An article in the September 1, 2011, issue of Nature presents a ray of hope for the once and (perhaps) future toilers off the Atlantic coast. The fish that had once been thick in the depths of the ocean, notably cod and haddock, had been thinned out by overfishing, and a moratorium on their fishing had been imposed, but in the intervening two decades the balance had not been restored – the marine life forms that had flourished had been those that foraged higher in the water. The situation has seemed tragic, a plague, figuratively as well as literally abysmal, producing much unhappiness for many people; the losers have been those that feed at the bottom of the sea as well as those who feed on those that feed there. But surveys of the life forms under the sea (in particular on the Scotian Shelf) have shown indications of a return to the earlier balance: a decrease and stabilization of pelagic forage fish numbers, a normalization of plankton biomass, and the beginnings of an increase in large-bodied benthic predators – i.e., cod and haddock. In short, a period of misery and disappointment may yet turn out to have been the key to the best result for all concerned.
Pelagic? Benthic? These are two general levels of aquatic life. Pelagic (from Greek πέλαγος pelagos, “sea”) refers to the water of the open sea (or ocean, or a body of freshwater) that doesn’t touch any land – not even the bottom. The zone at and near the bottom of the sea (lake, river, etc.) is the benthic zone, and its inhabitants are called the benthos (from Greek βένθος benthos, “depth of the sea”). The bottom of the sea, of course, extends right up to where the water stops, at which point it becomes beach (or shore, anyway); as you might expect, the things that live on the floor near the shore are not those that live in the deepest depths. A broad division may be made between the littoral benthos, near the shore, and the abyssal benthos, down in the depths.
Benthic starts with a blunt /b/, belligerent or beautiful but at any rate bursting forth with voice in the breath; after a mid-low front vowel, it then softens into a nasal and further into a voiceless fricative, soft, whispering, but capable of subtle power; finally it pushes through a quick mid-high front vowel into a hard backstopping /k/. The echoes are many and varied: been thick, bent, nth (as in nth degree), benzene (which may have a familiar ring), bench (which the Scotian Shelf is rather like), bathyscaphe (something you can use to go see the beauties of the abyssal benthic zone), and perhaps even terebinth (an oak-like tree – and a good cure for mal de mer: if you’re feeling sea-sick, go sit under one).
Benthic also brings to mind Bentham, as in Jeremy Bentham, an English jurist and ethical philosopher of two centuries ago who held that the highest morality is the pursuit of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. And it makes me think of Benjamin, which is the name of the youngest of the sons of Israel – the one who would not betray Joseph – but also the name of many more recent people, such as Benjamin Lee Whorf, who suggested that the words we use for things can influence how we think about those things, and Walter Benjamin, a cultural critic who wrote many trenchant things, including this from The Image of Proust: “After all, nothing makes more sense to the model pupils of life than that a great achievement is the fruit of toil, misery, and disappointment. The idea that happiness could have a share in beauty would be too much of a good thing…”
Must beauty therefore be immoral? Such a question may cast its nets too far from the waters of today’s word. But we do know that many a benthic fish has been kissed in St. John’s. And soon, perhaps, there will be more of them to kiss, and more reason to kiss them.