Thoughts on Nature

Liquid spatiality, Volumetric materialities, and Wet ontologies

The Triumph of Venus by François Boucher (Source: Wikimedia)

Breathing in and out through my regulator, the bubbles flutter past the sealed mask, muffled through the omnipresent liquidness that is the Underwater, rising towards the overhead defined by the perpetual motion of light refracting through waves. In the distance, a luminescent parrotfish takes a few bites out of a stressed branching coral before darting through limestone remains and vanishing into the dark blues and murky shallows. Letting out another breath, I sink even deeper before, unbeknownst to me, a cloud of sand is kicked up causing me to twist around from the glint in the corner of the mask. Fragments of corals roll across the sandy substrate while moving in and out of your visibility horizon, the black tip of a familiar shark causes my heart to race. There’s something hypnotizing about the natural yet unnatural feeling of being fully submerged, moving through the liquid spatiality of the sea, engulfed in the belle noiseuse, “the nautical murmur,” of the monotony of waves as Michel Serres describes it.

When we consider the best approaches to “managing” the world around us, as though we can actually manage anything more than our relationality, we think in terms of land and flatness. Maps are flat. Political boundaries are flat. Our thinking is flat. This flatness, as opposed to the ‘flat ontology’ that defines OOO where “all objects, even those that are imagined, have the same degree of being-ness as any other object,” prevents us from experiencing reality as it actually is; deep, fluid, and constantly changing. As the story goes, a king asks his cartographer to make a map of the kingdom but requests larger more accurate maps to be made until the map is as large as the kingdom and the kingdom has been conquered. Here in lies, the fault of our terrestrial ontology and it’s implications for conservation, drawing maps and defining protected areas means we already missed the mark. And this is exceptionally so with regards to ocean and coastal ecology.

Anyone who has found themselves near, on, or underwater realizes that our relationality to the surrounding world gets instantly altered, whether due to the perpetual motion of waves or the sensation of being able to sink deeper as opposed to the solid ground we’ve become so familiar with. This volumetric materiality manifests in what Jane Bennet describes as ‘vibrant matter,’ a philosophical challenge to the traditional definition of matter as passive, inactive, and inert. The sea is anything but inert, with columns of water bringing different species to the surface throughout the day and currents traversing the entire globe. Additionally, the wet ontology, a term used by Steinberg and Peters, challenges our sense of flatness by introducing volume and depth to our sensuous experience. David Abram, in his essay Depth Ecology, reiterates the importance of this deep relationality:

“Because we are animals immersed in the world, each thing we directly encounter meets us with its own depth, its visible facets and its invisible facets, its closer aspects open to our gaze and its more distant aspects hidden from view. The belief in a purely objective comprehension of nature, in a clear and complete understanding of how the world works, is the belief in an entirely flat world seen from above, a world without depth, a nature that we are not a part of but that we look at from outside — like a God, or like a person staring at a computer screen.”

Illustration of the three-dimensional structure of deep-sea ecosystems from the seafloor to the water column (Levin, Kark, & Danovaro, 2018)

As a coastal manager, I’ve sat down with fisherfolk and stakeholders with large (flat) maps of the coastal spaces to engage in participatory mapping in order to define the best location to establish a marine protected area (MPA). While there are many benefits for the continued establishment of terrestrial ontological MPAs, any marine ecologist would tell you how important considering the movement of fish and key species are when designing management plans. However, this concept seems to still be regulated to a two-dimensional movement rather than the volumetric experience of the underwater. In an attempt to add volume, researchers at the University of Queensland have developed a 3-D spatial conservation prioritization, where “depth plays a key role in the structuring of marine ecosystems, species distributions, and ecosystem functioning.”

Laying a 50-meter transect, I watch the measuring tape contour to the ridges and valleys of the coral reef before marking the different types of corals at each meter. Above my head, there is a school of fish that pass me by without my attention, beneath the rocky substrate an octopus changes shape and color to camouflage itself from my awareness. We can’t capture all these relations in our data and certainly can’t manage our seas like they are static snapshots, deep sea paintings hung on the walls of environmental agencies. Freshwater eels travel thousands of miles across the sea to find a landscape to call home before traveling all the way back to the salty ouroboros of their existence, sinking to the seafloor to provide food for plankton that feeds the juvenile eels in those first moments. Salmon take the same journey in reverse. Depth is both visible and invisible.

Like the aquatic frolicking taking place beneath, next to, above, and, in some senses, inside of Venus surrounded by nymphs and dolphins, our relational thinking can’t rely on innovative software systems to visualize the third dimension when we reach the biodiversity planning stage. Instead, we must think with the sea, engaging with the depth of experiences from the sea floor to the shape of tide pools to the way mangroves can provide shelter to both sloths and juvenile fish. We must embrace a relationality that is submerged, where vibrancy is all-encompassing and our objectness comes into being as we unfold through the oceanic flow of space and time. We must think beyond the terrestrial to experience not only the seascape but also the landscape as full of volume, defined by relationships, and constantly changing. In this wet ontology, we can understand what makes us water people on a water planet.

Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Tasmania, studying climate change adaptation, risk perspectives, and coastalscape values.

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