Deep Water: The World in the Ocean, by James Bradley

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Review by Peter Reason

James Bradley, the Australian novelist and essayist, chooses an apt epigraph from Arthur C. Clarke for his book: ‘How inappropriate to call this planet “Earth”, when it clearly it is “Ocean”.’ The primary message of this book is that ‘The word for the world is Ocean’ and to the extent Ocean is in trouble, so too is the whole planet. 

Bradley starts his book by telling of an experience that is remarkable, beautiful, and deeply disturbing – a display of luminescence from the single celled organism noctiluca scintillans:

Where the waves broke on the sand, pale blue light filled the water, shifting and flaring as it spilled inwards, coating the beach with sheets of fading radiance. I stopped, amazed, and stared out over the bay. As far as the eye could see, diaphanous skeins of illumination danced in the water…

Noctilucca bioluminescence is increasingly common with the warming of the waters off southern Australia. The warming is as big a tragedy as the luminescence is wonderous. And it is this tension between wonder and horror, discovery and destruction, hope and distress that is the integrating theme of this long (450 pages) book. 

For the ocean underpins all that sustains life on Earth; it has been the road for ‘invasion, displacement, dispossession, disease and death’; the arena where the natural world meets the capitalist world, providing the conduit for its expansion.  The ocean is bearing the first impacts of climate change, for a while shielding those of us land based beings from the immediate impact.

Deep Water is organized in thirteen chapters, each exploring a major theme of the Ocean presence: Bodies, Migration, Beaches, Deep, Cargo, Reef… Each chapter starts with a narrative account of an experience or an event, continues with an in-depth review of the issue, and concludes by reviewing what we may learn from this. So, to take just one example, Migrations begins with a story of the ‘diel vertical migration’:

Each night, as the line that separates day from night sweeps across the face of the ocean, a vast wave of life rises from the ocean depths behind it. Made up of an astonishing diversity of animals…  this world spanning tide travels surfaceward to feed in the safety of the dark before retreating to the depths again at dawn.

This leads to a review of the countless migratory journeys undertaken by creatures of the sea, some covering staggering distances: humpback whales, sea turtles, Arctic terns; journeys above the ocean and in the depths; travelling vast distances from south to north, or in circular movements around the ocean gyres. We learn how European misunderstanding of these migrations was bound up with colonial perspectives: the notion that birds and animals might move from place to place did not fit European assumptions of hierarchy and superiority, the assumption that all beings had their place. The chapter moves on to explore the science of migration, how birds and animals find their way, how migration routes are disrupted, with a review the latest research. It moves on to reflect on human migration, that was driven through the ages by the movements of animals; and the displacements forced by poverty, war, and climate change. Bradley shows us that we cannot consider the wonders of migration in the-more-than human world without being appalled at the forced migrations of the human species. 

This format is a standard for this genre of literature: the writer draws the reader into each topic with an engaging narrative, often drawn from their own experience; describes the phenomena in some detail; visits and talks to leading researchers and activists, often with a short portrait of the scientist and their research apparatus; draws conclusions; and moves on to the next major theme. Writers Elizabeth Kolbert, Adam Nicolson, and Michael Pollan are all in their different ways accomplished in this genre. But it is not an easy format to pull off: so many themes to juxtapose, so many stories to tell and places to visit, so many meetings and conversations. The detail can overwhelm the overall integrating theme. At times I was concerned Deep Water might have fallen into this trap – as in the chapter Echo, when the focus abruptly shifts from an account of the songs carried by enslaved Africans across the Atlantic, songs that may have given them some relief of their appalling suffering, to the songs of whales (and how these are disrupted). However, I was soon re-engaged: the research is thorough, the content fascinating, the writing is clear and elegant; and Bradley’s concluding reflections in each section nicely draw the reader to reflect on the wider contemporary issues.

In the final chapter, Bradley goes further to draw the themes together, suggesting that the Ocean is a ‘hyperobject’, impossible to grasp yet providing a way into thinking about the immense questions of our time:

The ocean reveals that the roots of the crisis we inhabit lie deep in the patterns of violent exploitation and extraction that have shaped the modern world. For those like myself who are the beneficiaries of this historical process, acknowledging the truth of this violence and its legacies can be confronting but it is necessary.

The path forward is not simply to solve the technical problem of clean energy sources: it must begin with a ‘reckoning with the past’ and demands ‘a fundamental reorganization of the global economy’. Bradley tells us what we already should know, ‘the forces opposing change are extraordinarily powerful’. And he writes about the grief that he has experienced while writing this book: ‘So much is being lost, and so fast, it is difficult not to feel deranged by it’. This echoes observation made by Aldo Leopold – one of the founders of the modern conservation movement – as long ago as 1949: ‘One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds’.

We may wish to avert our gaze; but as Bradley quotes the celebrated Australian anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose, ‘there remains an ethical imperative to remain true to the lives within which ours are entangled, whether or not we can effect great change’. As another writer on science and society, Donna Haraway, tells us, we must ‘stay with the trouble’ neither shying away nor attempting premature resolution. And this is what James Bradley does, in both the detail and the integrating conclusions: he has us stay with the trouble, stay with the contradictions, with the wonder of phenomena such as bioluminescence and the catastrophe of climate change that it is tied up with: 

The storm that is upon us will leave nobody untouched. Surviving it demands we build a world that treats everybody – human and non-human – as worthy of life and possibility. That will not happen unless those of us who have benefited from the systems of extraction and subjugation that are destroying the planet learn to see our place in the world differently, to recognise the true cost of the lives we live.

And sometimes, he tells us, 

‘I think it is possible to see that world taking shape in the distance’.

References:
1 Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press, 1949.
2 Rose, Deborah Bird. “Slowly ~ Writing into the Anthropocene.” TEXT Special Issue 20: Writing Creates Ecology and Ecology Creates Writing 1 20 (2013): 1-14. https://textjournal.scholasticahq.com/article/28826-slowly-writing-into-the-anthropocene.
3 Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016.

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Peter Reason is currently engaged in a series of experiential co-operative inquiries exploring living cosmos panpsychism: He has been regularly sitting with the River Avon and with invocation and ceremony addressing River as a community of sentient beings: “If I call to the world as sentient being, what response may I receive?” He is writing about this inquiry in at Learning How Land Speaks. He has just launched Objects&Lives, short writing and imagery reflecting on household and personal objects that hold value through the memories they hold and their associations with family and cultural history. His online presence is at peterreason.net.

James Bradley, Deep Water (Scribe UK, 2024). 978-1914484605, 464 pp., hardback.

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