The Great Barrier Reef is the largest structure on earth made by living organisms. It is one of the 7 natural wonders and one of Australia’s most important ecosystems. Visible from space and larger than the Great Wall of China, it is a mystical underwater eden, a miracle of nature…..and it’s also one more thing…it is dying.
Mass bleaching events caused by global warming have been increasing in size and intensity, half of the reef has died since 2016 and this week Nature has published a paper showing the impact has extended into the larval population, greatly decreasing the chances of it regenerating to the same health and diversity that once made it a global treasure.
Professor Terry Hughes, Director of ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and Distinguished Professor at James Cook University, is a global expert on reef systems with citations to his work exceeding 43,000. In 2016 he was voted by Nature as one of “10 people who mattered”. His list of prestigious awards, fellowships and other recognitions are too numerous to list here. He is a giant in the field of reef ecology.
But as he sits before me, regaling me with stories of watching his father hand stitch wetsuits so they could dive the freezing waters of his childhood home in Ireland, I can’t help but catch glimpses of the immense weight he is carrying on behalf of all of us.
Terry has done the one thing we all most wish for our children. He has found something he is passionate about, something he loves and can pour himself into. He has diligently studied it and worked hard to become a leader in his field. He has spent a lifetime selflessly contributing a deeper understanding of not just Australia’s tourist wonderland, but of reef ecosystems across the globe.
As reward for this life spent in scientific service he has been attacked in the press, smeared by politicians, faced extreme funding cuts threatening the livelihoods of him and his colleagues and, to add insult to injury, watched as almost 1/2 a billion dollars of that funding was given to a little known organisation funded and chaired by fossil fuel and energy executives that didn’t tender for it, didn’t ask for it and had no immediate way to spend it, something now referred to in Australia as #reefgate.
Despite all of this, he has set aside time to sit with a little known artist with a crazy idea to create his portrait from the two materials that seem to dominate his recent life, and enter it in Australia’s premier Portrait prize, “The Archibald”.
For the last few weeks I have been crushing and sieving coral samples Terry has sent me. Together with samples of coal I obtained I have started to hand “mull” them in oil to create oil paint…walnut oil for the coral to protect it’s fragile organic colour, linseed for the coal. It seemed like an interesting idea at the time, a fun project, but as I try to work the new medium I realise I may have underestimated the difficulty of the execution. The coal just won’t mix with the coral (perhaps there’s something telling in that), and you need mixes of light and dark to complete a good portrait. I decide to approach it like a charcoal and white chalk sketch, keeping the two material as far from each other as possible. But the coal still resists. It goes on the canvas like tar, it won’t blend, it destroys a new, high quality hog hair brush every 30 minutes. But I persist, and eventually I start to see what I’m searching for…amongst the black and sticky mess the stoic, thoughtful face of our reefs best hope for survival begins to emerge.
At that moment the great Holman Hunt masterpiece, “The Scapegoat” flashes in my mind, not for Terry but for all scientists.
I title this piece “The Burden of Knowledge”.
These words and the views they express are mine and mine alone. They are not endorsed by Professor Hughes or anyone working at ARC or JCU….or anyone other than me for that matter.