Pushcart 2013: Sarah Cornwell, “The Floating Life” from The Missouri Review, Spring 2011

Photo by Reef Recovery Initiative

Photo by Reef Recovery Initiative

Our situation seems to me like an ethics test question, a hypothetical dilemma. If you were stranded on a boat full of high-school students during some kind of catastrophe – say, terrorist attack, nuclear detonation, apocalypse – would you a, b, c, or d? Would that Dave could offer us multiple choice. The unlimited field of options for response feels, right now, like no options at all.

This seems to be Nature Week here on A Just Recompense – a monitor lizard, the wilderness of Idaho, and now, an elkhorn coral spawn. You might be wondering how a story could possibly revolve around an elkhorn coral spawn. Happily, the story is available online, so you can check it out.

Nolan, our narrator, is a biologist and teacher on board a sort of floating school. His evaluations of the other teachers – Dave, the history teacher with a graduate degree in Ethics, the studious Beth, who, “if she can convince kids that Latin will serve them well, she can convince them of anything,” and young Audrey, who seems to be, in his eyes, in a “stuck” phase in her life – are as revealing of him as they are of the teachers.

Captain Ho and the crew are above, engaged, I assume, in some immediately useful work. As a biologist, I can say that Captain Ho is a good example of evolved human behavior; he navigates, he adapts, he survives. His wife is the cook. He has everything he needs aboard the Demeter, our 140-foot steel-hull brigantine. We are four lesser examples, lonely men and women who for various reasons have chosen to live life afloat, teaching spoiled, wealthy children, none of whom we will know for more than one semester.

Nolan’s particular mission, in addition to teaching, is ecological: in an effort to keep the coral reef alive, he captures the spawn of the corals, delivers them to a lab where they’re nurtured and kept safe from predators and pollution until they stand a good chance of survival. It seems coral spawn with astonishing predictability, based on the phases of the moon, the time of sunset, and probably some unknown factors; scientists are indeed helping keep our reefs from dying out in the exact way described (though the timing of the spawn down to a half hour seems to be a slight exaggeration; it’s necessary for the tension of the story, which feels like cheating to me).

This is all an interesting-enough exposition, but the twist has already happened by the time the story starts: other than a weak and static-ridden radio report to keep away from port, the electromagnetic spectrum seems to have died. They aren’t sure what’s happened: war, natural disaster, alien attack. They don’t know if it’s local or global. They aren’t sure if the maroon glow at the horizon in all directions is part of whatever’s happening. They could return to port and find out, but Nolan convinces them to remain out on the water, waiting for the dive the following night at 9 pm.

In fact, the tension of the story resides in Nolan’s commitment to his dive, overshadowing all other considerations. As readers, we wonder about his priorities: the threatening situation seems to have meaning to him only in that it might affect his dive, and minutes before he hits the water, fellow teacher Dave has a panic attack. As all the adults gather to help, Dave considers:

If I were asked to choose between my reef and David, and I guess I am being asked to choose, I’d choose my reef.
So I do; I choose my reef.

We’re given some insight into his attitude when we learn about his two sons, who, in a move that was shocking to him, chose to live with his ex-wife: “Their defection is the hinge on which my life swung away from ordinary concerns. ” When a fellow teacher asks if he’s thinking about his kids, he assumes he means the students on the boat. It’s a telling moment: this man who is determined to save the next generation of corals has forgotten his own spawn. But he’s sure everyone is fine.

Here is the scene that is painted: if someone were lying bleeding to death on the deck of the boat, he would step over them on his way to his dive. So it’s not a surprise to the reader when all that changes when a life does hang in the balance. To be fair, it isn’t just the adventure he’s interested in; he’s genuinely invested in keeping the reef alive. In saving it. It fits in quite well with the growing fear that his country, the human race, the entire planet, may be, at that very moment, beyond saving.

It’s a good story; it reads well, and the end is powerful. I enjoyed it. But it’s a somewhat ordinary story in strutural and thematic terms – end-of-the-world, the grand epiphany at the end, rescue – for the Pushcart volume. I was troubled by the implausibility of the end-of-the-world situation; if I’d been in charge of that boat, I would’ve done something beyond waiting for the coral spawn. I think, though, that Cornwell made a wise choice not to go for the battling-for-control scenario; it would’ve been too Hollywood. I understand that the point is that Nolan’s enthusiasm for his project has overshadowed his common sense, and that the coral itself has returned him to sanity. I would’ve been more artistically impressed by the story had it made that point with a bit more subtlety. f

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