Great Barrier Reef Stories, Chapter Four:
Reef Grief

Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Amelia Beard Hollenback, 1966.

Last Saturday afternoon, my partner and I wended across town to catch a piece of Head On, an annual photography festival. At Paddington Town Hall, and at the Reservoir Gardens just adjacent, we marvelled – and sorrowed – at Thom Pierce’s portraits of miners their families in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, James Whitlow Delano’s excruciating images of extrajudicial killing in Manila’s slums (I thought of LabAnino’s This Here. Land, from last year), and Debi Cornwall’s reckoning with the spaces and averted faces of Guantánamo Bay. Equally riveting, but also oddly consoling, was Living for Death, Alain Schroeder’s study of funerary rituals in Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Schroeder’s pictures, which are as weirdly joyful as they are mournful, unapologetically display disinterred (and simply uninterred) corpses, often in close proximity to living persons. Their tenderness, humour, and strange dignity confronted me with the boundaries of my own necro-orientation, boundaries that, I thought, might be keeping me from achieving some more integral – not to say ecological – attitude toward death, and toward life.

Matters of death and dying, of grief and of mourning, are present, for better and for worse, in proximity to any serious contemporary discussion of the Great Barrier Reef. They are, in other words, among the most powerful of the narrative energies that power Reef stories. For some, this state of affairs represents a serious practical, and perhaps moral, hazard: Andy Ridley, CEO of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, has warned that to call the Reef dead is to invite public indifference to its plight. This can get personal, too: in my own, limited experience, I have heard Reef researchers take umbrage at the insinuation that the habitat they study – and love – is effectively a goner. On the other hand, from some points of view, the Reef’s fate can appear sealed. What Is Missing? is architect Maya Lin’s “global memorial to the planet,” where testaments to the “sixth mass extinction,” including video footage of a desolate underwater reefscape, are assembled in hopes of spurring mourners to “reimagine our relationship to the natural world.” Accompanying forecasts of reef death suggest that these are ecosystems beyond saving, terminal emblems of anthropogenic habitat destruction and climate change.

The point is not that this is an argument someone had better win, so we can all find a single groove of feeling to slip confidently inside. The point is that responding to knowledge of transformation, deterioration, and death is never easy and may be more difficult when applied to lives and homes beyond the human. And perhaps coping is more complicated still when it gets tangled up with our understanding of the Anthropocene’s bizarre processes and temporalities. Consider the pervasive, and mounting, sense of “time lag,”1 an awareness that the alterations we’ve wrought upon the biosphere have set in motion certain phenomena that we no longer have the power to stop. This is the sort of thing I cognize when I encounter doomful reports that major coral bleaching events tend now to follow one another too quickly for reefs to recover, and in coming years are likely only to quicken.2 How is one supposed to feel about all this? What sorts of practice – what kinds of ritual – are commensurate to these becomings?

These questions have led me to the work of Ashlee Cunsolo and Karen Landman, editors of a recent volume called Mourning Nature: Hope at the Heart of Ecological Loss and Grief. They and their collaborators are activated by the ways that certain bodies and certain conditions, in certain historical and cultural contexts, have been treated as more “mournable” than others. Mourning, Cunsolo and Landman write, can be “ecological work” when it manifests in practices that entail not resolution or consolation but responsibility and response. But to what, exactly, does one perceive oneself responding? Cunsolo and Landman refer acutely to the manner in which “more-than-human loss” sometimes presents itself elusively and uncannily, through instances of “spectral haunting.” And recalling the Reef, what to feel for ecosystems that are threatened or ailing – and merit, in their vulnerability and their suffering, grieving of some sort – but nonetheless remain with us? In an exceptionally valuable contribution to Mourning Nature, the artist and scholar Jessica Marion Barr describes practices of “proleptic elegy,” involving a complex poetics of anticipation, possibility, and necessary uncertainty.3

Of course, submarine environments entail yet other entanglements. If it’s a fact that no life, in any habitat, can be disintricated from the lives that surround it, this truth declares itself with special force at the Reef, where – to borrow some words from Maria Byrne – “symbiosis rules.”4 When a coral assemblage dies, whom do we mourn? A colour? A polyp? An algae? A relationship? The invertebrates, fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals who rely, with varying degrees of directness, thereupon? An ocean? The planet? Ourselves? By fixating on narratives of death, are we avoiding messier – but more integral – conversations about transformations and shifts? Is death simply another word for change? Cunsolo and Landman call for “cultivating new emotions,” which seems a vital charge5; we’re needing new language, too, and new stories. Or we’re needing to better recognize those old languages, and those old stories, that we’ve failed to hail. Perhaps by better grieving we can better live, and better symbiose.


1. See, for example, Andreas Malm, The Progress of this Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World (London: Verso, 2018), 9.
2. See Terry Hughes et al., “Spatial and temporal patterns of mass bleaching of corals in the Anthropocene,” Science 359.6371 (2018): 80-3.
3. Ashlee Cunsolo & Karen Landman, “To Mourn beyond the Human,” introduction to Mourning Nature: Hope at the Heart of Ecological Loss and Grief, eds. Cunsolo & Landman (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press, 2017), 3-26.
4. Maria Byrne, “Mass Coral Bleaching” (presentation, Geosciences Seminar Series, School of Geosciences, University of Sydney, April 9, 2018).
5. Cunsolo & Landman, “To Mourn beyond the Human,” 6.

Killian Quigley is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute. He is the co-editor, with Margaret Cohen, of The Aesthetics of the Undersea, forthcoming from Routledge. Earlier this month, he appeared alongside Ana Vila-Concejo, Brian Robinson, and Sue Reid at Ocean’s Forms: Process, Structure, and Imagination at Sea. He is co-organiser of SEI’s upcoming Sea Time: Tales, Temporalities, and Anthropocene Oceans.