we are the coral reefs

My first true love was not fungi.


When I was a young child, I was in love with the ocean. I wanted to be a marine biologist when I got older. I dreamed of swimming with sharks, one of my favorite animals at the time, and I read whatever I could get my hands on about Jacques Costeau. I learned that ‘scuba’ was an acronym for ‘self-contained underwater breathing apparatus’, and I was amazed that someone created a way to be in the magical ocean, much longer than the normal human lung capacity allowed.


I was in elementary school, under the age of ten, and my ocean daydreams were a survival mechanism to navigate childhood trauma. I fell in love with the Great Barrier Reef, and I vowed that one day I would see it with my own eyes, underwater while scuba-diving.


Time is non-linear, and sometimes we discover things at a time in our life as a means of survival. When I first discovered the mysteries of the ocean, I was in survival from my own personal grief as a child. When life reintroduced me back to this love of the ocean, I was focused on the survival of communities that carried collective grief. 


Somehow, the universe reminded me time is non-linear, and we are always grieving. In the last decade of my life, I became so intrigued by symbiotic relationships that I created a whole college major focused on studying some of the most symbiotic relationships: fungi.


But this is not a love story about fungi and their ancient knowledge of symbiotic relationships. This is a story about grief for coral and the loss of their symbiotic relationships.


A brief science lesson:

Coral reefs are marine communities comprised of large groupings of coral, which fall under the Animal Kingdom. Amazingly enough, coral is a living animal closely related to jellyfish and sea anemones, and coral is held together by calcium carbonate. Housed inside of the coral’s tissues are organisms called dinoflagellates, which fall under the Plant Kingdom. Dinoflagellates are a form of algae, and they are photosynthetic in nature, which means they produce their own nutrient source from sunlight. These two creatures live in harmony, and they have for thousands of years. The dinoflagellates produce food for the coral, and in return, the coral protects these ancient forms of algae with the coral’s tough exterior. 


It is a perfect relationship, which showcases mutualism. Mutualism is described as a beneficial relationship between two parts, with an exchange that supports both parts.


So how does this relate to grief? Two words: coral bleaching.


Coral bleaching is a catastrophic consequence of the climate crisis. Coral bleaching occurs because the coral rejects and ejects the dinoflagellates from their inner tissue. Without the dinoflagellates providing food, the coral loses its ‘color’ while dying, effectively creating the appearance of bleaching.


The reason for rejection and ejection is simple: the warming temperatures of the ocean make the dinoflagellates too over-productive with their photosynthetic mechanism. The dinoflagellates, unable to regulate their photosynthetic mechanism, overproduce nutrients, which effectively turns their symbiotic relationship into a toxic and poisonous relationship. The coral, completely aware of the mal-functioning mechanism of the dinoflagellates, rejects and ejects these ancient algae as an acute means to save themselves. 


This momentary decision to save themselves in the short term ends up being the demise of the coral in the long run. 


The marine environment of the coral becomes so toxic by slowly increasing water temperatures that the life-sustaining symbiotic relationship with their algal part also becomes toxic and poisonous. It is an ecological mass “death by suicide” for these marine creatures.


Have you ever considered the grief that coral experience when they are forced to make this choice?


When I address them as coral reefs, whole marine communities of coral, have you ever considered the collective grief that the reefs are experiencing?


In a single moment of environmental pressure from the toxic climate crisis, coral is dying because they have no other choice.


The ecological trauma and subsequent collective grief from losing symbiotic relationships in nature are the warnings from the natural world that we are not heeding because we carry an apex species ego. We think we know better than to let that same death happen to us. The reality is - these dying creatures are our ancestors. If you trace back the phylogenetic tree, humans are in the same kingdom as coral.


So how does this connect to trauma? We are all experiencing global trauma from the growing climate crisis. This trauma over time is transmuted into a bed of grief, in which we lead our lives. That grief is a loss of relationships, livelihood, spaces, breathable air, resources, food, and the basic notion that we will even survive.  


Humans depend on relationships for survival. We depend on each other for connection, support, and the ability to make meaning of our lives. We are a  giant planet of human-human symbiotic relationships, and we barely acknowledge the beautiful fact that we learned that from our plant and fungal ancestors. 


At this point, I am sure you are wondering if this has a happy ending.


No. Sadly, I do not believe there is a happy ending. I do believe there is a hopeful transition though. Transitions can be very painful, though.


Let’s go back to the death of coral. In order to survive the climate crisis, collective grief, and the global trauma infiltrating our lives, we have to think outside of the normal paradigm of how ‘time heals’.


Remember time is non-linear.

This means we are bound to the self-imposed boundaries of time, only if we chose to be bound to them. We can choose another way.


An incredible coral biologist named Dr. Ruth Gates was working on a process called ‘coral-assisted evolution’. This innovative process was not addressing the climate crisis from the outside-inside but through the inside-outside. She was interested in the micro-solutions, through supporting natural symbiotic relationships, and not the macro-solutions, that focus on global environmental changes. Gates was focused on strengthening new types of symbiotic relationships between coral and dinoflagellates, so their new evolutionary status could survive the changing toxic marine environments of the inevitable climate crisis. 


This is a brilliant and innovative way to address our growing collective grief from any kind of institutional trauma. Scientifically, it expands on the non-linear state of time as a means of long-term survival.


The crux of the idea is this: humans are symbiotic creatures forming mutualistic relationships with other humans. When the environment becomes toxic from global trauma, our symbiotic relationships also begin to malfunction because toxic and traumatic pressure from our environments causes the humans involved in the symbiosis to change their behavior. Access needs change in these relationships, and suddenly, the previous iteration of mutualistic support does not work anymore. Instead of evolving the symbiotic relationship to work better on a mico-level, humans make the same acute survival mechanism to sever the symbiotic relationship, often focusing blame on the changing environment. 


The changing environment is the macro-problem, formed by systemic frameworks of oppression, violence, and fear. I am not suggesting that we stop trying to find macro-solutions for their large-scale issues, but I am witnessing, through the story that coral tells, that we also need to focus on the micro-solutions to our symbiotic relationships as a means to survive the long-term. We are all in survival mode from trauma, and it is showing up in many forms for all of us.


This is not just about ecological trauma. This is also about institutional trauma, from colonization, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, misogyny, and the prison/military/pharmaceutical/psychiatric/medical-industrial complex. 


This addresses all aspects of collective grief, experienced by so many people, and we all feel this. This trauma cuts into our souls and our genetics are modified by these experiences. Our bodies are built from grief, and we have lost our ability to see the loss of our symbiotic relationships. We cannot even see the fact that we are not working from community levels because we are in acute survival mode to save ourselves from the growing pressure of a toxic external environment. 


The scientific revelation that Dr. Gates inspired the world to consider was so simple: we only have limited resources, and the macro-problem is getting stronger. So we have to fight like hell for our micro-solutions, to save our symbiotic human relationships, despite all that is happening around us. She showed us this with coral, and the simple beauty of it is just simply beautiful.


Our society needs its own form of assisted evolution to match the growing demands of what this world is doing to us.


Tragically, Dr. Ruth Gates left this world suddenly from brain cancer last year. I never met her, but I recently met a person that worked closely with her. He was grieving her loss, and I realized that we isolate our grief as a means to protect others from its energetic changes. Grief changes us. 


He was alone in his grief, and I realized suddenly he wasn’t alone. Our grief is a collective loss, and in this case, his grief was part of the collective grief. His grief was personal, a non-linear ancestral dance heavy with intensity. When we carry the collective grief together in community, our personal grief becomes less heavy but not any less intense. 


When our grief is held in the collective, supported by the community, our process of healing aligns with the non-linear nature of time. It is part of our connection to our ancestors that reminds us we are never truly alone.


We all have ancestors. We generally think about our ancestors as a direct lineage from our family of origin. Thankfully our ancestry does not end there. We all have cultural ancestors, connecting our lineages to community members who came before us, often using their lives to create space for our survival. This connection to cultural ancestors is deeply viewed in communities of marginalization including the Two-Spirit/LGBQTIA+ community, the disabled community, and POC/BIPOC communities. We are surviving in these communities because our cultural ancestors fought for us.


In a world where science is considered radical and the spirit in science is often neglected, ignored, and devalued, communities of scientists are cultures that do contain their own ancestry. I consider Dr. Ruth Gates my cultural science ancestor, even though I am not a coral biologist. I am, however, changed as a scientist because of the work she did in this world, and I get to explore community healing from collective grief as a synthesis of her scientific career. Science has always been a means to understand the natural world but unless we are willing to learn from the magic of the natural environment, student to teacher, knowing fully that the natural world has a spirit just like our human soul, we will never survive the most terrifying future that is knocking at our door.


This scientific ancestral connection has challenged me to think about the changing needs of community care models that we are building in these increasingly traumatic and toxic environments. Our resources are limited, and our survival needs to be a compassionate and innovative long-term solution, not an acute survival mechanism based on another trauma response.


The coral is telling us to save our precious relationships, in a radical adaption and evolution of survival, because the world is killing us through the strength of our connections and our communities.


So maybe it’s time for my adult self to keep that promise from decades ago, to see the Great Barrier Reef, to learn how to scuba dive, and to finally swim with the sharks. I think it’s time to visit my marine ancestors and give them the praise they deserve, while they are still alive.


Even though I would be showing up as an adult, I would be bringing my child self with me because non-linear time heals us. I learned that from nature.


The message from the coral reefs is clear: we are them. 

We must change our relationships with each other. 

Our lives depend on it.