For us it was a moment
we didn’t know it had begun until
we were already in the middle
These lines open The Book Of Lagoons1, a work by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison in “State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. And this is how I encountered the book: situated in center of the exhibition’s first room, it was flipped casually to the middle. So to reach the beginning, I had to put on a pair of white gloves and work backward through the pages, which is analogous to what the book’s creators did:
You could as well say
that knowing the ending
we looked backward […]
I didn’t exactly know the ending. (And, frankly, I’m not sure I do now, nor am I certain there is one.) But, having scanned some pages, I had some sense of what was to come: at least, I knew it involved crabs and looked fairly science-y.
The Book of Lagoons, dated 1974-1984, is a record and itself an artwork. Through musings, recollections, rhetorical questions, diaristic entries, illustrations, diagrams, and a timeline, it tells the story of “a radioactive moment / with a ten year half-life[.]” The writing is almost entirely unpunctuated; sometimes it uses large spaces to separate clauses; at times, it breaks like poetry and is organized into blocks that resemble stanzas. As with poetry, to attempt summary is to miss the point and risks unintended ridicule. Still, here goes: In The Book of Lagoons, an experiment testing the feasibility of raising mangrove crabs in artificial tanks leads to speculation about the interconnectedness of life.
It’s a large book. Each page, a sheet of paper held inside a plastic sleeve, measures, I’d guess, something like twenty-four by eighteen inches. The sleeves are joined at the spine with linen hinges, the covers bound in the same beige cloth. It’s also a beautiful object: in reproduced gouache sketches and hand-tinted photographs, tropical blues and greens contrast with sandy yellows and browns. Handwritten, cursive text works around and through these illustrations, directing movement and varying rhythm. Despite its beauty, it’s possibly not the most approachable work. The size is a bit daunting: turning pages that large can be awkward. The script takes some getting used to. It’s also rather long, probably twenty or so pages, and dense, too. It’s a demanding work.
The tone of the writing is mostly rather dreamy, with a dream’s fickleness, too: moments of self-reflection can come across as candid, even personal, while sometimes the abstractions sound rather aloof. Ideas are often presented through dialogue—or, as The Book has it, “dialog.” Dialog is a central theme. An “I” advances a thought; a “You” responds. “Who are you” this first-person narrator asks; “A being of my own invention” is the reply.
After a page-long preamble of such pronouncements, establishing voice and form, sketching the lines of a few themes, a third person is introduced, along with an animal: “he said he knew a hardy creature a crab[.]” The “hardiness” of this particular crab derives not only from sheer toughness but also from adaptability: it can “improvise.”
This crab is found in Sri Lanka, which is where the narrators go. We are told how modernization and globalization have depressed the once-rich country and threatened its environment; through seeming non sequitur, we learn, too, of the symbolism of the Sri Lankan flag and of the ancient irrigation systems, which hydrate the land and store water. The pair (for convenience, I’m committing the undergrad English sin here and conflating the narrators and the book’s creators) talks to a fisherman, who provides basic details of the crab’s habitat’s and life: the depth of water in which the crab is found, the size of its pools, the seasons of the lagoon, its growth patterns and mating habits.
With the fisherman’s information, they plan a tank. First, though, they theorize: “the tank is part of an experiment / and / the experiment is a metaphor for a lagoon[.]” Of course, they realize the limitations of theory and metaphor. The tank is not a lagoon: it “isolates parts of a real lagoon”; it speaks, then, to “alienation,” to “violation,” “to breaking the integrity of a real system.” Still, they hope that they themselves can compensate: they can enter into and complete the system, “become part of the experiment[.]” They’re self-aware: “and we cannot represent this system / without representing ourselves[.]” Ultimately, the experiment is a metaphor for nature: “a serious metaphor”; “an arrogant metaphor”; “a useful metaphor”; “an improbable metaphor”; “a playful metaphor[.]” Only then come the practical bits and anecdotes. A shipment of crabs arrives— “those we ate were delicious / those we experimented / with were hardy[.]” The artists use hosewater to simulate a monsoon, which initiates the mating season; they submerge cinderblocks in the tank, providing cover, standing in for the roots and mud of the mangrove swamps. They tell how a large crab, whom they name “Gigantico,” comes to dominate the rest. Gigantico terrorizes the tank, first cannibalizing other crabs, then just killing them purposelessly. They pen him in a corner, restoring balance. The Book of Lagoons often proceeds in this way, alternating lofty abstractions and hard, particular details: the power and limitations of metaphors on one page, cannibalism on the next.
In their investigation, the artists emphasize the relationships between parts. They conceive of systems. Still, they seem largely unable to integrate themselves into a larger whole. Others enter the narrative at times—the man who first tells them of the crabs or the fisherman, for instance—but they consistently fail to make significant connections. They install an outdoor crab tank in the yard of a collector, a man who “dealt in commodities / mainly the future of foods,” who is “fascinated by the idea of owning a work of art that was also a work of science[.]” But disagreements soon follow, and the relationship ends: “the lagoon developed a life of / its own / about which we know / nothing at all[.]” A scientist who studies whales inquires about their work. They share their findings, but he does not reciprocate: his are confidential. An accountant expresses interest in their project and offers to help them capitalize; they don’t return his calls. A man from “Sea Grant” encourages them to firm up and restrict their study, to limit themselves to fewer variables: breed for size, say, or docility. They reject these suggestions: his “movement is too / narrow to play in[.]” These outsiders are always anonymous, identified maybe by profession, mostly just “he.” The artists do talk some shop and exchange pleasantries with a scientist who grows (I think) beets: “we were amazed at the diverse interests / of scientists,” while “he said he was amused at the exotic interests / of artists[.]” It’s likely this, the unsettled discursiveness of their project, that makes it tough for them to connect with others: their work doesn’t fit neatly into any category, whether artistic, scientific, or economic.
Still, the focus of The Book of Lagoons, the radioactive moment, continually expands. The success with the tanks leads to dreams of a “crab acre,” then of a more complex set-up, three connected tanks, arranged in tiers, each of varying depth and water movement, a polyculture system that includes clams, mussels, oyster, and “telapia,” as well as the crabs. Diagrams illustrate this system. The exchange allows for greater responsiveness and more dynamic balance. Several following pages are devoted to the modern history of the Salton Sea (also called the “Salton Sink”), its increasing levels of pollution and salinity, and to the artists’ plan to dig canals, joining “the sea that was reborn wrong” to the Pacific and to the Gulf of California, flushing the pesticides and managing water quality.2 The Pacific Ocean itself, bounded by the Ring of Fire, is seen as an immense regulatory system, in which elemental forces dramatically resolve. Finally, global warming, possibly the ultimate imbalance, prompts visions of rising sea levels.
These large scales bring to mind modernist, Utopian projects. It behooves us, I think, not to regard these efforts too cynically or smugly, as merely remote or quaint. The directionality of their thinking, centrifugal rather than centripetal, makes it stronger. The work’s variability and nuance helps it avoid other extremes of earnestness: dippy, sun-dazed mysticism on the one end, stridency on the other. Playfulness is important. In “the temple of the tooth at Kandy”:
and I asked
what exactly is in the casket
that is so marvelous
he answered why the tooth
of course and (I heard truth)
so I asked
do you ever open this casket and reveal the truth
(and he heard the tooth) and
said every ten years
The Harrisons never clean the Salton Sea. Their plan, of course, is impossible: “who will flush the ocean / who will flush the gulf[?]” But the principles gleaned from the experiments with the crab tanks hold. We are told to “pay attention,” to “changing states,” to “desire” and to “will.” The artists champion improvisation and responsiveness, dialog over monolog. The gradual, harmonious accommodation of the ancient tank system of Sri Lanka is preferable to the abrupt disruption of “high energy” developments of Western capitalism, such as the damming and redirecting of the Colorado River.
Are these conclusions too simple? I circle the question, worrying because I am sympathetic. But I believe the failings of my précis, rather than the work, require that I ask it. The Book of Lagoons is a complex, itself a sort of system, a balance of diverse forms and concerns. Existence—from the composition of the inquiring “I” and responding “You” to international socioeconomic conditions—is compromised and dependent; achieving balance can be beautiful and affecting. The artists write:
And in this new beginning
this continuously rebeginning
you will feed me
when my lands can no longer produce
and I will house you
when your lands are covered with water
we will withdraw
as the waters rise
1The title as given on the label; the title on the title page reads, The Book Of Seven Lagoons. I had to bogart the book for a good hour-and-a-half to read it through; you can click the link to view the PDFs.
2The sea is “a diseased bladder,” and the artists imagines themselves “a surgeon / inserting a catheter / and generating an artificial / urethra[.]”