Tasmania Nature Writing Prize 2007.
Published in Island
Magazine 110, 2007
I stand in a graveyard. One of the saddest I’ve seen. Its silence and stillness represent the end of immeasurable life. Beyond the shoreline the clear sea deepens to pale green then turquoise before it reaches the uplifted corals of the outer reef, a thin line drawn parallel to the coast. Waves break lazily over the reef in a dull, distant drone.
The yellow sand of the inner reef is fine and dry. I dig my toes into stored sun. Coral stacks surround me, rising from their anchor point beneath the sand. Some are contained and rounded like small boulders, others spread metres across in a Gaudi fantasy of shapes. A few broad dome-topped columns, the accretion of centuries, rise higher than my head. Small waves lap tentatively a few metres away, but their location is wrong. They should be surging above these coral heads to shush on to the sand at the feet of the coconut palms two hundred metres inland. Instead this wide band of hot sand is studded with mounds and pillars of dead coral. A grey catacomb, in both directions as far as the eye can see along this Indonesian island coast. A mockery of the brilliant colour and teeming, vigorous underwater ecosystem that should be here.
This is a garden petrified. It conjures memories of walking through Australian bushland ravaged by fire, reduced to black sticks and bare earth. But the bush has proven time and time again it can survive desolation. Red shoots bleed from the blackened limbs of eucalypts and brilliant green spears erupt from apparently lifeless xanthorrhoea stumps; slowly life fights back. There is little likelihood of a life-affirming bloom occurring in this bleached coral landscape.
The death of these corals isn’t an outcome of global warming. I know the precise moment when they began to die. Three months and two days after this same coastline experienced the horror of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Shortly before eleven-thirty on the night of March twenty-eighth 2005. When Nias, lying west of northern Sumatra, was hit by an
eight-point-seven magnitude earthquake, and the island buckled.
In those moments parts of the island and its beautiful coral reefs lifted by up to three metres. The nurturing sea drained from the inner reefs in a bathymetric apocalypse. Fish and crustaceans, sea-stars and sea-slugs, soft and hard-shelled molluscs, sting rays and squid were left gasping in air. The limpid reef habitat that tempered the seas and shielded the land from storm depredation was left unprotected. Gone the radiance of coral light. Gone the fertile spawning grounds. On these coral heads, millions of polyps waited for the harsh inevitability of the sun.
Polyp. A word you can take out to play with its best friends, Syrup and Dollop. An alliterative word. A pulsing sweet and bursting word which takes hold of the lips and purses them, curls the tongue like a trigger, condenses air into ready release, closing on the soft plosive like a kiss. Polyp. Pass it from mouth to mouth. The muscular expulsion of tiny blobs of animal life. Pop. The onomatopoeia of juicy gametes, soft globes of egg and sperm, ejecting from the mother coral into the amniotic sea.
Corals do not yield to the gravitational imperative of the full moon. They wait until the sea gentles, wanting the neap tide, the time when the pull of the moon works against the pull of the sun, the time of least tidal sway. They want the balm of warm currents, and a sexy blanket of darkness. For corals the sea of generation and continuity is a calm sea, a mothering sea. Only when the odds for survival are best do the polyps surrender their gametes in a synchronous swoon. Miniscule balloons of potential life, translucent and succulent. Wavering upwards through violet light in clouds as mysterious as nebulae.
Broadcast spawning is the coral equivalent of lurve. Girl gamete and boy gamete seek attachment, meet, and fuse to form a tiny planula or larva. This buoyant baby coral drifts, questing for a surface to anchor to. If successful the planula grows into a polyp. Polyps of hard coral secrete theca to form limestone cups called corallites. In these safe, miniature caves the polyps develop into small organisms like anemones. The soft, colourful tentacles with which they catch their prey flower at each opening.
The two coral types are distinguished by the number of tentacles. Soft corals, octocorallia, have eight, while scleractinians, the hard corals, bear tentacles in multiples of six. The hard, or stony, corals and their broadcast-spawning planulae are the main reef- builder (hermatypic) corals, and the most common. Most of the soft corals are brooders; instead of broadcasting they retain their egg cells, releasing only the sperm gametes.
Once fertilized the planula drifts or crawls from the mother polyp’s opening, looking for the anchor-point needed to start another colony. An established planula grows into a polyp, then divides in two and secretes a new corallite cup. This process, called asexual budding, is how colonies form. The calcium skeleton grows upwards and outwards, creating structures unique to each polyp type, including delicate finger, fan and lettuce corals, star corals and staghorns and the eerily familiar brain corals. The massy boulder corals, or coral heads, increase annually by one or two centimetres, more under favourable conditions, and become more stable as they grow. Branching corals, like elkhorns, which grow around ten centimetres a year, are more vulnerable to strong wave or anchor damage.
Coral spawning, the essence of potential and chance. Planulae float freely, but freedom is replete with danger. The planula is a perfect fast food package, likely to be swilled down the gullet of any hungry feeder from a jellyfish blob to a twelve metre whale shark. Or there is the reproductive joke of missing the target, cast adrift, life potential unrealised. A coral slick of decaying gametes and unattached planulae can be so dense on the ocean’s surface it blocks the sun, inhibiting photosynthesis and causing the death of creatures in the waters below, including parent corals.
Drifting spawn wastes form a crimson-brown stain on the indifferent sea. This is the
menstrual blood of an Asian princess, seized by a dragon and taken to live in its subaquatic lair. Or it is the solidified menses of snake-haired Medusa, one of the Gorgons, grotesque women of Ancient Greece who could, with one fatal glance, turn onlookers to stone. Mortal Medusa was killed by Perseus. The fresh seaweed he used to wrap her severed head transformed into blood-red stone. When he lay her head down on the shore of the Red Sea, Medusa’s blood flowed into the water, forming the coral reefs. Rumour also has it that the undersea palace of Poseidon, god of oceans and earthquakes, was formed of coral. Was this an aquatic Taj Mahal? A memorial to Poseidon’s beloved, beautiful Medusa, transformed to a monster by wrathful Athena when she discovered god and nymph making love in her temple?
The coral’s single opening is its eye on the world; food sensor, mouth, vagina and birth-giver. Coral remains a chthonic symbol in some cultures, the apotropaic eye, warding off the evil of the underworld. Too late for Medusa, but her story still resonates; soft coral sea fans and sea whips are scientifically classified as Gorgonacea, while ghostly jellyfish are called Medusas.
I walk among the dead coral massives. They are seductively tactile. My fingers trace the intricate patterns and billowy curves of the dead polyp colonies. Nerves jitter on roughness; cat’s tongue, sharkskin, coarse-grade sandpaper, ground glass. Underwater, corals can look like terry toweling or chenille, even velvet; rich illuminated tapestries carelessly bunched in baskets. The soft, luxurious nap of millions of tiny buds, glowing like ruby and garnet, amber and lapis lazuli. Cut myself on this ungentle illusion of the sea and the cut will effloresce from the rich ragout of bacteria, my skin will stain coral and my blood expel its own polyps of inflammation.
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest Ariel, the air-spirit turned sea-nymph, sings
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange
Some people still subscribe to the myth that coral will grow in human flesh. Believe the myth and a tiny shard of coral piercing my flesh could work its barbed way in, to ossify a rich and strange bloom. I could produce my own miracle of calcification, the bones of the sea budding in my veins, coral branches generating from my blood, erupting from my skin. But I cannot regenerate this coral. My palm scrapes on dead calcium, a dental nightmare of cavities. Shells, corallites, absence. Hollow host to sad winds and small scuttling spiders.
Five of us have come to this wasteland. The four young Nias men, Hendri, Kasih, Cornel and Darman, are my co-workers on a United Nations humanitarian Aid project that is rebuilding houses destroyed in the earthquake. We wander, lured by the grim beauty of the vast heads of coral. Funereal purple, not yet drained by sunlight, still mottles their depths and undersides. We are numb; there is nothing to say.
Kasih calls me, breaking the spell. He has found a large clam, about thirty centimetres across, deeply embedded in a huge brain coral. Only the lips protrude but the surrounding coral has left space for the clam to open. It is large enough to hold, if not a human foot (that stuff of ripping yarns), then at least a hand. The lips of its scalloped, gaping mouth are tinged blue, like the last gasp of the dying. A sulphur yellow stain lingers deep in the throat. The wizened leaf-brown husk of the mollusc rattles in there too.
We stare. I imagine that time of upheaval and its aftermath, those hours of blackness, the sea streaming from orifices and pores. The life filter, the dense saline balm, stripped away like skin being flayed, the dumb shriek of marine animals exposed to the sear of night air. And then sunlight, and those waterbodies slowly, inexorably, beginning to heat. To simmer. The spit and split of secret flesh. Boiling to vapour with thin whistlings. Dying slowly.
Kasih looks at me and says, ‘How it must have suffered.’ It is eighteen months since the earthquake tore his island apart, shredding its physical and social fabric. Each of these young men has experienced the anguish of losing family, friends, homes and livelihood. I gaze at the sky. Clouds brood above us in deepening greys, fluffing their feathers like dispossessed hens, their eggs stolen. It is not the first time I cry in Nias.
On the Day of Remembrance, March twenty-eight, 2006 I was in another graveyard. The sadness of this new section of cemetery in Gunungsitoli, the capital of Nias, welled from its sudden and recent manifestation; one year since the earthquake. The raw earth still bled. The graveyard holds two hundred and thirty two souls, each headstone inscribed with the same date of death. Many bear multiple inscriptions. One lists seven family members; the youngest, at two months, killed with both his parents. One-year-old graves like this dot hillsides and, according to custom, household front yards, throughout the island.
When the brief ceremony finished I joined the queues of silent people who slipped between the graves like shadows. We took handfuls of chopped leaves and flowers from baskets proffered by schoolchildren, and scattered these pieces of life gently over the graves of the dead. Sorrow, disbelief and regret drifted to earth like green rain.
Nias sits just north of the equator. The pale, narrow beaches are fringed by serried palms and casuarinas. Behind them the land rises to a jumble of low peaks and rounded hills, fragile, red clay hills, ready to give solidity the slip during abundant rains. The land wears a luxuriant pelt of coconut and sago palms, bananas, rambutans, mangosteen, longan, mangoes and their robust kweni cousins. The taller trees, species of Ficus and big scraggly durians, shoulder through the dense canopy gasping for sunlight. It is classic rainforest, complex and stable, in a mature cycle of germination, growth, expansion, competition, victory, defeat, death and decay.
In river valleys and slopes not too slippery for foothold, there are small-scale plantations of cocoa and elegantly cicatrised rubber trees. The ground is carpeted with moss and ferns, sweet potato, cassava. Flatter land is terraced, flaunting a rice-field kaleidoscope; soil cappuccino-rich with inundation, fluoro-lush new growth, the maturing emerald carpet that seems to suck blue from the sky, the gold of harvest. Up to three crops a year. This is a raw, fecund, mysterious island of wonderful biodiversity. The sea erupts with shoals of small silver flying fish, forests teem with butterflies, dragonflies, bats, lizards, hand-span spiders on cable-webs. Half a million people live on Nias. Rural women bear six or eight children and appear old by the time they are forty. Nature is rampant, demanding and sometimes brutal. Two years after the earthquake many people still live in shattered homes, or hunch inside temporary structures wrought of broken planks, tin and twitched wire. Too poor, or too financially devastated to rebuild, they wait for promised aid.
What happens in an earthquake? Choose your straw. Variables include seismic depth, location, topography, geology, weather, intensity, fault lines. Imagine watching a playful dog pounce on a textured green rug, lock it between his teeth, shake and tear it. The dog, loses interest, carelessly drops the rug back on the sea-smooth blue floor and trots away. For two heart stopping minutes Nias curled, cracked, and split at the seams. The island pleated, mountainsides fell, bridges were shrugged off pylons, power supplies were destroyed, the sea chomped away mouthfuls of coast. A myriad of fault-lines schismed, tearing apart roads and houses. On one section of coast the homes of fishing families sank to their windowsills as the shaking sand beneath them liquefied. Soon after, sixty two houses and twenty five metres of beach disappeared for good in a tsunami.
Ironically, despite the loss of life, shelter, and infrastructure, and the destruction of protective mangrove, coconut and casuarina habitat along coastal areas, some scientists believe the lifting of the reefs may have helped shield Nias from far greater tsunami damage.
At the south-eastern end of Nias, Lagundri Bay opens to the sea like a giant polyp. The bay’s narrow neck hosts a wave revered by board riders. Considered one of the best right breaks in the world, the wave runs alongside the shelf reef and on (and on and on) into the bay. On any day surfers from a dozen different nations, emerge from their rooms in cheap Sorake Beach losmens, grab their boards and pick their way across the broad coral platform to wave Mecca. This shelf reef was also uplifted to above high tide level by the cataclysm. When word got out of earthquake damage at Sorake, internet sites were blasted with the same question; What happened to The Wave?
The shelf reef fans around Sorake in a flat skirt, two to three hundred metres wide, before it meets the thunder of open sea. Walk over this dead coral and hear the sighing music of the voids; the sea laments in endless cavities and erupts in small geysers through empty coral pipes. But living corals survive under the dead crust. Deep fissures reveal seaweed ruffled crevices and chasms, jewelled with crabs, glowing anemones, the secret neon- cobalt eye of sea urchins, and tiny flickering fish.
When I first visited Sorake at Easter 2006 the shelf reef was slick with rotting yellow weed and slime, the air a sulphurous miasma. The wave had survived and surfers still made the two day pilgrimage from Sumatra, but catastrophe is bad for business. Villagers who’d invested their meagre fishing income into surf-tourism were struggling. A month later the smell was gone and the sea alchemised the reef into a mirror. I spoke to Titus, whose nearly completed losmen was shattered by the earthquake. He told me this was the first time the sea had returned to the reef. By July, sixteen months after the earthquake, the high tide was washing a metre of surf across the corals.
Is the reef sinking back into the sea? Aerial photographs suggest this possibility. Nias sits on the edge of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate which is slowly subducting, grinding under the Eurasian plate at a rate of about fifty millimetres a year. But the current rate of settling seems much faster.
SurfAid International was already involved in tsunami rehabilitation projects at Sorake when the earthquake wreaked a new round of devastation on the southern villages and its provincial capital, Teluk Dalam. They were the first international NGO (non government organisation) to assist in recovering bodies, erecting temporary shelters, sourcing and administering medical aid. Slowly the Aid trickle became a flow. Now dozens of Indonesian and international NGOs, as well as various arms of the UN, are helping Nias back onto its feet. This is a poor island, survival is at subsistence level for many inhabitants. Locals claim Nias is Indonesia’s forgotten island. Certainly Indonesians from more wealthy and sophisticated parts of the archipelago sometimes refer dismissively to Nias as primitive, citing the island’s megalithic culture and head-hunting past as evidence.
Nias is mesmerised by the inflow of international Aid workers. Money and muscle for the
forgotten island. For humanitarian workers the bandaid solution can be a circulatory dilemma. Cynicism abounds. I talk to a young Australian engineer who is not so much jaded by the rebuilding task as overwhelmed by the complexity of the Aid effort to disaster areas, both natural and war-generated, not only in Indonesia but world-wide. ‘What’s the point?’ he muses. ‘Are we simply reshuffling the pack? Poor people whose threadbare shacks were destroyed receive new houses, while others, luckier or harder working, but not earthquake affected, get no help. Westerners come in expensive hiking boots and new four-wheel-drives, they flaunt US dollars, fly to overseas resorts for R&R, drink alcohol, and draw big salaries. Then they leave. What changes? Some people are better off, but poverty, unemployment and land degradation remain. The locals, having glimpsed how the First World lives, are left with their hands out, wanting more.’
‘But in Australia we have a welfare safety net,’ I counter. ‘Unemployment benefits, pensions for the disadvantaged, drought, fire, flood relief. If the government doesn’t come to the party, then, ideally, the community does. If disaster struck your family and you were offered assistance, you’d take it, the same as people of Nias do. Communities rally to maintain the stability of individual elements, both on a local and global scale.’
Another circular discussion centres on priorities; which has primary importance, people or environment? There is environmental chaos in Nias whenever it rains heavily, especially where soils were starved by nitrogen-raping nilam bushes, grown to produce patchouli oil. With a world market boom and soil fertility quickly depleting, more and more jungle was slashed and burnt for new nilam plantings. At the end of a decade massive floods tore exhausted soils apart, and rivers bled silt kilometres out to sea. Now Aid projects focus on rebuilding damaged roads and river-courses. Impoverished villagers spend their days up to their necks in turbid rivers, feeling for rocks with their feet, which they pile for sale on roadsides. Some are laboriously smashed with hammers into gravel for road construction, others are purchased for filling the wire Gabion baskets
used to stabilize the stone-denuded river-courses. Catch 22.
Multinational corporations are ever ready to persuade poor villagers to sell their subsistence landholdings for monoculture palm-oil plantations. This has happened throughout Sumatra, even on precipitous mountainsides. Without Aid to help rebuild the lives and livelihoods of the people of Nias, and bolster sustainability, there is a strong likelihood their fragile land will be sold off for international investment crops, the profits going offshore, the villagers left dispossessed and destitute.
Reefs are complex communities. Most corals share their corallite walls, and share their gut with single cell algae called zooxanthellae. By consuming the polyps’ nitrogenous wastes, these miniature recycling experts fuel themselves to help photosynthesise sunlight into the sugars corals need for ninety-eight percent of their food requirement. Symbiosis is a fine balance.
On a small atoll with an uplifted tutu of shelf reef, I pick my way through pools where corals fight on, apparently adapting to the sun warmed water. Crown of Thorns starfish as large as dinner plates are everywhere I look, some red, most a brilliant and seductive violet. Grotesquely beautiful, their long thorns contrive to look velvety. They move in slow motion, feeding on the dying polyps, and on the living. Where the starfish have fed the coral is scarred grey, colour and polyps gone. When the reef is stressed the balance is tipped.
One starfish is on its back, its mouth and the radiating pattern of its tube feet exposed. Feet it uses to pull out its stomach sack, which it spreads over the corals, flooding them with digestive juices, sucking the dissolving polyps until only the stark calcium carbonate skeleton remains. Its fourteen arms curl upwards at the tips. It doesn’t look happy. I turn it back over with the toe of my sandal. The arms move slowly, tubicles undulate, an echinoderm shrugs its spiny skin. Shrugs off my touch and resumes feeding. I am reminded of the palm-oil developers; profit is all that counts. Fragile environments are easily unbalanced.
A young girl of seven or eight dances on a broken road in a nylon overlay dress, one clearly passed down through many riverbank washings. The nylon, almost drained of colour, is a nondescript pink. The child laughs, skipping and twirling, clearly loving her dress, its frills and flounces, the way the sunlight turns its nylon filaments to rainbow. She has no need for colours, she can conjure them, knowing that when the frills lift with her spinning, the bleached nylon remembers its genesis; rose and vermillion, coral brightness.
Nias fanned her reef skirts like this, sea green and aqua shot through with sunshafts, the blue-veiled flicker of scale and fin, depths luminous with purple, rose and scarlet, and shadows trembling with gold. A fluorescent dance by day, a swirl of bioluminescence by night. But where the skirt’s frill lifted and tore, the rich life of the inner reef was extinguished. Damage which is likely to be compounded; tectonics experts predict more major cataclysms in the Sumatran region within the next thirty years.
Coral reefs nurture a huge repository of ocean biodiversity. The balance for their survival, and that of the complex life-chains dependent on them, including human, is tipping. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Summary for Policymakers, released in February 2007, warns unequivocally of rising sea levels and an increase in natural disasters over the next generation. Prospects are ominous, not only for the reefs but for all low-lying habitats and communities, both human and non-human. Population re-location consequent on rising seas will prove a massive drain on the international Aid bucket.
If global warming means the miracle happens, and rising sea-levels restore the dead reefs of Nias to their natural element, it will be an empty miracle. Increased ocean acidity and sedimentation will make potential recolonisation by drifting coral polyps unlikely. With
coral bleaching, due to rising ocean temperatures, projected at around ninety percent, there will be few coral polyps left to drift. Unless there is an immediate, massive, global effort to slow the rate of climate change, brittle coral catacombs may be all that remains of the world’s reefs; their exquisite colour and diversity reduced to a shadowy memory.