Mystical Aquariums

This is the dawning of the age of aquariums. With the Gulf oil spill still gushing out of control, there is a current awareness of the plight of the seas due to unnatural (i.e. human) interference. Perhaps that is why so many people flocked to the Mystic Aquarium yesterday. That, and the fact that it was a beautiful day on the northeast coast. Having grown up in land-locked western Pennsylvania, I have always appreciated the oceans and their microcosms, designed for human visitation. My first actual aquarium experience was the New England Aquarium in Boston, a facility that sets a very high standard for all others. Trips to the Seattle Aquarium, the Norwalk Aquarium, the Camden Aquarium, and a variety of smaller facilities (I unfortunately missed out when my family visited the San Francisco and Shedd (Chicago) Aquariums) always leave me with a sense of connectedness to our planet. Life emerged from the seas, and, as Rachel Carson observed, we always long to go back to our ancestral home.

It is easy to spend an entire day at the Mystic Aquarium. Beluga whales are impressive close-up, and the sea lions show more intelligence that your average Republican. Jellyfish, with no brain at all, are capable of doing tricks humans can’t – a tank of bioluminescent jellies was captivating. The penguins had a fascination all their own. It had been a few years since I’d been able to pet a shark or ray. In a separate exhibit on Deep Sea exploration, largely featuring Robert Ballard, the man who discovered the Titanic, the aquarium houses several robots used for entering regions uninhabitable by humans. Since my intense association with FIRST Robotics is never far from mind this was an unexpected bonus. The biblical aspect of the journey, however, came at the end.

Exhausted from a day of wandering, hot and lethargic, we came across the final exhibit: Noah’s Ark! I had begun to wonder if I’d managed to spend a day in an entirely secular venue when the Bible showed up. The display was about the Black Sea. William Ryan and Walter Pittman’s theory of the origin of Noah’s flood in the Black Sea deluge was showcased, along with a video of Ballard, Ryan and Pittman discussing their ideas. As I tell my students, I don’t find this theory particularly convincing – the flood story first emerged, it seems, in southern Mesopotamia – but it is an excellent example of the hold the Bible has on the western imagination. The Black Sea did flood, shifting from fresh to salt water; that discovery is fascinating in itself. In the western world, however, it somehow just feels incomplete without giving old Noah his own Nantucket sleigh ride. To find the origin of the story of Noah, a trip to any vantage-point along the ocean where the power of the sea is evident is all that is required.

Eternal Dampnation

Does anybody have Noah’s telephone number? New Jersey has just experienced the wettest winter on record. Since the day records began, we’ve never had this much rain. That fact came home to me yesterday while driving the fifty miles to Montclair in a tremendous downpour. I had just purchased new windshield wipers, but the cap had fallen off the driver’s side blade. Driving on a truck-infested interstate where traffic continued to fly by at above posted speed limits, I realized with horror that at each passing swipe the rubber insert that actually swipes away the moisture was creeping out of the top of the wiper fixture. There it was, just at the top of my field of view, thrashing about like a demon-possessed snake, while my field of view grew smaller and smaller. I was in lane three of an eight-lane highway and couldn’t get over to make adjustments. In a nightmare I envisioned the slippery snake making a terminal bit for freedom and flying over my head as metal scraped glass and I drove blind into whatever lay ahead.

Well, the wiper stayed intact long enough to get me to the university. The rain did not abate, however. Even with battered umbrella and longsuffering raincoat, I was soaked below the knees by the time I squished into class. Unfortunately we studied the flood myth a few weeks ago. A few years back William Ryan and Walter Pitman, a couple of geologists, uncovered the fact that the Black Sea had been flooded by the Mediterranean some 7500 years ago. They posited that this sudden increase in sea-level around the Euxine Sea led to the dispersion of a world-wide flood myth. Their book became a best-seller and even Robert Ballard got in on the search for Noah’s homeland.

Hearing people talk about New Jersey’s incessant rain, I have no doubt that a major sea change was not necessary for flood stories to begin. As water levels rise, perhaps to the delight of whales and other blubber-laden beasts, the rest of us fear being perpetually covered by overwhelming waves. That is enough to start the story of a flood. Especially when your windshield wipers aren’t working on the Garden State Parkway.

Is it damnation or just New Jersey?