Tag Archives: Elizabeth Kolbert

The Parable of the Corals

“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans 12:3-5)

On the evening of June 11, 1770, Captain James Cook and his fellow explorers aboard His Majesty’s bark Endeavour sailed cautiously under a full moon along Australia’s east coast – a wild terra incognita never before seen by Western eyes. The calm of the tropical night was broken only by the sighing of the wind in the sails, and call of the “leadsman” in the ship’s bow, throwing his lead-weighted line into the black water ahead to measure its depth beneath the ship’s keel. For days now, the passage between the massive landmass to the west and the Great Barrier Reef to the east had been narrowing, and vigilance was required to assure the safety of the ship’s 94 living souls, now almost two years into an epic journey of discovery.

Austrialian replica of HMS Endevour

Austrialian replica of HMS Endevour

“Fourteen fathoms,” came the call from the leadsman – 84 feet, a comfortable depth for any ship. “Sixteen fathoms.” No worries disturbed the quiet evening. “Seventeen fathoms.” More than one hundred feet of blessed, deep water.

The leadsman prepared to cast his line again, but the throw was never made. With a sickening, splintering jolt, the Endeavour came to a jarring halt, the sea grinding the ship’s broken timbers on sharp corals with every swell, pouring into the hull beneath the gunwales.

Stricken and alone in the remotest corner of the world, the wreck and subsequent rescue of the Endeavour offers an inspiring story of courage, leadership and resourcefulness on the part of a desperate ship’s crew. But years later, the wreck left Captain Cook wholly perplexed by the “wall of Coral Rock rising almost perpendicular out of the unfathomable Ocean.”  He knew that coral reefs were biological in origin. But if so, how had it come to be so massive a wall – to be “thrown up to such a height?”

Corals turn out to be among the world’s most amazing creatures, capable of building structures that dwarf the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, or even the monstrous tar sands pits of Canada. The Great Barrier Reef, where Captain Cook nearly met his end, stretches for 1,500 miles, and is as thick as 500 feet from top to bottom.  And coral reefs range throughout tropical waters around the globe, from Australia, to Belize, to the Red Sea, and thousands of places in-between.

As any reader of the gospels knows, Jesus Christ had a habit of calling on familiar natural objects to illustrate his teaching. “Consider the lilies,” he would tell us in our worries about food and clothing. “My sheep hear my voice,” he said, comforting his anxious followers. “Foxes have dens, and birds of the heaven have nests,” in contrast to his own enduring homelessness.

But if Jesus were teaching the Christian church in North America today, I think he might point us to the corals. “Consider the corals,” he might begin.

Why corals? Because, of all God’s creatures, corals display the beauty of unified community, nurturing an explosion of life in otherwise barren places. And whatever else might be said about the Church today, surely we need someone – or something – to help us to nurture unity and life-affirming patterns.

Unity Amidst Diversity: The New Testament is packed with pleas for – and shining examples of – unity among Jesus’ disciples. In his only recorded prayer for the Church that would follow him, Jesus asks the Father “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you …” (John 17:21). St. Paul carries on the theme, calling us one body with many vital parts – the Body of Christ, drinking of one cup, partaking of one Spirit, serving one Lord and Father of all. And perhaps most coral-like, St. Peter calls us “living stones” being built together as a single house of worship.

Hundreds of species of coral polyps at work

Hundreds of species of coral polyps at work

All these scriptures speak of the Church. But perhaps they also could describe those amazing corals. Let me explain.

At the heart of every coral reef are millions of tiny animals that we call polyps. Coral polyps are invertebrates related to anemones or jellyfish, only a few millimeters in diameter. Despite their soft bodies, they’ve been endowed with the ability to build exoskeletons – rock-like shells, made from the building blocks of the ocean’s chemistry – through the process of calcification. And as they multiply, those exoskeletons build upon one another to create massive formations, rich in calcium, and home to complex ecosystems.

They are, quite literally, “living stones.” A coral polyp on its own is practically nothing. But on a reef, billions of polyps belonging to as many as a hundred different species are all devoting themselves to the same basic task. Building together, sharing nutrients with one another, and providing mutual protection, they form what appears to be a single rock formation, strong enough to sink ships of wood or steel, and tame the fiercest ocean waves.

I’m afraid we have much to learn from the corals. In Western culture, we have developed a once-unimaginably individualistic world-view – possibly the most inhospitable to real community in human memory. Our technology, our wealth, our rampant consumption and our national myths all conspire toward individual comfort and isolation, in ways never before possible. We often drive our cars alone. One in four of us lives entirely alone. In Los Angeles, more than 75% of us have our own solitary home, cutting off the beautiful messiness on which community thrives. Our long commutes guarantee plenty of “elbow room,” safe from intrusion by meddling neighbors. We shop with the click of a finger. And even when we’re with others, our ear buds and smart phones block out the messy community around us, as we tune in our private play-lists and videos.

So it’s not surprising that our Western brand of Christianity tends to reflect this hyper-individual mindset. God has a plan for my life…. I come to the garden alone…. My Redeemer waits for me at gates of gold…. I change churches frequently, rather than reconciling personal conflicts, or seeking common ground amidst divergent perspectives, beliefs and tastes. Ultimately, perhaps, I drop the whole church thing entirely, while insisting that I remain deeply “spiritual” – in some individualized conception.

But I wonder if we can imagine Jesus speaking to us: “Consider the corals….”

If lilies of the field and birds of the air can be our teachers, then why can’t they? The tiny polyps are distinct individuals; real animals with their own God-given value, representing many distinct species. Each one builds a small bit of calcified shell during its life. But those shells are fused together with the entire coral community, eventually yielding massive rocks of every color, shape and size. Not only that, but each polyp extends its tissues to link with its neighbor, so that each can share nutrients with all the rest. No coral polyp hungers – or prospers – alone.

But the communitarian enterprise does much more than unite coral to coral. In fact, none of world’s reefs would be possible if corals did not also welcome and shelter other species into their homes. Although corals are animals, each polyp harbors tiny plants known as zooxanthellae. Protected by the coral structures, these plants produce carbohydrates via photosynthesis, and polyps harvest the carbohydrates to support their growth. As long as ocean conditions are stable, this symbiotic relationship drives the growth and health of all reefs.

Father, may they all be one…. Like corals, perhaps? Wouldn’t that be remarkable!

Nurturing Life in a Barren Place: I love the sapphire blue of tropical waters, don’t you? But appearances can be deceiving. In fact, tropical waters are clear and bright precisely because they are low in nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, the marine equivalents of deserts. Paradoxically, however, it’s these waters that spawn an explosion of sea life without which the ocean ecosystems would collapse.

The reason? Of course, it’s the corals. They are perfectly suited to thrive in these waters. The reefs are natural construction projects that displace no creatures, but rather support thousands or millions of species with nutrients and shelter.

"Nurseries of the ocean: Reefs support incredible biodiversity

“Nurseries of the ocean”: Reefs support incredible biodiversity

Thousands of species? Consider: Author Elizabeth Kolbert interviewed an Australian researcher who broke apart a volleyball-sized chunk of coral, and found, living inside it, more than 1,400 polychaete worms belonging to 103 different species. She found an American researcher who collected corals from a one square meter of reef coral, and discovered more than 100 species of crustaceans. And in another square meter, a researcher discovered more than 120 species.

Corals work together to fulfill their singular purpose, and entire ecosystems spring to life. Indeed, the corals feed their guests in a more sacrificial manner as well. The corals are constantly being eaten away at by fish, sea urchins and burrowing worms. And yet, if ocean conditions are healthy, they grow fast enough to feed their guests while maintaining the health of their own community.

The Church after Pentecost comes to mind doesn’t it? No one claimed his possessions as his own; there were no needy persons among them; much grace was upon them all. “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:46-47). Doesn’t it sound a bit like a spectacular coral reef community, built and maintained by those tiny polyps and their tinier zooxanthellae partners?

In Danger of Collapse:  The Acts 2 passage above goes on: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” It’s funny, but the more they gave away, the richer they became in brothers, sisters, and acts of grace. And in fits and starts, the Church of Jesus Christ has grown over the years to include 2.2 billion self-identified Christians, the largest faith community on Earth, and by far the most culturally diverse.

And once again, the corals reflect this picture of growth and global diversity. An enormous band of tropical waters stretching around the Earth has been filled and enriched by them. In temperate zones, our limestone quarries and fertile fields point to the presence of their ancient predecessors.

Can we imagine the Lord directing us to model our faith on the lives of corals? If so, we should pause to consider a dire warning. The Earth’s corals are dying.

This is not hyperbole. Take it from the chief scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, J.E.N. Veron: “Here I am today, humbled to have spent my life around the rich wonders of the underwater world, and utterly convinced that they will not be there for our children’s children to enjoy.”

Veron has plenty of company in his lament over dying oceanic ecosystems. In 2012, more than 2,600 of the world’s top marine scientists warned that coral reefs around the world are in rapid decline due to human impacts. The warning signs are everywhere. Virtually all reefs now suffer frequent “bleaching,” when the coral polyps expel their vital zooxanthellae guests in a desperate effort to survive the warming water temperatures. In the Caribbean, approximately 80 percent of coral reef cover is now dead, victim to the warmer waters of a changing climate, overfishing, pollution, and ocean acidification (climate change’s equally “evil twin”).

That last one – ocean acidification – might be a sleeper, but it’s absolutely devastating. Over the last 200 years, mankind has dug up and burned into the air fossil fuels containing more than 500 billion tons of CO2.  About half of all that carbon – roughly 250 billion tons – has been absorbed by the oceans. If not for all that ocean carbon uptake, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would easily be twice as thick as before the Industrial Revolution, and the Earth would be uninhabitable for many thousands of species.

But the oceans’ services have come at a cost: When CO2 dissolves in water, it forms carbonic acid – H2CO3 – which effectively “eats” carbonate ions, the key chemical ingredient in calcification for creatures like corals, crustaceans and shellfish. Today, carbonic acid has raised the acidity of the oceans by thirty percent over pre-industrial times. And in these acidic waters, corals struggle to grow, or even begin to dissolve. Meanwhile, fish, sea urchins and other creature continue to nibble away at reefs, and humans continue to pump more carbon emissions into the atmosphere, further acidifying the waters that we all depend on.

No one knows for sure how long God’s generous corals can hold out against the onslaught of acids in our day. But many scientists give them no more than 25 years, or perhaps until mid-century, unless we make major changes in the way we consume and produce energy.

Christians believe that their Lord loves the things he made. Not one sparrow falls without God’s loving knowledge, Jesus told us. To him, the lilies of the field were far more beautiful than the most glorious royal wardrobes. And after every day of the Creation story, we hear the voice of Divine Pleasure: “And God saw that it was good.”

I’m convinced that God loves his coral reefs too. If only his Church could come together to nurture life the way they do! Indeed, if the corals are to survive – and the entire ocean ecosystem with them – they may need the Church to unite now in defense of its Master’s beloved Creation.