The Call of the Abyss

The BP oil spill and the undersea realm of impenetrable darkness

Wendy Johnson

Joan Vennum, River Quartet, 2008, Oil on canvas, 29 x 97.5 inches, courtesy Sundaram Tagore Galleries

Now in mid-June the 2010 summer harvest begins to ripen in a flood tide of Dragon Tongue beans, golden beets, and sweet basil, while 3,000 miles to the east on the Gulf of Mexico the Deepwater Horizon oil spill continues to worsen. Long before morning meditation I listen to the dawn chorus of summer songbirds, a brogue tribute to the solstice season. I am thinking of my sister Sally, who lives on Knight Island, a bridgeless barrier reef in southwestern Florida. She and a dedicated cadre of women friends have been walking their beach at daybreak for the past weeks, marking and protecting scores of loggerhead sea turtle nests as the ancient ones emerge from the Gulf to lay their eggs. A few hundred miles to the west of Knight Island, in Fort Jackson, Louisiana, veterinarians and volunteers work around the clock cleaning and tending oil-drenched brown pelicans, northern gannets, and laughing gulls rescued from the epicenter of the oil spill disaster.

I live and garden on the edge of the Pacific Ocean at Muir Beach, where flocks of healthy brown pelicans skim the dark briny water. Watching them, I remember the first Earth Day observance held on April 22, 1970, almost forty years to the day from the Deepwater Horizon explosion. That Earth Day was a response to the massive oil spill in the Pacific Ocean, just off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, in 1969. Now close to 60,000 barrels a day are spewing into the deep currents of the semi-enclosed Gulf of Mexico, smothering undersea life with toxic plumes radiating out more than fifty miles from the shattered wellhead.

As a meditator and a gardener, I experience this plume of oil as a visible trace of the compressed plant wealth of the ages. During the Carboniferous period 400 million years ago sunlight fueled the growth of terrestrial and marine vegetation, reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide while retaining carbon stored in dense mats of decomposing plant material hundreds or even thousands of feet deep. Since the discovery in 1859 of this stored ancient sunlight in the form of “black gold,” human beings have extracted more than 750 billion barrels of oil from the depths of the earth, fueling an explosion of population and consumption.

“When this is, that is,” taught the Buddha, and “from this arising, that arises.” These days the Buddha’s original teachings of dependent co-arising are particularly potent. I experience my own complicity with and connection to the Gulf oil spill on a daily basis, either as I drive my car twenty-six miles to work or harvest Zen spinach into a carefully reused plastic bag. It is not the arising of conditioned existence that speaks to me now but the wordless call of the descent that beckons, down to the depths of the unknown.

The undersea realm of impenetrable darkness, icy temperatures, and the crushing pressure of dense saltwater is called the abyss, from the Greek abussos, “without bottom.” The site of the Deepwater Horizon rupture is almost a mile down in this oceanic abyss, where the weight of the seawater exerts pressure of more than one ton per square inch. Here, at the exploded wellhead, BP drill lines bore another three-and-a-half miles into the core of the earth. At this depth unfathomable questions of cause and effect rise unanswered to the surface of the sea.

At a depth of more than 12,000 feet below the surface the underwater abyss has long been considered lifeless terrain. Yet with the aid of modern science a wealth of alien creatures living in the abyss have been revealed. From the angler fish bearing millions of bioluminescent bacteria to vampire squid dating back 200 million years, whose primitive blood pigment extracts traces of oxygen from thick seawater, to the eerie tubeworms living on the gulf floor that subsist on food chains sustained by oil and gas seeps, the depths of the abysmal waters hold the largest uncharted reservoir of life on earth. Billions of organisms inhabit this dark and silent world.

Responding to the call of the abyss demands dedication to the descent and to living in the presence of mysteries and problems that can be neither solved nor uncoded. I can sit still at the edge of the Pacific Ocean with an upwelling of sadness and gratitude for my sister on the Gulf of Mexico as long as I remember that there is only one ocean and that all vast bodies of water are connected. In this practice it helps to remember the primal power of the abyss. Twice a day in Nova Scotia, Canada, the Atlantic Ocean pours fourteen billion tons of tidal seawater through the Bay of Fundy, a volume of water equivalent to the combined flow of every river on earth. For the last twenty-five years, during the ebb tide of peak oil, a modest provincial power plant on this bay has been generating electricity from the surge of the depths up to the floating surface of the saha world. Considering this, I am reminded of an old admonition from the philosopher Nietzsche: “If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you.”

Wendy Johnson is Tricycle’s longest-running columnist. Her first “On Gardening” column appeared in the Summer 1995 issue. She is the author of Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World.

Listen to Wendy Johnson read her piece here.

Image: Joan Vennum, River Quartet, 2008, Oil on canvas, 29 x 97.5 inches, courtesy Sundaram Tagore Galleries

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