Even the smallest things may burst with light a hundred times larger than themselves.
Bioluminescence, literally “living light,” occurs in dozens of species of animals and plants, from mushrooms and centipedes to marine mollusks and microorganisms. Most people have seen fireflies and the cool light fanning from an extraordinary chemical convergence that causes the “fire” in the belly of the insect. But the effect is most astonishing in parts of the ocean where bioluminescent dinoflagellates flourish. These single-celled organisms, part photosynthetic plant, part feeding animal, move to a circadian rhythm that allows them to be one creature by day and another by night.
Early seamen thought the shining waters were the result of human spirits trapped in Purgatory and avoided these places. During a voyage to Siam in 1688, the French Jesuit missionary, Pere Guy Tachard, wrote in his journal: “We attribute the cause to the heat of the sun, which has, as it were, impregnated and filled the sea during the day with an infinity of fiery and
luminous spirits. These spirits, after dark, reunite to pass out in a violent state…” In 1753 the English naturalist Henry Baker, known for his work with the microscope, gave the first scientific explanation as “Animalcules which cause the sparkling light in seawater.” But it wasn’t until 1834 that the eminent German protozoologist, Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg, would isolate the organisms—already known as dinoflagellates or “dinos” for their locomotive “whirling whips”—and stimulate them to emit light.
More than eighteen genera of dinos are bioluminescent, and most of them emit light in wavelengths that transmit best in seawater. When roused—by boat, wave action, swimming, or even walking along a beach where they’ve washed ashore—the organisms shine with cool blue light.
Bioluminescent dinos live all over the world in the temperate and tropical oceans. But bioluminescent ecosystems, where high concentrations of the protists (700,000 per gallon of seawater) congregate, are among the rarest and most fragile on the planet. It isn’t easy to be light. The slightest imbalance can upset the ecosystem—from heavy rainfall and sediment-laden floodwaters to motorboat pollution and even the DEET-spayed skin of swimmers. Three of these “permanent bio bays” are found in Puerto Rico where red mangroves enclose and protect shallow lagoons and bays that have only a narrow access to the ocean. The trees release nutrients including tannins rich in vitamin B-12 while their roots filter the seawater during tidal flushing to help moderate a perfect temperature, pH and salinity—all essential for creating a year-round natural lightshow that’s best seen on moonless nights.
Here, in Vieques, La Parguera, and Farardo, Puerto Rico, microscopic dinoflagellates (Pyrodinium bahamense) as old as the dinosaurs swarm beneath dark skies, mimicking starlight, setting a world aglow.
I came to Puerto Rico to join more than a hundred George Soros Fellows and Open Society Foundations staff for an annual conference. In 2007, I had won a Soros Justice Fellowship for a book about my twelve years in prison called Time of Grace: Thoughts on Nature, Family, and the Politics of Crime and Punishment. It was my third written from prison. When my first book, Wilderness and Razor Wire: A Naturalist’s Observations from Prison, won the John Burroughs Medal shortly after my release, the honor placed me in the company of nature writers like Rachael Carson, Aldo Leopold, Barry Lopez, and David Quammen. But it was the Soros people who recognized that I was writing about more than poppies and peppergrass. That my work was also a probing exploration of the nature of punishment, particularly of sex offenders. George Soros recognized me as a nature writer and as a writer of human nature.
In 1993, to help countries make the transition from communism, the philanthropist founded what was then called the Open Society Institute. It was personal. Dealing with memories of anti-Semitism in Nazi-occupied Hungary—he was born in Budapest in 1930—he struggled for decades with an idea that people can only flourish when they govern themselves within a system that allows for freedom of expression and respect for individual rights. To this end, he turned his financial successes into a humanitarian mission, fanning the flame of democracy on a planetary scale: He gave scholarships to black students at the University of Cape Town in apartheid South Africa. He started an education and culture foundation in Hungary. He supported dissident movements in Eastern Europe’s other communist countries. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he expanded his funding to help establish more open societies all over Central Europe. Since then, Soros has created a network of foundations to promote open democracies in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, spending more than $8 billion on human rights, public health, and education in more than a hundred countries, including, yes, even the United States.
The Soros Justice Fellowships is only part of the Open Society Foundation’s U.S Programs, one that supports the work of “outstanding established and emerging leaders”—including scholars, educators, attorneys, activists and community organizers, filmmakers, journalists, and writers (even nature writers like me). These people are fighting, among other issues, increasingly punitive laws and policies that target the most vulnerable among us—people of color, poor people, and immigrants—and lead to swelling prisons. At a grassroots level, they are working against a system that aims to tear down our society. They are illuminating injustice.
These leaders include people like Gregory Hooks, a sociology professor at Washington State University, who is challenging the purported benefits of private prisons and immigration detention facilities for local communities; and Norris Henderson, wrongfully imprisoned for twenty-seven years, who is reforming the notorious Orleans Parish Prison; and JoAnn Mar, a journalist who produces radio documentaries for National Public Radio on such topics as the plight of immigrants and prison overcrowding; and Ana Muniz, a community organizer with a PhD in sociology from UCLA, who’s
questioning the growing use of gang injunctions in LA county; and Nicole Pittman, a Duke University and Tulane Law School graduate, who’s writing about the impact of sex offender registries on children in the juvenile justice system. Gathering in Puerto Rico is the light from a hundred fellows.
Stub-tailed, warbler-like bananaquits flit among the coconut palms by day while coqui frogs announce their romantic intentions by night. The call of the endemic coqui frog, a twotoned chirp that is first a warning to other males and secondly an invitation to nearby females, is the quintessential sound of Puerto Rico. Poets write coplas about the coqui; parranderos sing
aguinaldos about them.
On the second night of the conference, to the sound of coqui frogs outside of San Juan’s Marriott Hotel, twenty-seven fellows gather for a tour of one of Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays, a two-hour kayaking trip through the red mangroves to a saltwater lagoon near Fajardo in the northeast corner of the island. “Just a reminder that this is not a Soros-approved activity,” Adam Culbreath, Program Officer for the Soros Justice Fellowships, had advised us. On the hour-long bus ride from San Juan, AcuAdventure’s naturalists, Robert and Deaza, fill us in on what to expect.
“Sharks, yes, I won’t lie to you,” Deaza says. “This is the ocean and there are sharks. And dengue fever. Put on lots of mosquito repellant.”
“Deaza had dengue fever once,” Robert adds.
“Yes, very painful. I call it the bone-crusher disease.”
Then she gives us the natural history, the bioluminescence process of the dinoflagellates (dino flatulence?), the uniqueness of the bio bays, other animals we might encounter like the green iguanas, coqui frogs, fruit bats,
and fishing bats the size of the New York Times, Sunday Edition. “Their sonar can detect a human hair floating on the water. They won’t be feeding on you.”
“What about crocodiles?” someone asks.
“We don’t have crocodiles, only caimans,” Deaza reassures us, but somehow I don’t find kayaking with the sixfoot cousin of the crocodile very comforting.
“What about the chupacabra?” someone else asks.
“Ah, the chupacabra!” Robert steps in. Chu-pa-ca-bra! The goatsucker! We’re driving through the town where the first chupacabra was seen, right here in Puerto Rico.”
I recall the story, how early in 1995 locals began reporting farm animals being drained of blood through small puncture wounds, the bite from some unseen creature. Then, in September of that year, a housewife in Canovanas named Madelyn Tolentino saw something that walked upright, stood about four feet high, and had large, dark eyes that wrapped around its temples. It had no ears and two small holes for a nose. Its thin arms had three fingers on each hand, and spikes ran down its back. Madeline’s description is still the best chupacabra sighting in history.
Robert proceeds to describe the blood-sucking, shapeshifting creature, now rooted in the folklore of all of Latin America as if people somehow need monsters in their lives. “Many people believe the chupacabra to be of extraterrestrial origin or a secret US government genetics experiment in the rainforests of Puerto Rico. Maybe both.
“Okay,” Robert asks finally. “How many of you have kayaking experience?”
A few hands go up.
I look at my kayaking partner. We’re in trouble, I think.
“You should know that I can’t swim, either,” Sujatha Baliga tells me. “I wasn’t going to come unless you agreed to go with me.”
We leave the smell of rotting sea grass, sweet and sulfurous like spoiled bananas, at the water’s edge. My clothes sag in the warm, damp air. Sujatha sits in the bow like she owns it, and I match the rhythm of her strokes. She leads, calling out “Right side, left side, right, right, left.” The night is moonless. All I can see is her back and the white of her paddle blades as they windmill in front of me. She follows the red taillight of the lead kayak. Others single-file behind us, silently moving over a shallow inlet the temperature of bathwater.
We had met in San Francisco four years earlier at a previous conference. She had recently become director of the Restorative Justice Project at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in Oakland where she helps communities with alternatives to traditional school discipline and juvenile
detention. Influenced by Tibetan ideals of justice—she’s of Hindu descent—and her own experiences as a survivor of child sexual abuse, she is equally dedicated to both victims and offenders. Her work brings light to another kind of justice, one that rejects the idea of zero tolerance and that punishment for crime is the only answer. It is the kind of justice that moves
people on both sides of seemingly unforgiveable acts toward healing, toward possibility.
I’ve sat in one her “circles” where she facilitates a face to face with offenders and victims, parents and police, district attorneys—all working together to identify ways to deal with wrongdoing, specifically, holding offenders accountable while supporting them in rejoining their communities and families. But what astounds me most about Sujatha is how she’s come to this place, having suffered a childhood of sexual abuse by her father.
“He died when I was sixteen,” she told me at that conference in San Francisco. “I hid my self-hatred and rage by overachieving. I volunteered at battered women’s shelters, worked with lepers with Mother Teresa, prostitutes with HIV and their children in Bombay. I went to Harvard law school so I could put people like my father behind bars—but nothing helped. I had migraines and stomach pain, but doctors could find nothing
Soros fellows crowded the restaurant and she had to shout into my ear. She knew my story and wanted to tell me hers. She went on to say how in desperation to find a cure for herself she took a solo backpacking trip into the Himalayas and landed in Upper Dharamsala, an Indian village of Tibetan exiles, where the locals befriended her. Hearing about their horrific
abuses at the hands of the Chinese, and seeing the peace in their lives, she asked how they could deal with it. “We practice forgiveness,” they told her, and urged her to see the Dalai Lama.
“I thought he would be too busy,” Sujatha explained. “But eventually I wrote a note to him on a piece of paper and dropped it at the front gate to his compound. It said: Anger is killing me but it motivates my work. How do you work on behalf of abused and oppressed people without anger as the motivating force? They told me to come back in a week for an answer.”
When she returned she learned that the Dalai Lama was moved by her question and wanted to discuss it in person. She was escorted to his office where she spent an hour talking with him about her father. After listening to her, the Dalai Lama then asked a question: “Do you feel you have been angry long enough?”
“Yes,” Sujatha said, surprised by the question.
“Then you must open your heart to your enemies.”
Sujatha laughed in response. No, she was going to become a prosecutor and put them behind bars.
The Dalai Lama patted her knee and said, “Okay, then meditate.”
Sujatha returned to the United States and enrolled in a rigorous ten-day silent Vipassana meditation course for purging the mind and heart. On the ninth day during meditation, she had a vision of her father walking toward her, but instead of her usual emotional reaction, she felt her powerlessness and hatred dissolve as the image of her father became light. Her physical symptoms were gone.
A few weeks later, back to law school, she decided tobecome a public defender and today represents people accused of sex crimes and murder, becoming not only their advocate but also their friend.
“I couldn’t believe it when I read about you,” she told me in that noisy restaurant. “It’s like what the Dalai Lama said to me. Like he knew I would meet you.”
Sujatha’s mosquito repellant burns my skin. The narrow channel she chooses through the mangroves twists and turns and constricts. Hanging branches suddenly slide into my face and I must bend over backward to avoid them. Several times, with Sujatha shouting directions, we have to extract ourselves from the trees before we can continue.
And then her paddle leans into light, scattering fish
beneath us like shooting stars. I forget the sweat, the sickly
smell, the cramping in my legs. What she touches blooms.
Some scientists believe dinos use bioluminescence as a defense. By flashing light they may startle predators, or conversely they might use bioluminescence to draw attention to themselves and thereby their predators. There’s nothing like the vulnerable feeling you get trying to hide in some dark recess after filling your belly with a blinking neon sign.
But others suggest that bioluminescence is a form of communication. “It may be the earliest form of language to evolve on the planet,” Robert had told us.
I start thinking about fireflies again, how their yellow flashes appear random at first, then become couplets and triplets, synchronizing until all the insects are blinking as one. I imagine something similar here, as if these miniscule bits of life were saying, “It’s dark in the world. But you can come and join us…”
In front of me, I watch Sujatha’s clear outline against the dark. It’s midnight, her birthday. She follows a single light, calling out directions behind her with a confidence I don’t share, seeing a world I can’t quite make out. And then the air grows cool against my skin and the darkness peels open. It feels like redemption—fresh, new, something undeserved. We enter the lagoon like a slow comet, trailing light from our bow wake, from our paddles, from where I dip my fingers.
I raise my hand and stars trickle down my arm to the elbow, falling back into a blackness whirling with galaxies.