The Human Age

The Human Age by Diane Ackerman Read Free Book Online

Book: The Human Age by Diane Ackerman Read Free Book Online
Authors: Diane Ackerman
Tags: General, science
chest and my eyes teared. My guide’s eyes questioned me through the fishbowl of his face mask. There was no way to mime that I wasn’t hurt or frightened, but jubilant, merely glad to the brink of tears. How do you scuba-sign wonder?
    Are you in trouble ? he signaled.
    No, no , I answered emphatically. I’m okay . . . My heart is stirred —I put an open palm over my heart, then made a stirring motion in the water— and my eyes . . . I made a rain-falling movement beside one eye with my fingers.
    Surface? he motioned, his knitted brow adding a question mark.
    No! I signaled stiffly. I’m okay. Wait. Wait . I thought for a moment, then made the sign French chefs use in commercials, the gestural esperanto for This dish is perfection , making a purse of my fingers and exploding open the purse just after it touched my mouth. Then I swept a hand wide.
    Even with the regulator stuffed in his mouth and his eyes distorted behind the faceplate, he made an exaggerated smile, yawning around the mouthpiece so that I could see he was smiling. He nodded his head in a magnified Yes! , then made an Okay sign with one hand and led me deeper, using his compass and surfacing once to check his direction by sighting the boat.
    After a ten-minute swim, we suddenly came to a maze of underwater canyons thick with enormous sponges and coral fans, around which schools of circus-colored fish zigzagged. Plump purple sea pens with feathery quills stood in sand inkwells. Tiny tube worms—shaped like Christmas trees, feather dusters, maypole streamers, and parasols—jutted out of the coral heads. Sea relationships are sometimes like those in a Russian novel; a worm enters the larder of a fine, respectable coral to steal its food, and just stays there, unevicted. I moved my palm over a red-and-white-striped parasol, and ina flash it folded up its umbrella and dragged it back inside the coral. A game divers love to play with tube worms. Hocus-pocus and the tube worm vanishes.
    On a coral butte just in front of us, a dark gorgonian jutted out between the canyon walls, its medusoid hair straggling in the current. I laughed. That gorgonian’s hair’s like my own , I thought. And then I remembered: We’re mainly saltwater, we carry the ocean inside us . That was the simple, stupefying truth—as a woman, I was a minute ocean, in the dark tropic of whose womb eggs lay coded as roe, floating in the sea that wet-nursed us all. I pulled my mask up and washed my face with saltwater, fitted it back on, and exhaled through my nose to clear it. From then on, I was hooked, and often returned to the sea to reexperience the visible links of that invisible chain.
    I was lucky. When I returned to that same spot twenty years later, I found the bare bones of a deserted reef, a moonscape.
    There’s no need to travel to the Caribbean to spot climate change’s handiwork—I see it in my New York backyard. Perhaps you do, too, if you take the time to look closely. The looking closely part is essential. For most people, everything may still seem normal, because the seasons come and go in a familiar way, even if one blows in stormier or exits drier than usual. For many of us, the changes are too subtle to notice as we go about our lives.
    But clues abound, and not just in my own backyard. Global warming is fiddling with garden thermostats to such an extent that the National Arbor Day Foundation has redrawn the U.S. Hardiness Zone Map—which tells gardeners what and when to plant. For thirty years (as long as the maps have been drawn), Ithaca lay in frostbitten, forget-about-lavender-hued-roses zone 5. Now most of New York State is in the warmer planting zone (6) that used to lie farther south. The “what” and “when” to plant have changed, but not in a predictable way.
    A row of ornamental cabbages (always annuals) has begun overwintering and sending up tall stalks of bushy yellow flowers for the first time. No one told the pansies, high summer blossoms, to

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