Sunday, May 17, 2009

Coral Threnody

Crochet coral taking over my life

I am nearing completion of my longest-term current project, and rather than being the gentle glide across the finish line that I naively anticipated, it is more like flying into Wellington airport in a small plane with gale force winds.*

When I came up with my plan for combining crochet 'live' coral with embroidered 'dead' coral, the result was to be called The Sixth Extinction. Coral has gone (more or less) globally extinct five separate times in the 3.9 billion years there has been life on Earth. It is entirely possible that the sixth global extinction of coral could happen in my lifetime. Still, millions of years after each extinction event, coral has reemerged in appropriate environments, so y'know its not like extinction is an unmitigated disaster for the planet.

But, but, I hate, hate, the thought that coral will become extinct on my watch, that my great grandchildren will never get to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef and see the amazing wonders of that alternate universe under the warm water's surface. That humans of the future will look at photos of the long extinct freaky creatures of the reef and curse me, us, for being so greedy and careless and passive.

As I patiently stitched away on my dead coral embroidery (about 120 hours of stitching over four months) I tried to believe that maybe what I am making could help make some tiny bit of difference to the outcome of bleaching from ocean warming and acidity, rising sea levels from melting glaciers, destruction from increasingly violent and frequent storms, poison from land-based industry toxins washing out to sea, disruption of delicate interrelationships from over-fishing and shell-collection and all the other myriad grim consequences of human behaviors.

As I stitched, I remembered the wonder of coral sex, when a barely-waning spring moon synchronises a massive spawning by billions of hermaphrodite coral polyps of different species; all releasing clouds of tiny gametes simultaneously, literally filling the water column with their eggs and sperm, a plankton feast for other species, but a grand breeding and dispersal programme for coral.

And I thought of all the other people around the world who care about coral, especially those who are also crocheting coral reefs to remind us that coral matters, not just to dive tour operators and mathematicians, but to everyone. Wishing somehow that every stitch we make can somehow help the reefs to recover.

The name of the piece evolved over this period from The Sixth Extinction, to Lament for the Ocean and finally (when I was researching war poems for my Anzac day chalk installation) just Threnody, which means much the same as lament, but has the attraction of stretching into a textile pun. Then I finished the embroidery and laid it out with my collection of crocheted coral and realised that my original design doesn't work. The scale of the intricate embroidery and the cartoony crochet clashed and neither technique looked very good in that formation.

Devastated, I put it all away for a few days to try and dash the tears of disappointment and frustration from my eyes. In those few days I came across two separate articles announcing a miraculous recovering on two separate coral reefs, Australia's Great Barrier Reef (the inspiration for my work) and some reefs off East Africa. In both cases, reefs seriously damaged by bleaching within the past few years have defied expectations and are recovering. In both cases an unexpected/underestimated combination of "ecological mechanisms" enabled the recovery, but more importantly, the reefs that have recovered are all relatively well-protected from fishing and have reasonably good water quality.

Coral celebration

Suddenly Threnody didn't seem like the right kind of name for my evolving coral creation. The combination of dead coral and live coral always allowed for a more hopeful reading than my litany of sad names suggested. I decided I wanted to redesign the piece to emphasise the possiblity of recovery allowed by both nature's resiliance and people's right actions, but I was stuck about how to do that.

Luckily one of my housemates is a thoughtful, dedicated artist, so I decided to ask Adrienne's opinion. She encouraged me to imagine moving my work out of only two planes, to extend beyond the frame, to think more about creating a reef installation. With her inspiration I have started playing with my crocheted coral, growing multiple little reefs in a variety of environments, such as a rack of freshly washed dishes.

With less than three weeks to my deadline, I am crocheting new coral communities in every spare moment: on the bus, at the pub, in front of the tv, while visiting friends. I have a new design which I think embodies not only my fears for the future of coral but the also the new evidence that its not too late for us to make a difference.** Now all I need is a new name.


Dish rack coral reef

*If you are lucky enough never to have flown into Wellington, know that it is a heart-stopping, stomach-churning experience even in a big plane on a still day.

**You can help save coral reefs by all the usual good-for-for-the-environment things including:
  • eating only fish that is not endangered or no fish at all
  • minimising coastal developments such as housing, logging and roads which wash sediment out to sea where it chokes reefs to death
  • not buying any products made with shells, coral or other sea animals unless you know that it was sustainably and ethically harvested (ie scavenged off the beach)
  • avoiding pollution and litter especially near coasts and down storm drains

3 comments:

Kay said...

I love what you are doing with your hands and how you are writing about it! Thank you from me and on behalf of the coral.

rachlovestheweb said...

Meliors, this has got to be my favourite posting of all time on your blog (so far, that is!). Interdisciplinarity to the extreme, I love it so much words can't convey. Especially as I'm working on developing content for shiftingthinking.org to help other people "get it" - why this stuff matters! (e.g as in this posting http://www.shiftingthinking.org/?p=836). I can't wait to hear more about what happens next with your installation....

Lisa Stevens said...

As I make coral myself (from porcelain) I know how long this would have taken! Wonderful work! I love coral, texture, etc....if I wasn't working with ceramics I would have been working with textiles. Your ethics also sound similar to mine....I think we may be very similar....across opposite ends of the globe!