Authors for #ClimateVisionaries project

Karen Russell on our Climate in Crisis

A Fiction for the #ClimateVisionaries Artists' Project for Greenpeace

by Karen Russell

You might never guess, watching the black ocean surging toward your house, that mathematics could so precisely describe the chaos and the darkness as a logarithm. 

Karen Russell, Author and contributor to our #ClimateVisionaries Project

Karen Russell, Author and contributor to our #ClimateVisionaries Project

The Children of La Medusa

The reef extends all the way around the island’s northern coastline, a flamboyant corset. Boned in fuchsia and scarlet and orange, heaving with living jewels. Thousands of creatures sway through its holes: blue parrotfish crunching on the flowering coral, the yellow tankards of the grouper. Up they rise, towing their goliath shadows. Nightmare faces pull into view: the eels, the barracuda. Over forty species of healthy coral grow around the island. Staghorn, boulder, mushroom, flame scallop. The reef waves its thousand arms at a green freckle of sun so distant that it must appear, to the Argus-eyed coral, as the stars appear to us.

What people think of as coral is actually the skeleton of the living animal. Coral polyps secrete calcium carbonate — a limestone glue. Each newborn generation anchors itself to a scaffolding formed by the husks of its predecessors. Over many blue aeons, this layering of life onto death has produced the world’s great reefs.

Corals, in all seas, are dying. You might have heard about this, “the bleaching event,” as if the coral reefs were being attacked by a snorkeling brigade of dental hygienists. Bleached reefs are not dead, however — they have entered limbo. A coral reef turns white because it has lost its zooxanthellae, the photosynthetic algae that nourish the corals and supply their radiant colors. Under stress, the zooxanthellae are expelled by their hosts. The souls of the corals are disembodied, adrift. The reef becomes a ghost town, with nothing for her dependents to live on.

Cuba’s reefs are still very much alive, among the world’s healthiest. Ninety miles to the north, the reef-building coral continues to sicken and die, while the Miami skyline boasts a gleaming latticework of new hotels and condominiums. In Cuba, this asymmetry is inverted. Marine biologists cheer the reefs’ prosperity, while onshore, unelectrified buildings crumble to powder, human children moan with hunger. The U.S. embargo continues to wall off the island. Cuban farms are organic by default; when the Soviet Union collapsed, farmers lost access to chemical fertilizers. There is less run off, less commercial fishing, far less stress to the coral ecosystem. Tourists gawk in disbelief, “It’s like the reef is frozen in time.” In fact, the opposite is true. Cuba’s reefs are always changing form. Warm, unstoppable currents carry coral polyps to and from the Florida Keys. Sea turtles fly right under the gaze of the U.S. Coast Guard. No plant or animal recognizes the butchershop lines we’ve drawn across the hemisphere. To the sea turtles, to the manatees, to the waving rays, to the infant coral on its exodus, one sea connects all countries indivisibly.

At 11:05 a.m. on the last night of another historically hot summer, Hurricane Abel made landfall near Playa Cierva and officially became a Category 5 monster. (A distinction that felt slightly behind the curve to those of us barricaded in our bathrooms, our candles leaking light). A great howl engulfed the city. The spira mirabilis, the “marvelous spiral,” which looks from outer space like a curled purple fetus with a single eye. You might never guess, watching the black ocean surging toward your house, that mathematics could so precisely describe the chaos and the darkness as a logarithm. 

Outside, it was an upside-down rodeo. The reef gaped up as chunks of roofing fell into the sea. The reef shook without snapping, with the indestructible elasticity of a forest in a dream. On land, of course, it was a different story. The storm took bites out of our malecon. Whole city blocks were simply gone. The leonine palms got uprooted and tossed like toothpicks. Blue lakes gaped up at the convulsing sky like great lashless eyes. Thousands lost power, and the ocean rolled from the mangroves to the cemetery.

Dawn came, and still the reef was perfectly intact, blushing with health. The morning sea was very calm. Wave after wave carried debris from the storm: bobbing sofas, toilet seats, snapped church beams. The hoods of cars bucked in the tide like prehistoric jaws. Our lives were returned to us in mosaic form, washing onto the sand, and the feeling many of us had, combing through the splinters, was identical to the disorientation of assembling fragments of a dream upon waking. Something that could never be remembered in its original form, that had to be remade.

At daybreak, the first child crawled out of the sea. A few bars of pink sunlight later, it was followed by a second. These creatures were not children any longer, but no word yet exists in our human languages for what they had become.

Corals, in all seas, are dying. But off the coast of Playa Cierva, the medusa reef continues to thrive. I know this firsthand, because I found the coral children.


Reference: What is Coral Bleaching?

As we begin this critical new year in the fight against climate change, Greenpeace is giving over space on our channels to authors and artists working within the climate crisis. Acclaimed author Lauren Groff prompted artists and thinkers to write essays and art about climate change for us, and so every day this month we’ll have a new piece from that project that addresses, in some form, what it means to create in the midst of this crisis. The forces fueling climate change have the most powerful networks in history pumping out their devastating propaganda at unimaginable scale. It’s going to take everything we have from all of us – imagination equal to the task – to create the climate we’ll need to stop the crisis.

We need these voices and these visions, but they won’t be enough. We need you, too. We encourage you to check back on the Climate Visionaries Artists’ Project every day to see what’s new, and to join the conversation by sharing your work on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and tagging it #ClimateVisionaries.


Karen Russell

By Karen Russell

Karen Russell was born and raised in Miami, Florida and now lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, son and daughter. She is the author, most recently, of Orange World and Other Stories (Knopf, 2019).

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