Reposted from ORION MAGAZINE

I SEE HIM CLOAKED in cold mist, the Fisher King, a desolate figure in a wasteland of his own making. He hunches silently over his fishing rod in a sea of silence, catching nothing except the reflection of his own shroud in the dead water.

The Fisher King, keeper of the Holy Grail, is an enigmatic figure in literature: a rich king wounded by his own spear. The earliest sources show him suffering a moral wounding—a result not of accident but of his own ethical failings. The wound does not heal. Worse, its effects creep out, killing everything around him so the abundance and richness of life is reduced to barren waste.

There is a moment in the story when the wound—of both the king and his environment—could be healed, not by medicine or technology but by insight. When the young knight Perceval arrives, he has the opportunity (which he misses) to pose the right question to the king. The healing question, the timely question, is this: whom does the Grail serve? The Grail is the cup of the Last Supper, a precious, magical food provider, and Perceval’s question is as mysterious as the wounded king’s moral failure.

The Fisher King is emblematic of contemporary culture. For millennia the oceans have thrived with stupendous life, from fish in kinetic rainbows racing currents to coral cascading color. Yet human activity over the last thirty years has poisoned the oceans and exhausted the seas, turning this blue world into a dead sump of denied life.

Humanity has manufactured “a marine wasteland,” writes Professor of Marine Conservation Callum Roberts in his vitally important book Ocean of Life. The factors are multiple: dredgers carve graveyards in seabeds; plastic waste and chemical pollution kill marine creatures; fertilizers fuel plankton blooms resulting in oxygenless dead zones; the rising temperatures of climate change threaten much sea life—coral bleaching to skeletons—while the associated rise in acidity causes the shells of many creatures to corrode.

The sixth mass extinction, some call it. The first to be knowingly caused. Two-thirds of the species we have fished since the 1950s have collapsed. Some species are down 99 percent. The oceans, says Roberts, have changed more in the last thirty years than in all of human history before. The sea is suffering a sea change into something bleak and strange.

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