Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Published March 1, 2019
Reconsidering the value of going unseen and overlooked
The Globe and Mail (Ontario Edition)2 Mar 2019AKIKO BUSCH
The aquatic world offers invisibility that is less about being unseen and more about a dilution of self and the sensation of assimilation and adaptation.
It is time to re-evaluate the merits of the inconspicuous life, to search out some antidote to continuous exposure, writes Akiko Busch
Ayellow tang is loitering to my left. A school of iridescent purple reef fish shines into view. A royal-blue queen angelfish glides out of sight. Despite our proximity, I am beyond the notice of a massive southern stingray sweeping along the seafloor, the drape of its thin pectoral fins following and folding over the ripples of the sand bed. The striped parrotfish are oblivious to me, while the yellowtail damselfish and flurry of silversides couldn’t be less interested. The school of tiny iridescent purple gobies flutters past with utter detachment.
We all know that sensation of life slowing down, of being suspended in time, of being outside the rhythm of ordinary life, but underwater, that is the way things really are. We may all be occupying the same turquoise chamber, but the sense of remove is vast; my amphibian self is alert to both the immeasurable distance from and profound connection to the water world around me. Submerged, I have become a refugee from the visible world.
It’s an excursion that has value at a time when the twin circumstances of the surveillance economy and social media have made visibility our common currency. In the process, these have changed the way we see ourselves, often allowing us to believe that our lives can be measured by how we are seen rather than by what we do. But when identity is derived from projecting an image in the public realm, something is lost, some core of identity diminished, some sense of authority and interiority sacrificed. And it occurs to me that it is time to re-evaluate the merits of the inconspicuous life, to search out some antidote to continuous exposure, to reconsider the value of going unseen and overlooked.
Which is why I have signed up for this tutorial in disappearance 12 metres beneath the surface of the deep blue Caribbean Sea. It is a place where we carry ourselves differently. We are there and not. It is not just the shift in gravitational pull, but that the fluid environment is intrinsically more familiar to us. If the composition of our own beings is 60-per-cent liquid, it only makes sense that it is easy to be absorbed, or at least feel absorbed, by the surrounding waters. We recognize the particles in which we are submerged, as though the blood in our own veins has found it possible to flow in congruence with the currents streaming around us. It is not quite a molecular kinship, but close. Underwater, we have a different relationship with our surroundings.
Water magnifies and distorts our perceptions. We are unable to smell. We are unable to speak, and that stills us in some essential way. The human voice is absent, replaced by the sound of breathing, a gentle repetition that induces a further calm. Other sounds are more muffled. Our ears are designed to function in air, and underwater, it is difficult for us to recognize the direction from which sound is coming or to untangle its vibrations. We can hear, but not very well.
Yet, the sense of touch comes alive. The water temperature is in the high 20s, and different sets of skin receptors allow me to read its gentle coolness, its motion, texture, vibration and pressure. Touch is said to be 10 times stronger than verbal or emotional contact, and when I move, it is gradual, leisurely, multidirectional, as though my body has dematerialized in some intrinsic way, conforming to the currents as best it can. The aquatic world offers invisibility that is less about being unseen and more about a dilution of self and the sensation of assimilation and adaptation. As odd as it seems, I might even say that being underwater confers a sense of solidarity.
The mammalian dive reflex transforms one’s sense of being. When the body is submerged, the human heart rate slows anywhere from 10 to 20 per cent. Blood circulation slows as well, redirecting flow to the vital organs. With heartbeat and circulation reset, our nervous systems are also recalibrated, and the sense of physical suspension has a psychic corollary. It is why people speak of feeling tranquil, meditative when they are in deep water. It is why human beings in a condition of emotional upset or trauma are sometimes advised to immerse their faces in a bowl of cold water. And why free divers who go into water up to 200 metres for minutes at a time on a single breath speak of feeling serene; without the rhythm of breathing, their sense of time is even further diminished.
That sense of languor extends to one’s thoughts and impressions. Observations come and go unhurried. A plume of anemone waves quietly in the current. A three-foot webbed lavender sea fan flutters almost imperceptibly. A turquoise parrotfish drifts by me. An army of small fairy basslets, violet with brilliant yellow tails, streams beneath me. But each of these organisms has a strategy. The yellow trumpet fish shifts vertically to assume the structure of the stalks of coral surrounding it; or it may align itself with a larger fish shadowing its feeding spot. The rosy hues of the channel crab echo the bejewelled pink patches of crustose algae on which it rests. The del- icate brown rosettes on the skin of a flounder are nearly indistinguishable from the pebbly surface of the seafloor.
The ballet of marine biota is full of purpose, function and reason, as well as predation, consumption, reproduction and all the familiar activities of everyday life. The speckled patterning of the moray eel is in sync with the colour and texture of the encrusted coral crevices it inhabits. The multicoloured mottled surface of a scorpion fish is indistinguishable from the algae in which it has taken up residence. The dots on the spotted butterfly fish are directional decoys, existing to confuse predators as to where, exactly, their eyes are. Parrotfish secrete a membrane of mucus at night to conceal their odour from nocturnal predators. The blue tang floating to my left is looking for algae to feed on; the spotted butterfly fish is foraging for tiny invertebrates; the threads of fire coral will sting me if I happen to brush up against them; and the yellow-bearded fireworm resting on the floor of the reef is equipped with bristles that will inject me with a painful toxin if I happen to touch it. For all their gaudy displays, each of these is a master of the inconspicuous. Invisibility in the aquatic realm is ordinary, powerful and above all, essential to survival.
Not long afterward, I encounter an immense hawksbill sea turtle scuttling along the sand, grazing on the algae and seagrass in its path, its three-foot carapace and massive spotted legs advancing with an elephantine poise. It makes sense that we take such pleasure in the state of weightlessness. A friend of mine who is a diver speaks of the way she loses herself in increments when submerged, and this little deficit of self suddenly seems key. Perhaps it comes not just from the sensory novelty, that thrill of zero gravity, but from some sensation of having a spirit self, some innate knowledge that it can be a good thing to lose the materiality of everyday life.
The aquatic world is as surreal as anything imagined by Salvador Dali. But the invisible man he painted in 1929, with golden hair made of clouds, legs fashioned by waterfalls and a torso constructed of architectural ruins, was painted during what the artist called his paranoia phase, and reflects a horror of being consumed by one’s surroundings. The artist’s sense of identity was under siege, dissolving, on the verge of being devoured by his environment. It is too bad Dali never made any diving trips in a tropical sea. Or knew anything about the mammalian dive reflex.
Perhaps he would have been more receptive to finding accommodation by the world around him. What would he have made of a basket star that wraps itself in strands of coral? Or a star-shaped sponge? Or one that looks like an orange elephant ear? Or others in the shape of balls and barrels, tubes, vases, ropes? Or worms that present themselves as silvery feather dusters? Or coral that comes in the shape of pencils, leaves, lettuce, knobs, corkscrews, antlers, fingers, candelabra, wires and strings, dinner plates and doorknobs, cacti and cups, brains and buttons, feathers and fans? Would he have persisted in his paranoia? If he had observed such a carnival 12 metres beneath the surface, his invisiphobia might likely have become invisiphilia.
This is not about vanishing so much as some vital rearrangement of weight, substance and space. It is possible for us to associate the limitlessness of the vast blue abyss with freedom. We are affiliated with our surroundings, experiencing inclusion and placement in a wider world. It is not only our sense of space that is under revision here, but also our humanity. The overview effect is the term used in space exploration to define that cognitive shift that astronauts experience when they see the Earth from outer space. Viewing the blue marble from orbit, they re-evaluate life on Earth, reconsidering the significance of regional and national boundaries and our status within them, inevitably reassessing the importance we give ourselves; not surprisingly, when photographs of the Earth as viewed from outer space were first taken in the late 1940s, they signalled a shift in human consciousness.
Immersion in the deep sea seems to offer some corollary, an underview effect perhaps. Although it is a view from beneath rather than from above, from water rather than from space, and an experience of absorption and connection rather than of distance and detachment, it, too, enables us to recalibrate our place in things.
That re-evaluation may be relevant now more than ever. Not because we necessarily should be more discreet, unobtrusive, inconspicuous – though all of these would likely do us good – but because the Earth is warming.
There will be nine billion of us soon. We will have no choice but to reassess our place in things. And part of this may have to do with how we reconsider our identity; how we imagine some reduction in scale; how we consider a different way of being in this world; and how we learn to become constituents in a broader landscape. Our deeply held values about individuality may even become passé. We are, each one of us, less important than we think.
A yellowtail snapper drifts past. A blue parrotfish skims by beneath me. My presence means nothing to them.