There must be a word for it: The delicious and illicit thrill of curling up with a book about the natural world written before ‘Climate Change’ was a thing. When words such as ‘species’ or ‘ecosystem’ could be freely deployed without trigger-warning adjectives such as ‘vanishing’ and ‘fragile’ stamped all over them. Now, as The Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan pithily puts it, every nature programme is “in essence, just a list of things we’re killing”.
No wonder I sometimes want to scuttle backwards, pulling my childhood around me like a hermit crab stuffing itself into a too-small shell. Inside the warm cocoon of words written by Gerald Durrell, Jim Corbett or Laurie Lee, I am back in a world rich in more-than-human life, where Homo sapiens is just one species among many, all propelled by their own innate urges. A world fat with crazy, teeming, hairy, snorting, waving, eating, dying, spawning, marvellous, mysterious aliveness.
The other day in my local bookshop, I came across a first edition of the 1953 classicThe Silent World by Jacques Cousteau. The Attenborough of the seas, Cousteau did more to open up the underwater world to human eyes than anyone else in history. Film-maker, presenter, writer, explorer and deep-sea diver, Cousteau was also largely responsible for the invention of the aqualung: An underwater breathing apparatus that allowed humans, for the first time, to swim freely and unencumbered to hitherto uncharted depths. He describes himself and his small team as “menfish” — as though a whole new hybrid species had been born, able to swim horizontally like fish, while breathing the “sweet effortless air”.
In the early 1970s, my brothers and I used to watch The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Our entire generation can instantly recall the iconic image of this intense, wiry Frenchman with a beaky nose and weather-beaten face wearing little more than teeny shorts and his signature red beanie hat, scanning the waves from the prow of his speeding boat, Calypso, and puffing on his pipe. The voice-over, delightfully accented, promised to take us on a quest to “confront ze dangeurs and reveal ze splendeurs of ze sea”.
Reading his book, I am struck at how casually Cousteau talks of harpooning and dynamiting fish. It’s not done with any sense of callousness or cold-heartedness. On the contrary, Cousteau’s respect for and wonderment at the alien world of the sea and all its creatures shines through his work. It’s just there’s this sense that we small humans are barely scratching the surface of the teeming multitudes that surround us, our destruction the merest chip off the tip of the iceberg.
When that chip becomes a scrape, his horror mounts. In a particularly vivid passage, he describes the madrague, an ancient fishing technique now largely banned in and around the Mediterranean. He and fellow diver, Frédérick Dumas, travelled to the coastal village of Sidi Daoud in Tunisia to film the Arab fishermen as they hauled their huge dragnet to the shore. “The noble fish, weighing up to four hundred pounds apiece, swam round and round counter-clockwise,” he writes. Slowly, the “death chamber” was reduced to a third of its size and “the atmosphere grew excited, frantic… As they [the fish] passed us, the expression of fright in their eyes was almost human”.
Sixty years later, and 20,000-30,000 tonnes of tuna are hauled out of the Mediterranean each year, by vast intensive tuna farms, and the fish stocks are on the verge of collapse.
The creatures of the deep encountered by Cousteau and his crew are many, various and large: Rays, sharks, whales and seals, urchins, jellyfish and octopuses. They commonly encounter groupers up to a hundred pounds in weight. These are old, mature fish — the grouper only attains sexual maturity at age five, and all groupers start life as females, morphing into males around the age of 12. The population of this fish — like all other species — has nose-dived: It has plummeted by almost 90 per cent in the last decade.
Back in Cousteau’s day, there seemed to be nothing but abundance. He describes the porpoises who swim alongside their boat as they speed through the Gibraltar Straits: They “played chasing games as if they had a brain capacity for satire. They are constructed disturbingly like men,” he writes. “They are warm-blooded and breathe air […] have smiling lips and shining eyes. They are gregarious and, more than that, social.” He ends with a throwaway line: “There are probably more porpoises in the sea that there are men on earth”, and that sentence brings me up short. A little Googling reveals that, today, there are more residents of Noida than there are porpoises on the planet.
I wish I knew the word for it: That longing to be back in a world where We were relatively few and They were very many. Before what ecologists refer to as “the great thinning”. Before the plastic in the ocean outweighed the animals. When you could say, with all the confident authority of an oceanographer like Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau: There are plenty more fish in the sea.
First published in The Hindu Business Line: BLInk Supplement, 27 November 2019