Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Cyptic Sound

Cryptic Sound

In the foundation of Winchester Cathedral, the crypt, stands this solemn sculpture, a study in contrasts. 

Ancient is the arched stone undercroft, predating even the medieval Gothic sanctuary that soars above it.  But the sculpture is modern, 1986, installed by British artist Antony Gormley. 

The crypt is cold and hard and impersonal; we associate crypts with death and graves and fear.  People mostly stay upstairs in the nave.  But the statue depicts a very alive human figure, indeed it is a made from a cast of Gormley’s own living body.

Crypts form solid hard foundations, dug deep in the dense dark earth.  But this crypt becomes soft and fluid every winter when the region’s persistent groundwater floods it as much as three feet deep.  The dark space becomes shiny and shimmering, reflecting the water in motion.  The sculpture was fashioned intentionally to withstand and even embrace the months it is partially submerged, wet and fluid.

Crypts are quiet, silent as a tomb.  But Gormley named the statue “Sound II.”  Sound?  One writer suggests Gormely wants us to look at the sculpture and “be still for a moment, to ‘sound’ the depths of our own spirit.”

The hands of the human form are cupped and the face is looking down at what it gently holds – water.  Not only does the sculpture stand up to its waist in the winter water, but an inner pipe brings water up into the hands. (So we are told – no crypt tours in the winter, too wet.  I was there in June and it had just reopened two weeks earlier.  The floor was still damp.)

There are tombs in the crypt, but this sculpture is about life.  All life is born of water, seeping from ocean ancestors.  It reminded me of Venus rising from the sea atop a similar wet cup.  The dark fecundity of the space was like a womb.  All these wet sources of life.

Upstairs in the nave are fabulous ancient religious sculptures and icons, saints and deities.  Thank you to Winchester Cathedral for placing new religious art in the depths, honoring water, birth, baptism, and rebirth.

I write every Wednesday about ocean water spirituality.  I also post it at  Our Blue Theology Mission station offer youth mission trips and adult pilgrimage retreats in Pacific Grove, doing ocean stewardship, sharing in ocean spirituality – still some openings this summer.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Whale Falls

Whale Falls

Where do whales go when they die? 

Most dead whales sink slowly to the ocean floor, until they rest in the deep, 3000 feet or more. 

Sometimes we see (and smell!) dead whales decomposing on the beach or in near shore waters, but those are very few of the many thousands of whales who die naturally every year.  (If we lived in Norway or Japan or Iceland we might see the carcasses of the 2000 whales they still slaughter annually in commercial hunts.) 

Those lucky enough to die naturally become what’s called “whale fall.”

Because it’s so cold in the deep, with lots of pressure, the whales decompose very slowly. Scavengers like hagfish and crabs show up first, and eat all their soft tissue in a few months.  Then furry worms and shrimp, called “enrichment opportunists,” move in and colonize the massive whale bones for two or more years.  Finally, the bacteria arrive and live for many decades, 50 years or more, off the bones’ lipids, feeding in turn many nearby mussels and clams. 

Researchers using a remotely operated vehicle studied one 40-ton grey whale carcass deep off the coast of Santa Barbara for over ten years and found more than 30,000 animals, representing 200 different species, living off the one animal.  A dead whale can be one of the most species-rich habitats in the ocean.

 “There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

OK, this is a slightly morbid topic for my weekly post on ocean spirituality.  I’m pretty sure those are eels in this picture, feasting on the dead whale.  Creepy.  Of course we know that every animal body eventually ends up in the sea in some diffuse form, thanks to decomposition, gravity, run off and continental shift. OK, more dreariness.  I confess I’m feeling a bit dark these days; life and nation seem a little grim.  My brooding about life and death reminded me of what I have learned at the Aquarium about whale falls.

But I am a resurrection girl.  I do believe that life is always more powerful than death.  Even for a 40-ton dead whale.  In their one death they give life to tens of thousands of others.  In that miraculous balance of life and death and new life, there is no waste, everything has value and meaning.  Even in the darkest depths, a rich habitat.

They are haunting, pictures of whale falls, courtesy of deep sea technology.  I am moved, and strangely reassured, seeing both the death hidden in the dark and the new life blooming from it.  There is so much we know, and so much we have no idea about at all.  I like learning new things.  And I like letting the mystery be, down deep.

Where do whales go when they die?  To whale heaven of course.  From deep dark wet, they are transformed into new life.   Same as for all of us living beings.   We move from deep dark wet to light and life, again and again.

(  We invite you to a Blue Theology Retreat and Resource Day May 9 in Pacific Grove for religious leaders, “Walking With Jesus By The Sea.”)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Mermaid's Purse

Mermaid’s Purse
See the little baby shark inside this egg case?  When found empty on the shore, after the shark is born, we call these  
cases “mermaid’s purses,” so precious was its content.

Dad Shark fertilizes Mom’s egg internally (shark sex!)  She lays the egg in a safe place, like the kelp forest, where it can hide for the nine months it takes to grow and hatch on its own.  (To our Aquarium guests I say, “She lays the egg and then she says, Goodbye! Good Luck!”  “Au Revoir, Bon Chance!” to the French guests.) 

Of the 400 different kinds of sharks, nearly half, the coastal ones, give birth this way.  (Open ocean sharks keep their babies inside until birth; no place to hide the egg case.)

Nine months all on its own!  How will it survive?  Mom Shark “packs it a lunch” (in the words of a British shark expert.)  The egg case includes a nutritious yoke (you can see that too), and when it’s gone, it’s time for birth. 

But the egg wall is not a solid shell, like a chicken’s.  No, the wall is permeable.  Ocean water can flow in and out, bringing in a nutritious sea soup and neatly draining away waste.  The scientists call this “osmo-regulating,” like osmosis, which means “to push” in Greek.  Mom has pushed, and now the ocean pushes and pulls through the permeable egg membrane.

Each of our own human cells has a permeable membrane – food in, waste out.  We need some  kind of cell walls or we would slop and bleed all over each other.  But without the push and pull of osmosis permeating through the membrane, we would starve and be poisoned by waste. 

Baby sharks have permeable egg walls.  We humans have osmo-regulaing cell walls.  Are they like national borders?  I was surprised to read in Outside Magazine about a group of ranchers and biologists who are concerned about the proposed expansion of the wall between the US and Mexico, because of the many border animals whose food, migration and reproduction are already being walled up and in.

Precious things we humans, and mermaids, keep in our purses.  But without food and flow, nothing survives.  Osmosis diplomacy.  We just booked another weekend youth group in March and a clergy couple spending a sabbatical week with us in May.  May 9 we host a Blue Theology Retreat and Resource Day for clergy and religious educators, following Jesus’ model of spending key ministry moments “By the Sea.”  Be in touch.