Watching Corals Grow
I hold my breath, dive down, adjust the camera, check the strobe lights are lit, recheck the aim and focus, hold the camera firmly against the three cement registration pegs and fire. The twin strobes both go off. Great. I let go and drift to the surface, breathe, and look around. The reef is quiet this morning, gray and still. My little magic garden. The camera sits on its pegs two meters below me, still aimed at the little branch of Acropora.
I wonder what the coral will look like, sped up from one shot every twelve hours to one frame every 16th of a second. Let's see, uhhh. 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute...3600 seconds in an hour, times 12 is.....not enough fingers and toes...432 hundred seconds in 12 hours. Sixteen shots projected in one second so 16 times 432...something like a little less than 700 thousand. Ok. So I'm speeding up the interval of awareness by about half a million times.
I lift my head clear of Sea and scan the edge of the hole in the reef. It is about 50 meters in diameter, round, surrounded by very shallow water. An assortment of living corals line the edge of the crater-like depression. Freddy, who is still asleep on Moira, and I cleaned out 97 crown-of-thorns starfish from the tiny preserve. White scars from the starfish attack still checkerboard the living corals.
Time for my morning crown-of-thorns check. A half a million times acceleration of our normal interval of awareness. All right! I can't wait to see the coral in that interval of perception. I dive down and retrieve my camera. Who knows what I might find to take a shot of this morning. I move counter clockwise around the edge of the coral crater. If I could speed up my own personal view of this reef by a half a million times the corals would all be visibly growing, twisting. Little corals would appear like little blossoms from nowhere, decorating the bare areas ravaged by the crown of thorns. A week's growth would flash by my eyes in one second, a year in less than a minute.
Now there is a lovely configuration of Pavona. I dive and glide down to look closer. The golden brown coral twists into Sea like ribbon candy, flat fronds raised in fanciful shapes. I flatten out on the bottom to get a backdrop of dark, open water behind the coral. I focus close. Flash. I surface winding the film forward. Except for a few small fish watching me carefully, the reef is absolutely still. Frozen by my interval of awareness. My eyes register the differences in light, the patterns of curves and edges glide across the retinas of my eyes, sending thousands of millions of little messages to my brain each second.
My brain processes all these incoming signals. It knows I am slowly swimming and removes my own motion from the input, adjusting the flow of horrendous amounts of data to conclude the corals down below me are not moving. My thought processes work it out all by themselves. Only the full blown mental image of the reef below me, still and quiet, appears in my conscious mind.
If I was looking for fish, I would not see the corals at all. Oh, they would register on my retina, but my brain, filtering for the tiny movements of fish in the panorama of my vision, would zoom my attention in on motion. The corals would not get any attention - no awareness. I visualize corals because I direct my eyes at them, scanning them, looking for details in their forms and patterns. With a mental effort, I broaden the filter and examine the whole panorama of reef. But when I look at the panorama I loose detail of individual corals.
I stop thinking, float motionless, and fix my eyes on a small blue clump of Pocillopora coral, locking onto the details. While holding these details, I open my mind to all the light, all the information, hitting my retinas. I perceive a panorama of tangled beauty limited only by my face mask. With careful precision, I hold the entire visual image in my awareness and add the sensation of the water on my skin, the air moving in and out of my lungs, the sounds of the reef below me. It is a sensory satori, but lasts only a few seconds before the tide of words comes back in and blocks it out.
A camera can't ever show how truly wonderful and beautiful this little reef is. Cameras can't record or imagine detail while seeing the whole scene and can't see the whole scene when focused on the tiny details. And, for a similar reason, a movie camera can't show the panorama of motion of a reef. If I do time-lapse, the movie will show the corals growing but the fish will be invisible. If I film the reef at normal speeds, the fish will look as they do to me now, but the corals, starfish, and echinoderms will show no motion at all.
I experiment again by floating over a nice little coral grotto with
plenty of live branching corals and a big yellow-green head of Porites. I float
very still, absorb as much information and detail on as broad a view as my mask will
allow. I love doing this. It excites me, makes me feel a rush of pleasure. The little
cells of my retina shout for joy, because the head office is finally paying attention to
all of them. They work hard and send in a dazzling display of life. Oh, I wish I could
photograph what I see, in three dimensions, ultra large format, with variable motion.
[Note: many years later I developed a way to do underwater sphere images, like memory bubbles, to come close to this goal. To see one, click the link above, to see more, click here.]
The pan-sensory image of the whole coral grotto pops and my eyes focus automatically on the dead portion of a coral head. Something moved, and my head automatically swiveled to point my eyes exactly at the slight motion. My focus of attention snapped from wide to narrow. In one instant, the little dead area of coral was only part of the whole coral scene and I was not really 'aware' of it. But some part of me knew dead coral rocks don't move and when the expected image of the coral rock in exactly the same position in the tapestry of life did not recur, when the rock moved, alarm bells went off and vectored my awareness on the unusual motion. A fine example of the error of expectations.
Even as I think these thoughts, I have unconsciously moved directly over the rock and my mind focuses on one question. What moved? I stare at the rock, less than a meter below me. Nothing. Rocks don't move. Something is there, well camouflaged. I reach down and wiggle my fingers at the rock. Ah hah! It moves again. I see you now, you little beauty. You know I do, too.
A fair-sized octopus, with an arm span of maybe a meter or more, is lying against the base of the dead coral rock. One arm was up on the side of the rock and it moved down as I reached towards it. The octopus has adjusted its skin color and texture to match the gray-brown rock. It even has little projections like the algae tufting up from the rock. Perfect camouflage. Octopus can change their skin color and texture and adjust their bodies quickly to virtually any shape at all. They are the master magicians of the reef and can vanish instantly with their magic cloak of invisibility.
I see the eyes, now, their horizontal cat-like slits almost closed. Wow! Even the iris of the eyes takes on the adaptive coloration.
I turn and swim over to the other side of the coral grotto, slowly, pretending I did not see anything unusual on the rock. Once away from the octopus I dive down and pretend to take a shot of the coral. I sneak a glance back across the grotto. The octopus is gone. Hiding somewhere else. They can see pretty good. It's probably watching me from somewhere, wondering what I'm up to.
Under a ledge I see the arm of a crown of thorns starfish. I pull out my dive knife, put down the camera, and worry the poison-spined monster out into the open with the blade of the knife. I proceed to cut the center disk out. The arms can't regrow without a portion of the disk. I cut each arm away from the next. Sorry Acanthaster, but I can't have you eating up my studio.
As I turn to pick up the camera, I look back to where the octopus was and catch a flicker of motion just behind me. It was the head of the octopus pulling down into the coral. I smile a little smile. Octopus are very curious. It must be wondering what I have been doing. I turn, so my back and flippers are towards the octopus, my body blocking the remains of the crown-of-thorns starfish. I take my camera in my hands and wait, once and awhile poking at the dead starfish with my dive-knife. I steal a glance back and there it is, to my right, on top of a coral head, its eyes lifted as high as possible, the bulbous head down flat on the rock, trying to see what I'm doing. I slide over to block its view and wait some more.
After a few minutes, I steal another look. It's closer now, circling to my right for a better view. I ease over to block the sight line and poke energetically at the dead starfish. In a few moments, Octopus, overcome with curiosity, raises its head over a small dead coral only inches to my right. I turn my head slightly to get a better view. Slitted Octopus eyes shift from me to the dead starfish and back to me.
What a weird sensation. The octopus is looking right into my eyes. We are frozen for a moment, measuring each other. "Hi," I say silently, "pleasant morning, isn't it?" Then I break the staring game and poke at the starfish again. From the corner of my eye I see him relax. The colors shift from a mottled red and white through a flickering white into a normal relaxed brown. I can't believe it. How can it trust me? Of course, it must have seen me every day for the past few weeks. Twice a day. It knows I have not harmed anything but starfish. I focus my camera and take a shot of the octopus. It flinches but stays there.
I move on a little ways and stop. Carefully I look back. It has not moved, sitting relaxed on the coral outcrop, watching me carefully. I swim on and glance back. The octopus is off the rock, down on the sand investigating the dead starfish. I turn around to take another photograph and it looks up, lifting flexible eyes high, instantly alert.
Octopus expected me to move away and keep going. I stopped and turned and broke the cycle of expectation. The error of expectation.
Our constant change in relative position
creates error in expected cycles.
When the unexpected happens,
adjusts for survival
the error of expectations.
Distortion of expected cycles by constant change
is the error of expectations.
This is awareness.
Another segment of This Magic Sea. I mumble it again and again as I swim back towards the dinghy. This is important. I have to remember the exact words. The mind expects cycles and as long as these cycles are completed, it allows them to pass unnoticed. But nothing, ever, is really a repeating cycle.
At some level, nothing ever returns to the exactly the same condition again. How can it, when the beings on the planet are all spinning through space at horrendous velocities? The elements coming and going, each living thing constantly changing.
"Hot Damn!" I jump into Zod and pull up the heavy camera rig. "Awareness is the error of expectations, the constant change in change. Awareness is the core of learning, the essence of being, the context for meaning, the inevitability of self, the difference in direction. Got it. Got it. Got it." I pull the starter cord for the outboard, haul up the anchor and race back to Moira at top speed.
"How was the garden this morning?" Freddy asks as I come aboard.
"Fine." Our constant change in relative position creates error in expected cycles. When the unexpected happens, memory fails, awareness awakens.
"Ready for breakfast?" She asks as I dry off.
Our constant change in relative position creates error in expected cycles.
"Toast is ready, babe," she comments a little more emphatically.
"OK, just got to write something down." I fumble through the log book and begin to write furiously.
"Come on, it's getting cold."
"Yeah, OK." Remember.. Our constant change in relative position....
"That can wait until after you eat," She looks at me. "You're still wet and salty. You'll get the cushion soaked. Come on." She gets up and drags me into the shower. When the unexpected happens, awareness awakens.
"I found a good definition of awareness." I shower off quickly. "You know how everything is always changing position, and can never return to exactly the same position twice."
"Do you want me to reheat your toast?"
"No, it's OK. This is really critical because it threads through everything, all levels. Doesn't matter if it is an electron or a person or science or a star. The environment is always changing relative to each being."
"Of course. I'll reheat the coffee anyway." Freddy calls as I finish rinsing off and grope around the corner for my towel.
"So, anyway, every being, each thing, exists because of its internal set of relative motions and its external relationship to other aspects of the environment interacting with it. If events really did go is absolute cycles there would be no change and life could not exist. But because everything is moving at various speeds on all levels - starting with the galaxy moving at the square root of the speed of light - there must be a continual offset of any cycle." I rub dry while Freddy reheats the coffee.
"Sit down and eat," She says.
"Hey, this is important. An atom of hydrogen is floating along in space minding its own business, right? Left to itself it will continue along in the same direction forever. Here comes another hydrogen atom. It happens to smash into the first atom. There is a change. The two lock together and move off on a new tangent, behaving slightly differently.
"Now, on the next level, we have a bacterium floating along in the sea. It expects the next moment to be like the last. But it so happens there is another bacterium swimming on a collision course. It bumps into the first. This is a change in the expectations of the first one and it becomes aware of the other bacterium and changes it's behavior accordingly. Neither the hydrogen atom nor the bacterium could predict the next moment would bring a change it its future."
"Toast," Freddy says, pointing to my plate. I begin to spread some cherry jam on the toast. She pours the coffee.
"A scientist is working on a series of tests. The results show a regular progression, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. The scientist fully expects the next number result to be 8. But what if it turns out to be 12? Or better yet, what if the next result is a letter, like M? The scientist gets really excited and changes his behavior. At some level, every model of the real world is wrong and when the error becomes evident, awareness comes into existence.
"Do you understand what I'm saying? There is always error in predictions, from the expected movement of electrons to the expected result of a scientific experiment, awareness is present at all levels of existence. Awareness is the error of expectations. The phenomenon of awareness IS the difference between the expected and the actual."
"Try being aware of the coffee," she says, sipping her's.
"Awareness is more or less complex depending on the perceptual ability of the individual mind. With electron microscopes and radar telescopes, science can perceive far more than any other life form and predict events both faster and farther than any other living being on the planet. But there is still error, still awareness and excitement when each new, unexpected development happens. And every year, as the sense preceptors of science become more sophisticated, the unexpected becomes even more abundant. Awareness is expanding at an accelerating pace." I talk with my mouth full, and wash the words down with coffee.
"To be, to change, to have direction are the three elements of reality and they interact to create the error of expectations: awareness. Awareness is the unpredictability in the interaction of the three elements. YEOWWW! Damn!"
"What? What's wrong?"
"I broke a tooth on a cherry pit."
"The error of expectations?" Freddy grins.
"Yeah," I favor the tooth with my tongue. "And it hurts like hell. Damn, this is going to be a bitch. A busted tooth in Fiji."
I turn on the light attached to my helmet and slide into the black night sea feeling the first few drops of rain and the cool wind ahead of a squall.
I hold my breath, dive down, adjust the camera, check the strobe lights are lit, recheck the aim and focus, hold the camera firmly against the three cement registration pegs for my coral growth experiment and fire. The twin strobes both go off, catching the small anemone like coral polyps extended into the night sea.
Great. I let go and drift to the surface, breathe, and look around. It's raining hard now and the raindrops make little detonations on the surface of the calm lagoon all around me. I close my eyes and listen to the sound of rain falling on Sea. Magnificent music; all the charm of raindrops on a forest canopy with background undertones of fish thrums and shrimp clicks of the reef at night.
There is a colony of soft coral fully extended into Sea just below me. It is a beautiful orange, red and white beast. It inflates and deflates depending on the tide. When deflated it is a small, nondescript purple blob on the coral rock. Inflated, it has a turgid, semi-transparent trunk with snowy white spicules inside, this branches out into smaller trunks terminating in the red tentacled polyps. Exquisite.
I dive down and look as close as I can at the little polyps making up the tufts. Tentatively, very gently, I touch one of the polyps. Just the tentacle I touch draws in. The whole polyp does not respond. I touch it again. This time the polyp withdraws all its minuscule tentacles. I touch it again. Now there is a big change. My delicate beastie has become aware of me. It expected nothing to disturb it. My first touch could have been anything accidentally brushing up against it, passing by. But the second touch in the same place raised alarms, at least locally. The third touch affirmed the expected peace was broken and danger lurked close by. So the entire being responded, drawing into itself, deflating, trying to hide.
I surface and watch as the soft coral deflates. The rain rattles on my exposed back and legs as I float over the reef. The primitive nerve net webbing just under the skin of the soft coral has a series of triggers, each impulse facilitates the transmission of the next message across the synapses between the nerve cells. The first touch thus sets up the nerve net for action. The second sends out the message farther, exciting the whole colony. The third touch sends the message to the whole colony. Neurologists call the process facilitation.
Facilitation is important to the whole concept of perception and the excitation of awareness. My brain does the same thing, but much faster.
Once a nerve cell transmits a signal to the next cell, there is a brief period when the chemicals carrying the signals block further messages. The nerve cells then secrete another chemical to latch onto the transmitter-chemical and the combined organic molecule is carried away by circulation. Once the space between the nerve endings is clear, the nerves can pass along another bit of information. The time it takes for facilitation and inhibition gives a definite limit to how fast events can be perceived. In a human, a series of flashes one twenty fourth of a second apart will seem like one continuous flash. A movie is a series of still pictures flashed on the screen at twenty four frames per second.
Without cameras or other special sensors, hominid perception is locked into a limited time reference. It gives us our sense of time, the feeling of moments passing. Time is our personal measurement of the decay and refreshing of our own images of reality.
This is one definition of the sense of time, it is also a definition of the process of learning. To be aware of time we must remember the decayed image and recognize the new, refreshed and altered image. Time thus has two meanings depending on its context. The first is an awareness of change by the decay and formation of new patterns. There is a mental disorder where a person can't remember anything. They have a sense of time, but it is very limited. There is no past for them, it's always now.
The creation of 'past' is the storage of patterns of perception after they have decayed, and the comparison of this stored information to new patterns. In this aspect, time is learning, the accumulation of memories of patterns of behavioral interactions.
Hominids map the mental model of the decay and formation of patterns of perception onto a variety of words besides time and learning. Sunday, time zones, three o'clock, nine tenths of a second, are all similar language constructs - hominid control metapatterns. These are species specific concepts. Other organisms, like that soft coral below me, operate on entirely different intervals of awareness. And, from the perspective of the sun, Earth is always at Sunday at high noon.
The frightened soft coral is fully deflated. It is just a purple lump on the reef. I pick up my camera and start on the nighttime patrol of the bathtub, as Freddy calls it. My tooth bothers me. Zow. Don't think about the dentist: Louis' dentist in Lautoka. I put the trip last Friday out of my mind and try to ignore the tooth. I have to go back next week to get the cap put on.
The octopus grotto is empty tonight. Where is my friendly octopus? I check the little cave I found yesterday. I'm sure it's the octopus' home because of the mound of shells outside the hole. I peer into the darkness under the coral head, "Hey, you home?" I ask. No answer. Maybe the little monster doesn't like the rain.
It is kind of gloomy. I look out towards the deeper water in the basin, my light not penetrating very far. Not likely to be any sharks in here. I had a strange dream when I took a nap after dinner. It comes rushing back at me out of the featureless gloom of the basin.
I am walking down a long corridor. There is a door on the left. I am to enter there. My mother appears by my side and says, "I'll go in first (perhaps)/it won't attack you under my protection/it won't succeed because of me."
I (she) opens the door. It is a big, dimly lit room with a bed. The furniture is in disarray like there has been a fight in here. From the left, hidden at first in the darkness, a black shadow launches itself at me. It flies like a black sheet - loose and wavering, quick. I am powerless to stop it. My mother stands ahead of me frozen, watching.
"A singularity," my mind shouts, but I can't move. It enfolds me. I feel the blackness as a rustling of atoms within the fabric of my being. I watch the blackness enter my chest and stomach area, penetrating, occupying all my flesh. Swirling sparkles of light form at the wrinkles of its being and mine. It cycles round my backbone. The calcium carbonate crystals of my bones protect the spinal cord and brain as it attacks.
The singularity tries to penetrate the crystal Faraday cage of my bone. My mother and father each place a hand on my shoulder. My father's right hand on my left shoulder, my mother's left hand on my right shoulder. Behind them their parents do the same, and their parents parents do the same, forming a wave of continuity reaching beyond my being into a blossoming amalgam of humans. I become the leading edge of awareness for a giant web-like creature. Endless generations of knowledge surge through me - sizzle my nervous system. This does nothing at all to the black, smothering singularity. It squeezes my awareness.
I am gripping the camera case hard with both hands, staring into the night Sea, feeling and refeeling the singularity rushing forward, blanketing me. The rain has stopped. I swim back to Zod. Two ideas track me in Sea.
The first is the realization there are no words for behavior beyond our conscious perception. The way our thought processes work, the phenomenon of awareness, the mechanics of perception, the layers of information exchange have no expression in English. We have only a few guarded, confused chemical terms to label some of the processes science has recently discovered. But nothing at all to describe the relationships going on in the phenomenon of mind. Is this the singularity? The black blanket absorbing the unspoken knowledge?
The second thought is about the pyramid of ancestors standing behind me. It is, somehow, like the branching soft coral and like the process of thought itself. But it's not a very clear image. I'll come back for it later.
There is also a more sinister, paranoid idea blocking the image. Every time I begin to make progress towards understanding This Magic Sea something weird happens to divert me. Like my broken tooth. Is the singularity some kind of guard - a thought filter - preventing me from moving ahead with the project? If so, is the guard a product of my imagination? Or is it another awareness, a control beyond the horizon of my own perceptions?
"This place smells like piss," Freddy makes an ugly face as we sit on the green-painted cement bench in the crowded sitting room.
The Hindus waiting with us stare at Freddy, bemused. She's right, though, the dentist office is next door to a public toilet and the whole place reeks of stale urine.
"Louis is an idiot," Freddy says in a reasonably loud, conversational voice. "How could you actually come in here last week?"
"Well, it hurt. I don't know any dentists here. Louis said the guy was OK."
"And cheap, right? You should have gone to Suva and found a European dentist. This is ridiculous."
The room into the dentist's torture chair has no door on it and the dentist can hear Freddy with no trouble. He hurries his patient out and a pimply faced Indian kid tells me it's my turn. No doubt to shut up sweet lovely little Freddy.
"Ahh, my friend, yes, yes, yes, your new tooth is ready, just to do a little adjustment and you'll be fine. See, here it is, gold and enamel of the finest quality, you see?" The guy has a moon-shaped dark face. I sit in the chair and see myself reflected in his glasses, mouth distorted with pain as he pulls my lip sideways and peers up at the tooth he prepped last week. "Yes, yes, how does it feel? OK? No problem. It's fine. I only have to oooops."
The face vanishes and I turn my head out of the bright light and see my dentist has dropped the finest quality new cap on the cement floor. There is a drain in the middle of the floor and some obscene, thick fluid oozes from the corner near the public toilets to the drain. The dentist is on his hands and knees looking under the chair for my tooth. He sneezes, wipes his nose with his hand and picks up my tooth with the same hand. "Yes, yes, here we are..." He stands and approaches.
"Uh, hey, aren't you going to uh sterilize the tooth before you put it in there? I mean you've drilled two long narrow holes in my tooth and I've eaten lunch since this morning."
"No, we just put it on." He grabs me and sticks his mirror in my mouth. I catch a glimpse of something green on the white enamel of the cap."You know how many bacteria are in your mouth? Millions, my friend, millions upon millions. in each drop of saliva."
I push his hand out of my mouth and he nearly drops the tooth again, "Yeah, well, I'm not so sure of what KINDS of bacteria may be in my mouth and what might be on your piss covered floor. So maybe you should sterilize it, OK?"
In goes the mirror again. "With what? There is nothing made which can sterilize that area you know."
"Yeeesssssuuusss Ucking Cyrist" I mumble as he reaches in and rams the tooth home then pounds on it with the but of the mirror. My eyes glitter with fear in the lenses of his glasses. The pimply faced kid energetically picks his nose in the background while a baby begins to wail from the waiting room.