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Book Review: The Fragile Edge


By Julia Whitty

Rangiroa, Funafuti, and Mo’orea are among Earth’s 330 coral atolls. From space they look like pearl necklaces whirled onto a cobalt blue sea. First formed around volcanic mountains, they became, as the great mounts wore down, chains of living coral surrounding shallow lagoons that can stretch more than 50 miles: 500-pound spotted eagle rays leap and somersault; bluefin tuna, marlin, and blackfin barracuda hunt their prey outside the thin circlet of isles, while within the glassy waters of the lagoon, rainbow-colored juvenile sea creatures swarm, flying fish glide in long, glittering flights, terns drop like arrowheads. On the windy side of an atoll, which might be as little as a football field in width and nine feet in height, 15-foot swells break in a continuous roar against a protective berm. Down from the atoll, a shelf slides thousands of feet into the utter darkness of the sea floor.

Mainland environmental issues deeply affect the much more fragile atolls: pollution, lack of fresh water, overpopulation. rising sea levels, more powerful storms. When surface-water temperatures climb or fall, polyps die and the dead reefs crumble. As hurricanes scour the atolls, people still tie themselves to coconut palms. In Whitty’s rich, humor-filled language, the creatures that live there become palpable. Fat little poi dogs learn to team up to catch fish in the lagoons, or starve. Each page is a festival of detail. “On the outer edge of Tiputa Pass, gray reef sharks … spend the daytime hours schooling. At about one hundred feet underwater, we find shoals of ten or twenty gray reef sharks drifting in close formation. At one hundred fifty feet, the shoals coalesce into squadrons. Below two hundred feet, they become curtains of shark drifting slowly in the bottleneck of the deep pass.” Whitty’s prose rivals Rachel Carson’s, or Annie Dillard’s, or Gary Snyder’s, with much of the storytelling talent of Barry Lopez. This is a blue jewel of a book, and you won’t put it down. I finished it and, sorry it was over, immediately began it again.   



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