What happens when ocean memories begin to dissolve away?
We expect to forget things.
It’s why we write notes down and say things like “remind me to- (fill in the blank)“ and accept phrases like in one ear and out the other. We expect to lose memories. We forget the name of someone who’s just introduced themselves, why we came into the room, items on a to do list. And we expect that, if we really needed to, we could lose this information and get it back somewhere else – from paper, from the internet - like an interlibrary loan for trivial information.
When I was introduced to the concept of ocean memory, the idea that the ocean stores impressions of past events and conditions, my first thought was about loss. If the ocean can retain memories, what can it forget?
A water mass that absorbs heat from the equatorial surface will see that warmth languidly diffuse away as it currents north. Tiny shells buried in sediment for thousands of years will get swept away with underwater storms. The ocean teems with examples of forgetting, simple gain and loss of memory.
Recently, a much more complex conceptualization of memory loss in the ocean has resurfaced: the Titanic. This summer, for the first time in fourteen years, divers visited the bones of the transatlantic steam vessel at its home on the floor of North Atlantic. Bedded into sediment, the iron frame carries a history of loss now a part of our collective story, a loss that is fading away with time. The memory is dispersing.
It’s not a surprise that ship should slowly decay at the sea floor – after all, it is the natural process of dying things to float away. But the divers found the Titanic in an unexpected condition: it was dissolving rapidly, the unsinkable ship succumbing to the forces of the sea yet again, at a pace much quickly than anticipated.
The ocean is forgetting far faster than we expected.
In her memoir Blue Nights, Joan Didion writes about confronting the loss of her daughter by wading through memories of her life.
“Memory fades, memory adjusts”, she writes, “memory conforms to what we think we remember.”
Is the same true of ocean memory?
In the early 20thCentury, the industrializing world bustled with a sense of innovation and progress. The Wright Brothers had just taken their flight at Kitty Hawk. The first trans-Atlantic wireless calls demonstrated the power of radio. Builders constructed an unsinkable ship in Belfast.
This sense of conquest over uncertainty amplified the shock surrounding the Titanic. When the ship struck an iceberg and sank in 1912, it represented a slap against hubris, a demarcation of “the end of an era of confidence and optimism.”1Her sinking was a parable decrying the superiority of man and a juxtaposition of Edwardian formalities against the raw power of the sea.
After my freshman year of college, I returned to my parents’ home in St. Louis, Missouri. In the sticky days of August I visited Forest Park: home to the St. Louis Zoo, the art museum, wide open lawns and ornate buildings that act as reminders that this city – once grand – was the site of 1905 World’s Fair. In many ways, the city still reverberates with relics of that time. Physically, yes, but through the town a memory of the brick buildings and steamboats of the early 1900s gird the city like a corset. The town is wrapped in the era of Titanic.
That same summer, my family got a dog. We loaded in our car to drive west toward Branson to meet a German shepherd puppy. I climbed into the driver’s seat, my first time as the sole driver on a long highway trip. I wrapped my hands around the hot steering wheel and after four hours rolling across the Missouri countryside, I recall just how tired my forearms had become from over-gripping.
Branson is a fantasy simulation of a town, snug in the Missouri Ozarks. Where St. Louis lives in proper posture, Branson reclines over the hills in a hedonistic way, spilling out over small roads and freeways to fill every crack of flat land it can find. Wild World, Dolly Parton’s Stampede, Table Rock Lake – roadside attractions and destinations flash in neon lights, and if you follow 76 into the entertainment strip you’ll notice, unceremoniously, a giant replica of the ship Titanic, floating over a pool, with a fiberglass iceberg stuck to her side.
St. Louis and Branson: two towns, very near to each other, remembering the Titanic in very different ways.
There’s a fascinating phenomenon among humans calledtransactive memory. In essence, transactive memory is collaborative memory: two or more intimately connected humans (often long-term couples) can remember things better when they are together2. This seems intuitive at first, but reality shows us the opposite is true for groups. Studies have demonstrated that in aggregate, we remember things less reliably than we do on our own3.
The ability of closely-associated couples to recall in tandem represents the strong social and material context of memory: we form everyday memories within the framework of those around us, and we take clues from that framework. Another term for this behavior is distributed cognition.
Since the Titanic sank, the English-speaking world canonized her story in art, music, literature, movies, giant fiberglass replicas – capturing the story in so many ways and so many times that, as if in fear of forgetting her memory, we spread the story into every safe space we could find. She became more than a ship, more than a cautionary tale. The Ocean sucked Titanic out of the physical realm and settled her into the mythos of “without” – her entire existence became framed in negative space. The ship fell from the sky, leaving a debris field behind it in time and space: ballads of the 1910s, the memory in the Atlantic, an Era in St. Louis, a structure in Branson. Everyone got a piece. No one got the whole thing. The human memory of the Titanic disaster became a mosaic of distorted pieces, conformed to individual narratives, a distributed memory conforming to what we remember.
Photographs have a fascinating effect on memory, both in their ability to create and destroy.
I say create, though we most often think photographs only preserve, because I’ve experienced how pictures can use patterns of light and dark to plant a false memory.
In West Virginia, my grandmother - we call her Mammow, in the Appalachian tradition - lives in a row of copy and paste homes you could easily mistake for a Union Carbide company town or a coal camp. Inside, photo albums capture the lives of my mother, my aunt and uncle, my great grandparents, great uncles, my cousins, my siblings, everyone’s stories roosted between two thin sheets of plastic, secured in a cover, and neatly placed on a shelf.
Every visit to Mammow’s house means dedicating hours to reviewing these photographs. My sister and I pull an album off the shelf, or out from under the bed, lie down on the floor, and open it up. It always happens after everyone has gone to bed; it feels like a secret séance to contact past lives. What we see in the pictures – weddings, childhoods – inhabit me, and I can’t remember which images are self-constructed and which are built from the pictures.
Before Bob Ballard photographed the Titanic in 1985, wild ideas floated on how to recover the ship: pumping the wreck full of buoyant wax, inflating giant nylon balloons, even filling the ship with ping pong balls (which undoubtedly would have been crushed by the pressure). All of these plans became moot after the Titanic was found.
In many ways, a shipwreck is like a photograph. It’s a preservation of the physical – a visual reminder of a memory. We can look at the image of a shipwreck when we start to forget small details. We can use it to scaffold fantasies and stories of lives we’ve never lived. While many passengers aboard the ship had seen her sink in one piece, the photographs returned from the seafloor proved them wrong. The ship was broken in two. It could not be floated to the surface.
Photographs can also lead us to forget. A principle of photography is the photo-taking-impairment effect, the idea that even the intent of taking a picture can cause us to remember scenes or events with less fidelity. Cognitive scientists suggest this may result from something called the off-loading hypothesis: we use a machine to preserve details, freeing space in our minds for other thoughts. In this sense, a picture is an apology- it lets us forgive ourselves for forgetting.
Recent science suggests photo-taking-impairment effects have a more complicated story, however. The forgetfulness can linger past the lifespan of the photo itself. In a recent study, photographs, even if deleted right away, degraded participants ability to recall a scene4. When our picture of Titanic finally dissolves away, when the Ocean forgets photograph gets deleted, will we forget her, too?
I imagine the process of a ship sinking to be similar to a whale’s death. In my fantasy, the animal lets out its last breath like an organ bellows. A great mechanical engine slowly grinds to stillness, the sound of gears creaking gives way to a discomforting silence. The eye of the whale searches around for something to cling on to in its final moments. It slowly, lonely, asphyxiates in a dark ocean.
When a whale dies, it will sink down and down and down, until it lands on the sea floor, becoming a whale fall. The whale creates a memory of its life here in one grand event. Its carcass is so large that it can supply the same amount of carbon as the seafloor might see in two thousand years5.
The Ocean must remember how to properly grieve the death of a whale. It mourns the loss in ceremonial stages. A slow wake for the animal begins.
First, the “mobile scavengers” arrive. The creatures that creep, crawl, and swim – sharks, crabs, hagfish – cover the body and consume its soft tissue. They eat away until, as long as two years later, the animal is mostly bone. Next, the “enrichment-opportunists” settle on and around the skeleton. Finally, thick mats of microbes form a casket over the body. They take the pieces the other creatures leave behind – the elemental, the small, the hard-to-digest. Decades may pass before this work is done.
Many creatures in this ceremony seem endemic to whale falls – they have only been found on carcasses. Others drift in from hundreds of kilometers away to visit the giant creature. In either case, the Ocean remembers how to attend to the body, picking up the whale bit by bit, as if it were too heavy for the sea to lift at once, and spreading them over the rest of the Ocean. In the microbes, in the chemicals, the memory of the whale is spoken into new life and distributed around the world. The water is ready to embalm the next body.
The skeleton of the Titanic has broken down in much the same way. Ambulatory animals colonized the wreck first, eating away much of the soft wooden material that formed furniture or frames. Sessile organisms settled on the ship like plaque, spreading into the nooks. Now, decades after the event, the Ocean continues the rite in step. Microorganisms cover the boat, slowly consuming the iron-rich hull. Like on a whale, we find organisms here we have never seen before: the eponymous bacterium Halomanas titaniciae,which slowly chews away the boat’s bones6.
Someday, the wreck will be gone. Accounts from the recent expedition suggest we may lose the wreck in as little as thirty years. Parts of the starboard bow has collapsed. Thick layers of rust dangle from the ship, then dissolve into the passing currents to spread the smallest pieces across the sea. We won’t have the original photograph left, but thousands of copies distributed among hundreds of species of microbes, traces of iron.
When the Titanic has dissolved, then the ship no longer physically exists, will the Ocean have forgotten the Titanic?
Perhaps not. Instead, in the Ocean, as on land, the memory of Titanic will have been distributed and conformed into what the Ocean remembers.
1This is a quote from a book The Titanic Complexby J.W. Foster (1997)
2Harris, C.B., Barnier, A.J., Sutton, J., Keil, P.G. (2014) Couples as socially distributed cognitive systems: Remembering in everyday and material contexts. Mem Studies 7(3): 285-297
3See the paper list in footnote 2 for a guide to references on this topic.
4Soares, J.S. and Storm, B.C. (2018) Forget in a flash: A further investigation ofr the photo-taking-impairment effect. J. Appl Res Mem Cog. 7(1): 154-160.
5Smith, C.R. and Baco, A.R. (2003) Ecology of whale falls at the deep-sea floor. In Ocean and Marine Biology: an Annual Review41: 311-354
6Sánchez-Porro, C., Kaur, B., Mann, H., Ventosa, A. (2010) Halomonas titanicaesp. nov, a halophilic bacterium isolated from the RMS Titanic. Int J System Evo Microbiol 60:2768-2774.