Life is precarious at the edge

By Briony Penn, January 2011

The vicissitudes of life in the intertidal zone mirror that of today’s middle class.

A new term has been coined to describe the disintegrating middle class of the western world—the precariat—who live a precarious and frantic existence of juggling jobs, families, mortgages and civic duties within a crumbling social and environmental net. 

The British economist Guy Standing, who coined the term, suggests that half the British population—shortly to swell ever larger as another 300,000 civil servants are dismissed by the Cameron regime—would describe themselves as members of this class. 

Once the enviable solid backbone of a society and now an increasingly insecure and anxious group, they/we aren’t to be confused with the other half of the population: the desperately poor or proletariat, whose lives have always been precarious, or the wealthy elite who are frantically trying to keep the precariat under control. Here in Victoria, the precariat is predicted to be growing daily as jobs, institutions and civil services disappear and people wake up and wonder what happened to that orderly life that they had expected to last a lifetime, and in fact felt entitled to. Welcome, all, to the precariat.

One thing that British economists don’t realize is that even here on this far-flung, last-bastion of their old empire, where the edge of the continent is constantly being ploughed into by waves, and oceanic plates pile up logs and islands on the shores like conveyor belts pile up luggage—we are well-acquainted with the precariat through nature. Anyone familiar with the intertidal zone will be used to this world of uncertainty and changing conditions. In fact, that is all there is—periods of overexposure alternating with periods of inundation, constant lashings from waves and storms, changing salinity, fluctuating temperatures, changing water levels, vicious competition for real estate, predation, parasitism and forced marches from one pool to the next. 

No one is more familiar with the precariat of tidepools than Fu-Shiang Chia, now living on Saltspring Island, but for decades one of the world’s renowned marine biologists and a frequent researcher at Bamfield and Friday Harbour marine stations. Fu-Shiang, considered by his many colleagues as the world’s foremost expert on sex in the intertidal zone, is a student of the planktonic larvae phase of marine invertebrates, but the breadth of his other interests spans cultures, generations and disciplines. 

Fu-Shiang started out life in Japanese-occupied China, the grandson of a judge and feng-shui master in the 30s. During the turbulence of the Great Leap Forward, he wandered as a nomad, before getting smuggled into Taiwan in 1949 under the guise of a soldier. After being imprisoned briefly for allegations of being a communist spy, he left to do a graduate degree at the University of Washington, while China was moving towards the Cultural Revolution. 

Fu-Shiang’s subsequent academic career spanned seven universities in six countries, ending up at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology where he taught the East’s first biodiversity course before retiring here and throwing himself full-tilt into his other great passion: Poetry, specifically the work of the great lyrical Confucian poets of China from 3,000 years ago. His latest books include a trilingual translation of the Shi Jing poets and another featuring his own prose and poetry in the tradition of the Shi Jing poets. He has an eye for diversity in life forms and cultures and a heart for the precarious edge of continents and tidepools. If this isn’t a man experienced in the precariat then who is?

Recently, I accompanied Fu-Shiang and his wife Sharon, an artist, to a book signing in Friday Harbour. We stayed at the field station and wandered around the intertidal pools of San Juan Island, as well as the lab tanks of students’ specimens, one of which was the six-armed sea star Leptasterias hexactis. Fu-Shiang wrote his dissertation on these unique sea stars that brood their eggs and protect them until they hatch—a metaphor not lost on his large and well-nurtured brood of graduate students over the years. The event was attended by a loving circle of colleagues and students and there we were treated to a story of the vicissitudes of life—both as Fu-Shiang and as sea star. 

The primary lesson of their stories was that the style of spawning behaviour and reproductive success of both is related to the precariousness of their existence. This helps explain Fu-Shiang’s lifelong interest in a poetic tradition which meshes with his scientific enquiry. According to an early Confucian teacher, Rien Ju, the Shi Jing provides students with training in three main areas: thinking and observing in nature; respect for generations; and learning the names of our plants and animals. As Fu-Shiang observes, “there is no art that can be divorced from the natural world. We need biodiversity. Nature’s creatures are necessary for human survival as well as our soul—as they are the soul of Shi Jing and the blood of 3000 years of literature.”

So precariat, let me take you back 3000 years to another difficult time. Then walk into the natural world and draw some sustenance in this new year. 

 

Owl, owl you have taken my children;

Do not destroy my house.

So long have I laboured, to raise a family.

 

Before it is dark and raining,

I must gather mulberry bark to repair the windows and doors

“People down there, don’t you dare bully me!”

 

My hands are worn to the bone,

Collecting rush flowers for the building.

My mouth is bloody and sore. Yet my house is unfinished.

 

My wing feathers have lost their hue:

My tail is plucked of plumes.

My house shakes in the wind and rain.

Terrified, scared, am I crying in vain.

 

Fu-Shiang Chia’s books include: Returning Poetry to the Shi Jing's Poets: Chinese English Bilingual Essays and Poets, 2010, Bookman Books and Airs of the States from the Shi Jing: A New Trilingual Translation of the World's Oldest Collection of Lyric Poetry, translated by Fu-Shiang Chia, 2008, Bookman Books.

Briony Penn, PhD is a naturalist, journalist, artist and award-winning environmental educator. She is the author of The Kids Book of Geography (Kids Can Press) and a A Year on the Wild Side.