On Rocks, and the Things We Can Learn From Them

Last Sunday I received my Christmas present: a 59-gallon salt water aquarium which will become a species-specific soft reef for seahorses and pipefish.

As of 5pm Monday night, it looked more like a box of water with rocks.

Reef tanks start with a sandy bottom and live rock, which needs time to cure in salt-water before anything more can be added.  You take a big glass box, put sand in the bottom, fill it with water and stack the reef….and then wait two to six weeks for the microscopic inhabitants to get their party on.

I’m still at step 1.

The first night I added the sand, water and rocks, eager to build a beautiful reef, and discovered that natural sand contains natural silt, which muddied the water so badly that the rocks all but disappeared.  No stacking the reef night 1.

By Monday night the silt had cleared and I couldn’t wait to start.  The minute I touched the rocks, however, I stirred up the bottom and wrecked the visibility so badly that only the bottom layer got stacked.  I retreated to the kitchen to make dinner while the water settled.  Five hours and three attempts later, I still had only half a reef, and a pathetic half at that.  I was tired and wet and starting to think that I might not have needed so many live rocks after all.  My fingers were cut.  My spirits sagged.

The clock struck 3am and I knew I should go to bed.  The muddy water swirling in the tank gave only a hint of the reef, and although the rocks fit together firmly I was placing them more by feel than by design. I placed the last few rocks virtually by braille, turned the filter on and went to bed.

I woke up to what seemed like a miracle.

If I hadn’t had my hands all over it the night before I would have sworn the beautiful tunneled reef would tumble down at the slightest touch.  The “ugly but solid towers” I constructed were neither ugly nor solid in the least.  I ended up with four arched tunnels and half a dozen caves, as well as several multi-leveled platforms, none of which look nearly as rock-solid as they are.

Stacking in the murky water made me operate by feel and not by sight.  Without my eyes I was forced to set the rocks in stable places, testing them over and over to make sure they would not move.  They felt ugly but I knew they would not fall.

Wherein lies the lesson.

Had I worked in clear water, I never would have tried to stack the rocks the way I did.  My eyes would have told me the arched bridges would fall down.    I wouldn’t have ignored the physics – I wouldn’t even have tried.  Working blind, I had to rely on what I knew was real.  I moved carefully, building on touch and trusting my hands to know their way.  I focused on the unseen.  I could always fix it later.  I would make it stable first.

I didn’t go into the project without research and understanding.  I had planned the basic shape of the reef and knew how to set it in place.  The work took time and patience and attention to detail, and I couldn’t allow frustration to intervene.  Each rock received the time and attention it required, and I had to rebuild and revise at least fifteen times.

In the end the effort was worth it.  The reef is beautiful, and better than I could have made with the disadvantage of sight.  More importantly, it reminded me how deceptive sight can be.  Better by far to trust in knowledge and persevere when vision fails.  Sometimes the goal isn’t visible from the starting line, or anywhere on the approach, but that’s no reason to give up.  If you hang in there, the rocks may stack up correctly after all.

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