A Series by New Scientists
The Carson Scholars program at the University of Arizona is dedicated to training the next generation of environmental researchers in the art of public communication, from writing to speaking. Partnering with Terrain.org, the program will present essays and other writing from students and alumni of the Carson Scholars Program, with hopes of inspiring readers to understand not only research findings but the textures of the lives of scientists and others engaged in the crucial work of helping the planet along in an age of unprecedented change. Carson Scholars alumna Gloria Jimenez’s essay “Embracing Water” is the first in this new series.
I must have been five in the first storm I remember, walking home in Manhattan. I’d never seen rain like that, rain that soaked in an instant and made my favorite blue velvet slippers slide over the slick asphalt. Walk on the painted white line, my mother shouted above the roar of drops, it’s raised a little. And indeed it was enough of a difference to let me cross, one sodden slipper at a time.
A few things stick with me, attached to the image of blue slippers on a white line. A few inches of rain were enough to make it seem the sky was falling; a few millimeters enough to make a painted line into a bridge. Small differences, I learned, matter.
Once that thought was enough. It took root as I studied lakes in Tanzania, the summer after my sophomore year of college. I could always do this work, I imagined—research that sought to understand the environmental problems of the world. I thought eagerly of incremental change when a professor told me that science could profoundly alter the world, pull the rug out from under everyone’s feet. The idea guided me from a degree in geology to an application to do environmental work with the Peace Corps. My goals were modest: not saving the world, just doing a little good. Finding a little purpose.
It blew in suddenly, halfway through the hike: several inches of freezing rain and hail, 11,000 feet of elevation in the Ecuadorian mountains, and a five-hour walk to the nearest road. The park guards looked at me warily, appraising how well I’d hold up. Already soaked despite our rain gear, we might find shelter but the best choice was to keep going. Cómo estás, they asked, and I replied with forced gaiety, bien. Bien mal, they muttered, but they were smiling. We kept walking.
What do you do when things get hard? I usually follow a plan. I imagined that Peace Corps service would help point me down the right road, though I knew better than to expect revelation. But I found development work frustrating and full of unanswered scientific questions. And so I began a master’s degree and later a Ph.D. in paleoclimatology. The study of past climates was a vast and endlessly complicated puzzle to me, but one I was good at solving. I liked methodically spinning a story from clues left in the geologic record. I had fantasies of being able to help people understand and face climate change. I envisioned that my research would be needed, relevant, appreciated.
The reality was that paleoclimatology is a topic that makes eyes glaze over after the second syllable, one that people, sometimes including myself, consider academic in the dullest sense of the word. Worse yet could be using the phrase “climate scientist,” which risked derailing conversations and silencing formerly friendly checkout ladies. I found myself envying my doctor friends: how much more unassailable of a purpose can you have than healing others?
The laboratory is arranged oddly, repurposed to accommodate machines it wasn’t intended to hold. Getting to the glassware requires dodging the mass spectrometer, and computers running Windows 98 crouch awkwardly in the room’s center. The first thing you notice, though, is the sound: a few years ago, the elemental analyzer’s cooling system had to be replaced with a huge pipe that whooshes and rattles like monsoon rain in the desert. Now I wear headphones as I feed the machine tiny samples of crushed coral skeleton. In a few hours, the powders will have transmuted to numbers on a screen, testifying their memory of tropical temperatures.
In the fluorescent-lit lab, deafened by the sound of water where there is none, it’s easy to lose track of time, caught up in endlessly multiplying mundane tasks. Down the hall, a window looks out on real rain clouds, gathering in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Sometime today, I decide, for a few minutes, I will escape the machines and the powders and watch the storm.
Sometimes this work seems like a fool’s errand, so attenuated from reality as to be useless. Sometimes I look up from whatever undertaking I thought was so important and I fear, or realize, that it doesn’t matter in the least. Why generate yet more information about climate change? There is already a sufficiency. Study after study notes rising temperatures, costs, extinctions, disasters. But nothing changes.
The people who fall silent don’t know the science and if they did perhaps it wouldn’t matter. It is all too understandable that some see climate change as a challenge to the way they live their lives, so they discount the facts or downplay the changes all around them to the point of fleeing from a friendly conversation.
Almost worse, though, are those who can engage to the point of issuing some variation of the question, So you believe in climate change? I can never decide on an answer. As with my position on gravity, belief doesn’t enter into it. Empirical fact requires a different vocabulary than the tooth fairy; I am convinced by the evidence. Sometimes I’m tempted by the sarcastic route: no, I have devoted my life to something I don’t believe is important. I have lost years of sleep and leisure to survive on a graduate student’s salary, all for a maybe.
The twin specters of irrelevance and impotence undercut even the noblest motives. Some days I fail to see the point. Some days I think I’m not cut out to be a scientist, because I lack whatever drive renders doubt unimportant. Whatever spark allows others to work late into the night simply out of curiosity. And so inadequacy, too, joins the litany.
Some days I leave behind laboratory and computer and try to find purpose elsewhere: in sunshine and green growing things, in sweat or laughter. I contemplate other questions: What constitutes a life lived well? What price to sustain this dream of mine, in effort and peace of mind, and how long does a sane person keep paying?
Water all around me and the dull roaring of bubbles from my regulator as my body breathes unbidden. The cord to the data logger I was trying to place is gone, lost among the corals and volcanic rock that built the Galápagos. My vision has narrowed to blue, 50 feet of water leaching the color from my surroundings. Blue reef, blue water, blue fish, and shockingly green blood leaking from my hand.
I can still feel the invasion of the moray’s teeth in my flesh.
To hold the wound closed, I am forced to signal my dive partner by shouting, my voice choked by plastic valves and a few feet of water become a chasm. Sound travels poorly through water. I scream for a long time.
He looks up. Time accelerates. His eyes widen when I release my hand, and then he is reeling in his cord, gesturing to the surface, grasping my vest and clumsily manipulating two sets of equipment. We ascend, too fast, in a tangle of hoses and neoprene and eggshell-thin skin. We break the surface and Stephan waves and Fausto lifts me into the dinghy like a rag doll and we are cutting through the waves to the distant sound of Roby snarling into his radio.
Back on the boat, they pull my wetsuit off over shredded skin and hold me upright as alcohol burns down my hand. No miras, they say, but finally I see color. So much red, buckets full, and then lightning flashing before my eyes to crowd out sight.
An infinitesimal increase in gas concentrations melts continents of ice; two feet in the wrong direction and I learn the frailty of flesh. Two centimeters slice a tendon instead of an artery. Thus can be measured the constructs that separate us from the water searching for a way in.
What use in planning a future? That structure I imagined I could impart, those lofty goals I believed I could attain—they have dissolved before my eyes, writhing fluid from my grasp.
Two days later. The boat is 36 hours from the nearest port. I sleep in the main cabin next to the table, where I can elevate my arm and wake every four hours to take pills. The crew cuts my food for me and arranges pillows under my arms. The sun shines unremittingly and they frown when I venture on deck.
Roby was the one who called the doctor by satellite phone, who negotiated an appropriate dosage of antibiotics gathered from various first aid kits. Per instructions, it was he who took a syringe and cleaned the wound—with boiled water, at my insistence—a second time, while everyone else shuddered away. He jokes with me when he can, and proffering a book of OSHO poetry, tells me about the garden he wants to plant this year. Each day he peels away the bandages and smears on iodine and antibiotic ointment, gently prodding the swollen skin. We always circle back to the same question after watching as all my fingers wiggle except my thumb. Se queda así, mudo? Yes, I reply. It’s mute.
I used to believe that mind could win over matter. I used to trust that life could be made fair.
Drop by drop I learned wisdom. That failure can hinge on the fact that the person judging you doesn’t like your shoes or your topic. That the rich are responsible for the majority of carbon emissions, but the poor will suffer most. That it’s all too easy to forgo kindness because you have your own struggles. That our creations are a flimsy insurance. That the water will eventually close over us all.
I am struggling with a hair elastic. The floor is muddy from too many spring rainstorms and too little energy to use a mop left-handed. My desk overflows with papers: names and phone numbers from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, from a worker’s compensation lawyer, a bill from the surgeon, a class syllabus on the bottom of the pile. An email is open on my computer, detailing the accident to the university’s provost, dean, and administrators. Asking that they cover my medical expenses, despite the prestigious fellowship that allows the university not to consider me an employee. The elastic flies across the room, my right thumb offering no resistance.
I left something in the ocean beyond blood. I left the idea that I could make things fit a shape. I left the hope that effort could exempt me from suffering. I left the acceptance that my worth would ever be measured in money or fame or academic achievement.
My hand is still in a cast when a friend invites me to the pool at Tucson’s Arizona Inn. We leave school early to sip frozen drinks and wade through the shallow end. She helps me prop myself up with pool noodles so I can float while clutching my forearm to my chest.
I close my eyes and think about the administrator who suggested I should forgo treatment since I wouldn’t receive worker’s comp. I think about the professor who, believing it encouragement, said that success depended on devoting our lives to science, sleeping on piles of books. I think about the friend who took the day off work to drive me to surgery and signed the receipts for my prescriptions and my chicken soup when I could barely stand upright. I think about the friend who traveled six hours to bring me an eel piñata filled with candy and tiny bottles of alcohol. I think about the difference between surviving and living. I think about breath and luck and the barrier of skin and how easy it would have been to stay in that ocean.
I close my eyes and let the water hold me.
I took something, too.
Maybe that awful grace teaches you when to bend. Maybe wisdom is recognizing the futility of effort, yet expending it anyway. Maybe what you do matters less than how you do it.
I will not glorify science. Nor will I doubt its worth.
When the cast comes off, the surgeon advocates regaining mobility by picking up rice. Grain by grain, I rejoice as my hand movements change from stiff to fluid. The monsoons flood southwestern Arizona and retreat again. I am told hand model jokes and sent every eel video the Internet can produce. I breathe in nitrogen and oxygen and water and carbon dioxide at a concentration that has passed 400 parts per million. I make maps of water temperature and write about the currents swimming just beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean.
They say scars are a mark of the living. I notice mine, sometimes, when I lift a pencil or a glass to drink: shiny and oddly sensitive, a small gash that utterly transforms the landscape of skin. It looks a little like a stream, jagged striations descending the ridges of bone and tendon.
It looks like it belongs.
Header photo of submerged forest in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador, by Gloria Jimenez.