The Language of the Reef: An Interview with Rosaleen Love

By Simmons B. Buntin

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About Author Rosaleen Love

Rosaleen LoveRosaleen Love completed her Ph.D. in history and philosophy of science at the University of Melbourne and has been an academic as well as a writer and commentator on science and culture in the general media.

In addition to Reefscape: Reflections on the Great Barrier Reef, her books include an anthology of Australian science writing, If Atoms Could Talk (Greenhouse Press, 1987), and two collections of short fiction with the Women’s Press, Total Devotion: Machine & Other Stories (1991) and Evolution Annie (1993).

Her short stories and essays have been selected for inclusion in many anthologies in Australia, Britain, and the United States. Love’s works spring from an abiding interest in the history of ideas—including wrong ideas—from science to futures studies. She was an invited member of the Humanity 3000 seminar series for 1999-2000, organized by the Foundation for the Future, Seattle.

Reefscape has been called “a sheer delight. . . . It’s an unusual mix of scientific explanations, personal memoirs about diving on the reef, historical descriptions, and even a kind of psychological and spiritual analysis of why we are so fascinated by this huge living thing that is the Great Barrier Reef” (Sian Prior’s Book Reviews, ABC Melbourne).

Interview I’d like to start with what may appear to be an ending question. But after reading Reefscape: Reflections on the Great Barrier Reef, and learning so much about the challenges facing not only the Great Barrier Reef but coral reefs worldwide—especially crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks and more recently coral bleaching—I need to know: Is the Great Barrier Reef any less stressed-out today than in 1999, when you were writing the book? Specifically, in the last two years, is the physical reefscape any better off, or looking to be any better off, because of changes in the political, cultural, economic, recreational, or industrial landscapes?

Rosaleen Love: I’d like to report that things are better, but two years on, the challenges to the Great Barrier Reef remain. 2002 has so far marked a mass bleaching event more severe than in 1998, and also a new severe outbreak of the crown-of-thorns starfish. In both outbreaks, one important contributing factors is water quality. Stresses from coral bleaching and crown of thorns generally impact more severely on the inshore reefs, where plant nutrients and fertilizer run-off from sugar cane farming occurs. So water quality is one of the big issues facing farmers, conservationists, scientists, and tourist operators. Legislators are working on it.

The good news, says Clive Wilkinson, coordinator of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, is that coral reefs show they can recover some 20 years after a major storm. Knowledge gained from studying natural recovery should feed into helping reduce human damage to the reefs. Cleaning up reef waters should help reefs return. (I think someone in his position has to accentuate the positive. Otherwise we’d all give up from despair.)

One answer to your question is—no, possibly the reef itself isn’t better off in 2002 than it was in 1999, but there is increased public awareness of the problems. Increasing aquaculture along the coast is an emerging issue. More restrictions are now placed on recreational and commercial fishing, with more areas now closed for trawling.

The issue of prospecting for oil is back on the agenda. There is a proposal to explore the Townsville Trough adjacent to the Marine Park and within the Great Barrier Reef system, between Lihou and Marion reefs. Exploration for oil from shale rock is also ongoing, though the technology is not yet developed that will do this economically, as I understand it. But the story keeps popping back into the news. The prospectors don’t give up and go away.

Reefscape, by Rosaleen Reefscape’s first chapter, following an eloquent introduction, is titled “Diving for Oldies,” where you detail your introduction to scuba diving while discussing the history of diving. Three months after your first ocean dive you again went diving on the Great Barrier Reef. Far more than trying to find trochuses—your goal on the first dive—you were able to “forget all the diving technology I carried and immerse myself totally in the flow of the ocean, the flow of the moment, the flow of underwater life.” Was this, for Rosaleen Love as the writer, when you began composing Reefscape?

Rosaleen Love: No. I’ve been a keen snorkeler for years. I decided to learn to dive after I got the contract for writing Reefscape, in order to see if the experience would be very different. It was, in ways I outline in the book, but now, looking back, I think I was really crazy to do that course, and to go diving. I was really pushing the limits of my physical ability. I was, mostly, terrified.

If I’d been the examiner for the PADI course, I doubt I’d have passed myself, as I think I mentioned. The term “reefscape” was coined by zoologist and photographer William Savelle-Kent in his book The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, published in 1893. The “Reefscape with Sea Serpents” chapter describes how Savelle-Kent used the word to describe his art, in which he “liked to include the distant horizon with sky and clouds, allowing the fore-grounded corals to rise through the smooth ocean waters as if a weird forest of branched fingers.” Despite modern illustrative and photographic techniques such as that on the cover of Reefscape, actually portraying the above- and below-water linkages of the reefscape appears to be one of the greatest challenges of protecting the reefscape. How is the reefscape best portrayed? And who best portrays the reefscape? Scientist, reef manager,

Rosaleen Love: As to who best portrays the reef, that’s a bit too hard to answer.

The science of the reef matters above all, but it is presented in technical articles. In translating rigorous scientific work for a wider audience, both scientists and reef managers are cautious in what they say. If they work for public service organizations, and they usually speak only through official spokespeople and press releases. They err on the side of caution, when their comments may be challenged immediately by others, e.g., the commercial fishing lobby.

Modern illustrative techniques are important, I think, unless we’re becoming blasé about images of great beauty. Since Reefscape was first published, more brilliant films about life underwater have been arriving on TV screens worldwide; for example, the David Attenborough eight-part TV series The Blue Planet, 2001. Part 6 was on “The Coral Seas.”

Awareness of ocean-air interactions I think is growing with the way weather information is daily presented. We might tune in to hear the weather forecast from one to five days ahead, but it may also be more widely interpreted in terms of longer term trends; e.g., from El Niño oscillations to global warming. In the chapter titled “Chick City,” you state: “The question the reef traveler of today asks herself is whether she has any right to be in this wild place at all, lest she contribute to the vanishing of all that brings joy here,” especially since, “People are always intruders, no matter how they come or why.” You returned from this particular place—the relatively undisturbed Chesterfield Islands in the middle of the Coral Sea—with “a sense of both the fragility of life there and its robustness.” And you conclude that “Experiencing this wilderness brings respect for their continuing presence and their capacity for survival.” Yet with a million tourists annually visiting the Great Barrier Reef, what is the answer to that original question?

Rosaleen Love: Both Australia and New Caledonia. As for the Great Barrier Reef, I may well ask myself that question, but I still go. The reefs of New Caledonia are currently in grave danger from the effects of nickel mining, which provides one of the few employment opportunities for local people. Preserving their reefs, even if primarily in the utilitarian interests of tourism, would be the lesser evil. Reefscape ebbs and flows between a natural history of the people and place that is the Great Barrier Reef, discussions of the sociopolitical boundaries—both literal and figurative—of reefscapes, and personal essays filled with keen observations and spiritual wanderings. In the early chapter “Going with the Flow,” you explore Taoist philosophy, mentioning that “Tao is like an immense boat that drifts freely and irresistibly according to its own will.” At the end of the book, when you tackle the tough issues facing the Great Barrier and all reefs, you return to religion and spirituality, openly discussing your own spiritual views even in telling the Aboriginal myths of animals and place. In a time when many books of this genre shy away from the personal, this openness is refreshing. Did you feel you were taking a risk by including your spiritual views, by exploring your own spirituality as you explored the reef? Should we all, perhaps, explore our spirituality in light of place, culture, and time to reach the higher consciousness that may be required to truly find sustainable solutions to the problems vexing our landscapes and reefscapes?

Rosaleen Love: This question of spirituality and spiritual relationships to a place, the land, to reefs is one I knew would be an important part of the book. I also knew it would be difficult for me to write. I don’t know that I thought so much that I was taking a risk, as thinking it was the only way to go. I am fascinated by Indigenous stories of reef places, while at the same time knowing they are not my stories. I am appalled by the history of economic exploitation of reef places, where so much destruction has taken, and is taking place, in the name of creating value for shareholders. Narratives in terms of the dominant economic discourse need to be challenged.

As to the question you pose—”Should we all explore our spirituality?”—I could reply, “Yes, but ….” Only if it goes beyond human-centred spirituality. Val Plumwood has some excellent ideas in a chapter, “Towards a materialist spirituality of place” of her latest book Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (Routledge 2001). She argues that ecological forms of both spirituality and rationality are needed to work together to enlarge our consciousness of how best to live less destructively in the world. In retelling the stories of what we are, there is much to learn from various forms of spirituality that value attachments to place, including reef places, and nurture this attachment creatively in respect for the non-human realm. In the chapter “An Island in Time,” you conclude that “[w]hat makes the Great Barrier Reef special is that it has existed for so long in relation to people.” For 6,000 years the Reef and people have not only coexisted but been an integrated whole. The Aboriginals understand its intricacies so much that, for example, the Nesbit River people of the Cape York Peninsula have—as you detail in the chapter “When the Reef Was Ours”—dozens of words to describe the zones between sea and beach: “sea water shallow enough to stand in” – kuytu atya, and “knee-deep sea water” – kuytu nganta, and “sea water edge” – ngaluna. As a writer yourself, what significance can language have to the preservation of the Great Barrier Reef. What does that mean to the formal language of politics and bureaucracy that seems to govern decision making among so many vested interests?

Rosaleen Love: The response to the previous question also relates to this one. The language of the Nesbit river people tells their story. The language of science tells other stories. Ecological forms of both spirituality and rationality are both needed in getting to a place beyond where we are. The good news about the great Barrier Reef is that is it under the control of one nation, so we’ve got some hope of getting somewhere without international political squabbling.

The language of reef management is really weird, being adapted from business school models. Still, if it can be made to work in the service of reef conservation, that’s all to the good. In my experience, reef managers are chosen for their good communications skills, as people who are able to talk with everyone, from property developers to Indigenous groups. The skills of the scientist, the manager, the Indigenous custodian—these may be quite different, yet ultimately, for the good of the reef, should complement each other in the service of the environment.

Helen Ross is a sociologist who works with reef management agencies, in dialogue with Indigenous custodians, fishermen, tourism operators. etc. She says management practice has to reach out to include more than management of the reef in its physical spaces and outlets; the multiple layers of connection of people with reef have to be viewed at a symbolic level, and management practice needs to take this into account. Somehow. At least they’re trying. What’s next for Rosaleen Love?

Rosaleen Love: I’ve recently finished a young adult novel, an ecological fantasy, which takes flight from some Reefscape ideas. Four children take their school holidays on a coral island, where their parents work as marine biologists. The kids soon leave the island (and the parents) behind for adventures in a coral castle under the sea, where strange things are happening (as they do, in adventure stories).

I’m also working on a nonfiction manuscript with the working title “Writing in a blue space.” It’s a marine-based response to environmental writing which mostly concentrates on “writing in a green space,” about land-based wilderness. I’m also following the GM foods, reproductive technologies, and rights of robots debates, with articles forthcoming on each topic. So, you could say, I’m a science writer, across genres.



Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland’s Salmon Poetry. Other work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at

Header aerial photo of the Great Barrier Reef courtesy Shutterstock. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.