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Where Corals Lie A Natural and Cultural History J. Malcolm Shick reaktion books

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J. Malcolm Shick
Teacher, Mentor and Friend
Published by Reaktion Books Ltd Unit 32, Waterside 44–48 Wharf Road London n1 7ux, uk
First published 2018 Copyright © J. Malcolm Shick 2018
The Coral Reef, composed by Horace Keats (1895 –1945), text by John Wheeler. Permission to reproduce extract given by Wirripang Pty Ltd, Australia.
All rights reserved
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying,
recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers
Printed and bound in China by 1010 Printing International Ltd
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
isbn 978 1 78023 934 7
1 Defining Coral 11
3 The Mythos, Menace and Melancholy of Corals 77
4 Conjuring Corals 115
6 Coral Construction 187
Coda: What Lies Ahead? 261
Appendix: Maps Showing Locations Mentioned in the Text 266 References 270
Select Bibliography 282 Glossary 284
Acknowledgements 290 Photo Acknowledgements 292
Index 294
Prelude: Where Corals Lie Coral . . . presented a problem in the eighteenth century . . . since with the development of natural history it finally became necessary to say whether it was animal, vegetable or
mineral. Perversely, it exhibited characteristics of all three. James Hamilton-Paterson, The Great Deep: The Sea and its Thresholds (1992)
In Richard Garnett’s mid-Victorian poem that lends its title to this book, the poet is allured to drowning in ‘the land where corals lie’. This
trope continued a long tradition wherein the reefs built by stony corals were associated with human passing, pathos and petrifaction, and jagged reefs were rightly feared as lethal navigational hazards in maritime expeditionary narratives by the likes of James Cook and Jules Dumont d’Urville, and in novels they inspired. The distantly related precious red corals were born of death – the decapitation of the Gorgon Medusa by Perseus and the supernatural transformation of bloodied seaweeds, or from the flowing blood of the demon king Bali, crushed by Vishnu.
Owing to their rough arborescence, for centuries colonial corals were lyrically described as submarine plants of wonderfully diverse botanical construction and coloration, or perhaps the mineral productions of plants. For others they were stony concretions precipitated from seawater, without any biological mediation. This mineral nature was especially obvious in those coral reefs that wrecked ships. The ‘flowers’ on coral trees seemed also to have animal attributes, thus completing the tripartition that kept calcareous corals
mysterious and equivocal – they were variously called ‘lithophyte’ (stony plant); ‘madrepore’ (mother of stone, from Greek poros, not pore, or alternatively ‘porous mother’, from Latin porus); ‘millepore’ (thousand pores [porus]); and even ‘zoophyte’ (animal–plant), a term applied to sundry ill-fathomed invertebrates. Such ambiguity lent itself to manifold interpretations, including mythological and magical imaginings, as well as philosophical musings on the very nature of life (illus. 2, 3 and 4).
Speaking through a chorus of sea beasts in The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Gustave Flaubert harked back to the situation before the nature of corals was known:
Plants are no longer distinguishable from animals. Polyparies [the skeletal framework of coral colonies], which have the air of sycamores, bear arms on their branches . . . And then the plants become confused with stones. Stones look like brains, stalactites like breasts, fleurs de fer like tapestries ornate with figures.1
Thus, chimeric corals confounded classification and were what the thoughtful (or susceptible) viewer chose to make of them, causing the art historian Barbara Maria Stafford to muse, ‘What do you do with beings that are neither one thing nor the other?’2
The animality of the coral polyp was confirmed by the mid-1700s, when modern science was emerging and colonialism took
1 Pandora Reef, April 2017, 2–3 m (7–10 ft) depth, photographed by Eric Matson. This coral community contains both healthy and bleached corals in the aftermath of unprecedented mass bleaching in two successive years on the Great Barrier Reef. Corals that died earlier are overgrown by algae.
where corals l ie
naturalists to lands and archipelagos where coral reefs lay, and where scientists linked biology to geology. Soon afterward, Linnaeus placed stony corals taxonomically in the ancient Lithophyta and precious corals among the Zoophyta, amid a grab bag of poorly known invertebrates. George Johnston, at the opening to his second edition of
2, 3, 4 Manifestations of corals (clockwise from left) as lithophyte (p. 34 in [ Joseph Pitton de] Tournefort, Académie royale des sciences (1700)); madrepore (plate 55 in John Ellis, The Natural History of Many Curious and Uncommon Zoophytes (1786)); and millepore (p. 103 in James D. Dana, Corals and Coral Islands (1872)). Opposite page: 5 In 1880–81 Gustave Moreau painted the Nereid Galatea (La Galatée) hiding from Polyphemus in a grotto, surrounded by taxonomically diverse zoophytes such as red corals, sea anemones and sea lilies (crinoid echinoderms).
A History of the British Zoophytes in 1847, reminded readers that the compound word ‘zoophyte’ originally ‘designated a miscellaneous class of beings, which were believed to occupy a space between the animal and vegetable kingdoms, and where the characteristics of the subjects of each kingdom met and were intermingled’ (illus. 5).
where corals l ie
where corals l ie
Another half-century after Johnston, corals were found to live in ‘reciprocal accommodation’ with unicellular algae inside their own cells, a solar- powered symbiosis that allowed coral reefs to thrive in the clear blue desert of tropical oceans depauperate in planktonic prey. This symbiosis (a literal ‘zoophyte’, if you will) has been a focus of coral study ever since.
Growing familiarity with coral reefs and idyllic atolls in the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth changed our perception of them again. Henri Matisse’s sojourn in a Tahitian lagoon in 1930 forever affected his art. The aesthetic allure of corals and reefs also captivates receptive scientists who study them in nature and draws a wider public attracted by tropical beaches and lagoons teeming with colourful fishes, or by a scuba- diving holiday in a submarine wonderland that increasingly features in the portfolios of the best nature photographers. Today, reef-building corals have become ‘photogenic doe-eyed invertebrates’3
and their creations (the largest biological structures on earth, visible from space) are seen as ‘rainforests of the sea’,4 greenly symbolic of fragile marine biodiversity.