Magical Seashells of Fun and Horror

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San Francisco Chronicle

Magical Seashells of Fun and Horror

"A horrendous slaughter is going on out here."

Thus spake one Peter D. Ward, exasperated biologist from the University of Washington, probably not trying to be all that hyperbolic but apparently not able to help himself because Jesus H. Christ, have you not seen the state of the world these days? The oceans? Nature? Do you not know? You really should know.

"They're nearly wiped out," Ward added, not at all talking about whales, or dolphins, or bluefin tuna, or blind baby albino penguins, or anything else you might wish guess WRT to the horribly abused oceans and the ongoing devastation therein because, well, that would be a rather boring column indeed.

Ward is speaking, sadly, about the amazing chambered nautilus, that ancient, gorgeous, spiraling cephalopod of mystical wonder, the shells of which are prized the world over for their beauty and shine, splendid design and mesmerizing pearlescence, so much so that the astonishing creature is now apparently being harvested, hacked, earringed, necklaced and paper-weighted into near extinction. Isn't that grand?

Did you know? Have you already added "chambered nautilus slaughter" to your ever-growing list of bewildering atrocities unleashed by the human race upon this tiny blue dot we call home, about which you can do almost nothing and therefore have almost zero mental or emotional space to fully integrate without, say, imploding?

Do you even have such a list? I bet you do. I bet it's buried somewhere deep in your subconscious and you don't wish to take it out all that often because really, who wants to feel that sinking, helpless feeling all the damn time? Who wants to see the world as an endless parade of ugly abuses and degradation? What are you, a masochist?

I know how it is. If your list is anything like mine, it includes roughly 5,000 things much along the lines of the nautilus massacre, things you can only look at in sidelong, slightly nauseated awe, recognizing how powerless you are to do anything about it except sigh or scream and wonder at the fate of the human species.

How do you parse and absorb? What is your dance? Do you say, "Move over pollution, genocide, water shortages, Tea Party ignorance, that strange growth on my knee, for here is yet another environmental tragedy wrought by a weird cultural conflation of beauty and art and poverty (poor fisherman in the Philippines harvest the nautilus without restraint or legal limit), one of those odd mash-ups of socioeconomic forces that no one could have predicted 50 years ago"?

Do you ignore it completely, jam your fingers in your ears and hum a cute Disney tune? Do you say nothing at all as you shop for nautilus shell doorstops on eBay?

Or do you partake in the exact flipside, overfeeling it all to the point of road rage and manic depression and seething misanthropy like a drug? That's the easy way, really.

I know how it is. You take this stuff in all day, you allow in only death, exploitation and the abject grossness of the human experiment in to your consciousness, you can begin to suffer what's called disaster fatigue, or perhaps devastation fatigue, or abuse fatigue, hereby defined as the overwhelming feeling that all is deeply lost and everything is rape and pillage and oh my God please not another documentary about the horrors of industrial pig farming in the American "heartland." I just can't take it.

But then again, if you don't take it in, if you ignore, reject and hate on the media for exposing you to so much cruelty, if you aren't fully engaging in the world around you, well, you merely stumble around in a detached stupor, a numb kind of willful ignorance that serves exactly no one. And who wants that?

Because you know what happens then? Someone mentions something about the devastation in Turkey, the death of Gaddafi or maybe Obama's new mortgage plan, and you get that blank look in your eyes, scared and lost and adrift as you can only retreat to the corner of the intellectual party and nurse your watery cocktail of abject disgruntlement. Fun for you!

So what do you do? Here is what you do. You observe and you engage, you read and you partake, you march and you Occupy and you feel it all, way down deep.

You get in there and participate the hell out of the messyglorious world because you are, after all, bound to it, part of it, one of a billion nautilus shells floating in the great slipstream. It's like we say in yoga philosophy: What, you think you're special? You are not special. You are merely God. Then again, so is everyone else.

But at the same time, you maybe realize one mandatory, life-saving, overarching idea: the karma of the world is not yours to take on. This is what the wise ones say: Care about your issues, change what you can in your own world, love the hell out of everyone around you like a dog loves peanut butter, but realize the collective burdens of the planet will crush you dead in an instant if you try shoulder them all.

So here is my humble advice in this nautilus-deprived world: Do not be one of those people. Do not succumb to the boring hellpit of teeming misery. It's just too easy. Care deeply, love messily, handle your own karma like an awestruck child handles a pile of wet clay. As the mystics remind us again and again, it's the only thing that ever seems to work.

Mark Morford

Mark Morford's new book, 'The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism,' is now available at daringspectacle.com, Amazon, BN.com, and beyond. Join Mark on Facebook and Twitter, or email him. His website is markmorford.com. Mark's column appears every Wednesday on SFGate.

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