In the Eye of the Beholder: A Personal Story of two Seeds

We have arrived at the same point of choice, an opportunity to change the world. So which seed shall we choose to plant in our collective garden?

The reef is not dying due to climate change. The reef, and more generally the planet, is being killed by our pathological indifference. The question is ‘why’? Let me share a personal story of two seeds.

For years, I spent months breathing under the surface in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef to learn about the private life of a little damselfish species, which Science calls Pomacentrus amboinensis. During the warm summer months, I observed females laying eggs in perfect little nooks within the complexity of the reef structure and males aggressively protecting these benthic nests from egg predators and other intruders. The eggs will be under the watchful paternal eye for a few days until hatching. All born females, the tiny larvae will wriggle their way out and away, embarking on a courageous journey far from the reef and out there, in the open ocean where mortality is almost absolute. Those few that do survive, swim their way back to the reef under the protective darkness of the new moon as their diaphanous shapes are transformed into the beauty of catchy colors we love. As time progresses, juveniles audaciously venture further and further out from the safety of their hidey-hole to catch some plankton in the water column or competing over new prime spots in the coralline estate. Thanks to the black spot at the rear of the dorsal fin, which does not function—as popular belief would have it—to confuse predator but speaks of their immature reproductive state, these youngsters are tolerated by the dominant males, who allow them to hang around the nest sites and indirectly protect them from predators. The spot will eventually disappear with age as juveniles mature into reproductive females, after which some will also change sex to become the dominant males. But the story is not over; to spice things up, some retain the spot although they are clearly no juveniles anymore. It turns out that these individuals are all mature males who have taken an alternative route (so to speak). By closely resembling the body shape of females and retaining the spot that flags them as immature, these males will sneak their way in the nest sites of the tolerant (albeit oblivious) dominant males to contribute to the renewal of the population with minimum effort. The presence of these bright yellow bodies of different shape and sizes flickering in the water column like wild confetti feels like a true miracle, a celebration of Life. Today, this pondering fills me with a great sense of awe. At the time when this species was the main object of my scientific research, however, their commitment to life didn’t stop me from fulfilling the murderous necessity of science. It was so until the fish ceased to be an anonymous data point, just another fish in the agreed sense of the word—the human-centered categorical boundaries asserted through to the Linnaean classification system, which is a fiction brought into being by a particular worldview. No longer an elusive entity void of individuality, the object of my research became a subject for my learning. And everything changed.

I remember that morning, vividly. I had been in the water every day for months, monitoring the reproductive output of wild P. amboinensis pairs. Every day, we encountered each other at the edge, where the safety of the reef ended and my hand stretched out opened. A week into the study, these wild animals snuggled inside that hand as my fingers gently curled around their scaly bodies and then uncurled open again. They knew me, personally. I knew them, one by one. On the last day of the study, I went in the water with the intention of ‘saying goodbye’ before returning in the afternoon to capture and kill them all. That morning, no one was in sight; no one was approaching me, let alone my open hand. A chilling sensation filled me. At that moment I knew they knew. I felt the blood of all the past killings I had done in the name of my science and a dreadful feeling of guilt arrived in my heart. Frozen and not knowing what to do, I did what I knew. That afternoon, I went back in the water with nets and catch bags and killed them all. I understand now that theirs was an incredible sacrifice that delivered the one gift that would change everything. Because through the intimacy of our encounter, the time spent being together and being with each other had broken down the taxonomic boundary. In this permeability, a true nakedness had emerged, the kind of vulnerability necessary to establish openness. They taught me empathy. And I never killed again.

I called this the story of two seeds—namely, Guilt and Empathy—because I had been given the opportunity to choose to plant one of them and change my life. In the wider global context, I feel we have arrived at the same point of choice, an opportunity to change the world. So which seed shall we choose to plant in our collective garden? We have zealously been planting Environmental Guilt, now fashionably referred to as the Anthropocene. To me, this word smells moldy. It smells of patriarchal colonialism, still celebrating our dominion over the environment while religiously confessing our sins of devastation and hoping for redemption. But Environmental Guilt cannot save us, nor the planet. Environmental psychologists tell us that Guilt is an emotion that only works when people are faced with ‘small’ issues. When the challenge is perceived to be too big—and our current task is of planetary proportions—Guilt overwhelms and immobilises us in a state of hopelessness and helplessness. And just as I did with my fish, we freeze and end up doing what we already know, repeating the past that has caused the very circumstances we are trying to resolve and, thus not allowing us to move into a new future. To choose Guilt is to plant the seed that ensures that the individuality of the “other”—in the context of my story, the fish, in the bigger story, the planet—remains an elusive entity, an objectification that is central to the lack of empathy and essential to our reckless exploitation. And yet, we can plant and nurture the other seed, the seed of Environmental Empathy. Empathy is a seed of wisdom, central to our human capacity for true care and essential to our creative inspiration. To choose Empathy is to plant the seed that ensures we encounter the “other” who is constantly beckoning us to open fearlessly, and discover who we are. Just like in my own story, empathy is the inspiring seed that changes everything. By making us available to real change within and out, planetary wellbeing is the inevitable outcome. This brilliant turning point is only one little seed away.

Monica Gagliano is a former research fellow of the Australian Research Council and currently a research associate professor of evolutionary ecology and adjunct senior research fellow at the University of Western Australia. She is author of numerous scientific articles in the fields of animal and plant behavioral and evolutionary ecology and is coeditor of The Green Thread: Dialogues with the Vegetal World (Lexington, 2015) and The Language of Plants (Minnesota University Press, forthcoming 2017). She has pioneered the new research field of plant bioacoustics and extended the concept of cognition to plants, reigniting the discourse on plant subjectivity and ethical standing. For more information, visit www.monicagagliano.com

Image: Supplied by Monica Gagliano