is ascribed to our animal being, to an instinctive, individualistic part of our selves, but I think that metaphor has proven false. Animals, and the natural world tends to be less brutal, less absolute in its destructiveness, than humanity. So I have thought about this question of the selfishness and shortsightedness of my species, and I have also thought of the nobility and mystery of life around us. 

I don't know much about cephalopods and octupuses, I think even researchers still have great lagunas in their knowledge. We can feel pretty sure that they have not built cities or written novels or composed symphonies (for that kind of activity we have to look to the whales). But they have an amazing way of being, dissimilar to our mammalian construction. The wild fluidity of their bodies, as the change form and color, the fact that the large quantity of neurons in their bodies are not unified in their brains but rather located through their arms as well, so that recognition and even cognition may not be centralized. All of this is connected to my very strong feeling that in our simple thinking we vastly underestimate the being who share this planet with us. 

I will admit the influence of "Arrival," and its portrayal of aliens as a variant of cephalopods, but at the same time, I have thought about this for many years, as I watched Star Trek and other science fiction productions–Why do we think all the aliens will look like people wearing masks? Why do we think they will walk on two or even four legs? Whey do we not spend more time talking with elephants, orangutans, ravens and octupuses?

This drawing is a casual conversation, some business man, not a biologist or an academic, on a stroll with this other intelligence. And they are walking by one of the curious, re-formed post-Hurricane trees that abound in Puerto Rico: trees that are vital and full of life but lacking branches. It doesn't have to be an octopus, it certainly doesn't have to be a businessman, but maybe it should be a lot more of us who appreciate, protect and spend time in the proximity of other species.



A few weeks ago I was in Florida, visiting my children. After some discussion we agreed to go to the Florida Museum of Natural History, about a half hour away in Gainesville. The y have a rainforest exhibit there. That might seem a bit unnecessary for children and a father who have spent hours  and days in El yunque rainforest, but actually the background may heighten appreciation. This is a perfect little rainforest, and we spent two hours in it, until they kicked us out. It is full of growth, and especially butterflies and more butterflies, of all shapes and colors. A student came to release some of them during our visit, and he explained how they are shipped in from various countries on a regular basis, tended in the museum and then released into this contained environment. The wonder of seeing these amazing creatures, of being close to them, the pleasure it brought to my teenage children, was memorable. Then we went to have pizza ata very cool place in town.

Not long after, I was in Monterrey, Mexico on a work trip. As we moved around the city it was unexpected to see butterflies flying by. Butterfies mobbing a bunch of flowers, butterflies drifting through the old downtown, butterflies outside the windows as we waited for our flight at the airport. 

These are the wonders of daily living, maybe the wonders we appreciate as visitors who see a place anew. Keep your eyes open, draw things into your life and then share them, it's a world of wonders and they are only there if you see them.