The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus

Only the applied scientist sets out to find a "useful" pot of gold. The pure scientist sets out to find nothing. Anything. Everything. The applied scientist is a prospector. The pure scientist is an explorer.

- Jacques Cousteau, The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus

Jellyfish at the New England Aquarium, from my visit there this summerIn his last book, which I am currently making my way through, Cousteau draws you in with tales of his adventures, inventions, missions and discoveries. He's charming and astonishing in his constant daring and in his honesty.

Then comes the sucker punch. This book lays bare the current realities not just of our oceans but of the political state of our nuclear world. It's never been so nakedly laid out before me.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I began reading it. Fueling my Ocean project, I was hoping for a scientific, modern counterweight to Jules Verne's quasi-scientific but fanciful 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which I had recently finished.

I got that and then some. Past the stories of wartime derring-do, ever deeper dives, and constant inventions, from the Aqualung to the highly maneuverable diving saucer to the underwater habitat, the reader is confronted with the follies of a world unable to see past its own nose to save itself. All those realities we're aware of but don't like to think about are set out with remarkable control that only heightens one's sense of Cousteau's outrage.

From chasing the last whales (Japan) to injecting raw nuclear waste into the ground near two rivers (the former USSR) to legislating away precious time on greenhouse gas treaties (the United States), our most astounding feats of destruction, shortsightedness and rationalization are spelled out in fluid, enjoyable prose.

It's an unsparing read, but Cousteau, with his collaborator, Susan Schiefelbein, writes smoothly and simply, with a refreshingly long view of the state of the earth and beneath it all, a profound humanism. As a result, I come away from each chapter with a better understanding of and appreciation for the uniqueness and fragility of our planet as an oasis in the universe than I think I've ever had.

Everything ultimately affects my thinking in the studio. I am inspired by Cousteau's energy and by his manic desire to go look, to find out, to risk, to try. When he finds something, I cheer and am cheered. This, to me, is the spirit of not just scientific exploration but artistic exploration. What is the studio for if not to go look, to find out, to risk and to try?

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Review by Lene Anderson

The Human, the Orchid and the Octopus on Amazon