Several days ago, in the midst of the bleeping fabric of silence that takes over a computer lab occupied by only five literature students and a detached professor, I took in a breath and asked my discussion group members: Why do we do this?
They looked at me with eyes like a rose-swooned orchid mantis, wondering what had stunted me their stinky neighbor from turning pink. I elaborated: Why is every single piece of so-called literature we read a disconfirmation of life? If life is really so hopeless and all happiness is really a foil or symbol for despair, then why are we young folks hanging out in college trying to come up with exciting things to say about it? What does anyone want a degree for, when what we are studying alerts us to the fact that life is pointless? Are we fish flailing on the plastic deck of a motorboat, seeking to flick the parasites off our scales via our throes of thrashing death?
The room buzzed with silence. A mantis-faced brunette informed me that I guess people don’t really find anything significant to talk about in happy books. If everything in the book is happy, it’s just not as deep as a book with a sad ending.
Since she used the words happy and sad in a literature class, I knew the most graceful option was to nod like a bobblehead and pretend I was really the illiterate idiot who still spoke in two-syllable terms.
Last night I let the Internet unveil something to me I had pleasantly covered with a porcelain tarp for a long time. I dared to look at the state of the earth beneath the tarp, and it was stricken, leprose, paralyzed. The Great Barrier Reef was pronounced dead on October 13. 2016.
Now I know why literature students study ethical paralysis, loveless apathy, and the lack of a meaning in this dragged-along space of time we jokingly call “life.” It is because of a deep wound, a deafness we have encased our delicate selves in so as to ward off the despair that was bigger than our brains, the despair that can’t be put to bed once a paper is finished. It is because we are young, our bodies, weak as they are, are imbued with more hope and movement than they ever will be again, and we can see around us the bones of the earth crumpling. We can see the vague structure of a scaffolding we might erect, to keep the ground upright beneath our feet a little longer. Sometimes, in the 2am after-homework stars, we connect shapes and patterns that might replenish the scaffolding of existence with something brighter than brickwork, something stronger than spider silk tiling our roof against meteors without shutting out the light of the sun.
But we are not engineering students, or environmental science, or even environmental policy, and we are not good at physics or chemistry and we only got through biology by turning every metabolic process into a brothers Grimm allegory. Thus we are useless.
We can flash off angry, vague rants about what the other people should be doing, or what we would be doing if we weren’t so busy typing out the intricacies of our literary minds. Or we can turn our faces from the eclipsing sky, and we can choose instead to cry about how Grendel died of bigotry or about how Ernest Hemingway says we need not try against the inevitability of the blood-covered battlefield. These are things from which a young college student can wrap himself or herself in spun glass, electrified against the winter frost, and dream of answers and lick up nice red “A’s” in between dirty mattress springs. These are things for which, although there is no right or wrong answer, a right answer can always be found, and a wrong one cosmetically improved.
But we are young people. Why are we sitting here studying anything when in the midst of our incessant paper printing the trees in the Amazon are burning, and along the trail of our rejected coffee the oceans are poisoning what once pulsed with beauty in their heavenly depths? Why am I sitting in front of a factory-produced computer plugged into a gasoline wall, raving about words and more words as if it mattered? If college is a trust in a future, why are college students tracking the deterioration of the stars from the world’s last observatory and writing papers and doing nothing? Why don’t we tie our ideas to the stars, and build a forest in the interspace?
As a last technical note, THE GREAT BARRIER REEF IS NOT DEAD. No more dead today than it was yesterday, in other words. The world’s largest living structure has been in dire condition for a long time, and this year has seen the most massive die-off of coral ever recorded. There is no human god of words that can say the Reef is dead or not, and many scientists and activists protest that this terminology is detrimental to efforts to convince people, governments and industries to change their ways – if it were dead, there would be no hope of conserving what is left of it.
The truth is, even if corals bleach – ejecting their crucial symbiotic microorganisms due to an unacceptable peak in water temperature – they are not dead yet. They still have a few days to bide, and if the water cools down just enough, they can take up the life-giving zooxanthellae again and go on living. We can never save Juliet, but the ancient mother of all beauty is waiting for us, whitening, flaking as a cadaver in a breeze, slowly whispering – but not dead. We must listen. We – I – need to jump out of our chairs and not out of our windows. We need to do instead of talk. If you have ideas, throw them at the stars, or at the environmental scientists. If you have words, scream them to rally a crowd of muscle and tendon and pump them as sun-sugar in your blood as you, the first in a swarm of movers, move.
Image credits in order of appearance:
By Walloper69 at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47999139
By Paul Delaroche – gallerix.ru, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38278807
By User: (WT-shared) Queensland at wts wikivoyage – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23368654
By Oregon State University – Bleached coral, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50490719
By Steveprutz – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4079596
By Ryan McMinds – 20140730–IMG_4458.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50587515
By Profmauri – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22068643