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.