Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Nameless, Nationless [Missive 6]

Dear All,

This is your final installment. To continue your subscription, please fill out the enclosed post-marked card with your credit card number and drop it in the nearest mailbox. Ha. But seriously, if anyone wants to sponsor me to write more I'd certainly appreciate it!

As many of you know, I've been back the States for a little over two weeks now. I never had time to be jet-lagged or grumpy about my sudden re-existence in Western culture because my excellent mother, brother and sister kept me busy and full of laughter. Rebecca also deserves honorable mention.

The last month of my program was focused on oceans. The breadth of issues that coastal areas face runs a breathtaking gamut from climate change to pirates. We traveled to Trang Province in southern Thailand to spend a few weeks in the Andaman Sea. Some of our activities: kayaking, snorkeling, struggling through knee-deep mud in mangrove forests (AKA mangals), wandering around the intertidal zone at low tide, living in a Muslim fishing village, swimming in bioluminescent water at night, visiting a commercial shrimp farm.... just to name a few. Coastal areas are highly complex ecosystems, so to make the ecology more manageable our program focused on seagrass beds, coral reefs, and mangroves. Academically, this course was probably the least challenging, but was very rich experientially.

The emphasis of the first part of the course was on coral reefs. We snorkeled on some of the most amazing reefs I've ever seen, filled with a great diversity of coral, fish, sea cucumbers, anemones, sea urchins, worms, etc. There were iridescent colors I've only ever seen in aquariums, plate corals as big as a truck, schools of fish that shimmer and sway around you, glowing limestone tunnels to go through underwater. The reefs we visited were at the base of limestone towers sticking out of the shallow Andaman Sea. Their bases had been so eroded from constant wave action that is seemed they were floating above the water rather than in it. I had never been snorkeling with a scientific purpose in mind, clutching a dive slate. It really makes you see things differently. Rather than just floating around taking pleasure in looking at random stuff, one is forced to size the reef up, to pull back and look at it as a system and a structure, but then also to zoom in carefully to identify different species and take note in the details. I gained a much greater appreciation for SEEING with a purpose-- observing a fish in order to look it up in a field guide later requires you to scan it's body shape, colors, tail and fin shapes, and take in as many subtle features as possible. Just being in the ocean shifts your perspective... it's like being in another world. The dimensions of the ocean are unfathomable when you have paused underwater above the reef shelf, the last visible portion of the sea floor before it begins to slope down into the dark unknown depths of the deep ocean. One of my friends described how refreshing it is to experience the shifting perspectives of the ocean... "you get tired of looking down on the world all the time. It's nice to look up... to the bottom."

Seagrass beds are prime feeding spots for dugongs, a marine mammal similar to a manatee. There are only about 200 of these creatures left in coastal Thai waters. Needless to say, there were no dugong sightings during our trip, though we saw quite a few feeding trails on our survey of a seagrass bed. "Dugong" became my new nickname because of my playful antics on one of the beaches. Apparently my cartwheels and somersaults into the surf were a "little too awkward" to warrant naming me after something sleeker like a dolphin.

Magroves are incredible places. To describe them, I give you a short poem-- a haiku, to be exact:

Octopus garden
Mangled mangal suction cups
Neoprene graveyard

Because it has been over two weeks since my return and I have been trying to craft this email since then, I'll just have to direct you to my blog for more. Apologies for the abrupt ending. I must say, however, that this cycle of naming has come full circle. I went from Alice to Sapbalot to Naessa to Dugong... but then an instructor reminded us of something important about Thai culture during our last week. Names are much less important than the relationship of someone to you. It is completely appropriate to refer to someone simply as "older/higher-up than me" (Pi) or "younger/lower-down than me" (Nong). It is rare that you even know someone's real, full name. What matters is whether you are older, younger, boy, girl, father, mother, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, niece, nephew, grandma, grandpa. In the U.S., I might get offended if an acquaintance forgot my name... but maybe Thai people have got it right... as long as your relationship to someone is clear, do individual names really matter?

Back in the U.S., I'm on to other things. I just moved into an apartment in Fayetteville, Arkansas. My summer project is surveying the natural and historical features of the Williams Woods Nature Preserve, GIS mapping the property, writing a land management plan, and seeking out as many swimming holes as possible. This project is for the Centennial Scholars Program at Barnard. I've started a blog about this project... check it out at

Thanks for your wonderful audience-ship this semester!


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