The Enchanted Braid: Coming to Terms with Nature on the Coral Reef


"There is a word for what Darwin and the rest of us have felt when in the presence of the reef: 'awe.' Confronted with the reef, awe is the most appropriate response. It is probably in our nature. It is also, apparently, in our nature to destroy that which we hold in awe." —from The Enchanted Braid

Of the myriad ecosystems populating the underwater world, coral reefs are by far the most complex. While their stunning beauty has been extolled for centuries, the intricate workings of reef environments remained ...

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"There is a word for what Darwin and the rest of us have felt when in the presence of the reef: 'awe.' Confronted with the reef, awe is the most appropriate response. It is probably in our nature. It is also, apparently, in our nature to destroy that which we hold in awe." —from The Enchanted Braid

Of the myriad ecosystems populating the underwater world, coral reefs are by far the most complex. While their stunning beauty has been extolled for centuries, the intricate workings of reef environments remained largely hidden from view. In fact, until the advent of scuba diving just fifty years ago, corals have been among the last natural histories to be extensively explored. The high passion with which scientists have greeted this particular investigation —beginning with the foundational theories of Charles Darwin in 1842—is perhaps unprecedented, but hardly difficult to understand. A phenomenon of both awesome beauty and vital importance, the coral reef is home to the most diverse range of species of any environment on the planet, including fish, shrimps, worms, snails, crabs, sea cucumbers, sea stars, urchins, anemones, and sea squirts.

The crux of reef life, scientists have discovered, lies in nature's most intimate example of symbiosis: the mutually beneficial relationship between the coral polyp and its "tenant," the zooxanthellate algae. Davidson's history begins with this deceptively diminutive hybrid, the engine behind the construction of the limestone-based coral structure. Together, the three elements comprise a unique zoophytalite (animal-plant-mineral) form, or an "enchanted braid."

Aided by an eight-page, full-color photographic insert demonstrating the incredible intricacies of the reef and its unique inhabitants, The Enchanted Braid identifies the approximately 240,000 square miles of coral reef on the planet today as indispensable not only to the livelihood of the oceans but also to humans. The reef is, after all, the "soul of the sea," the spawning ground for tens of thousands of marine species. As sources of food (many islands rely on reefs for all their protein), medicine (corals are used in bone grafts and to fight cancer and leukemia), and detailed insight into the history of climatic conditions, coral reefs are critically important to human life on Earth. However, in a world of oil tanker disasters, global warming, and dwindling natural resources, they are also in grave danger of extinction.

Osha Gray Davidson's urgent clarion call to halt today's man-made degradation of coral reefs is both alarming and persuasive, effectively underscored by the rich historical context of passages from Darwin's captivating diary of his seminal work on reefs 150 years ago. Like the coral reef, The Enchanted Braid is itself a rare hybrid, a graceful combination of aesthetic appreciation, scientific inquiry, and environmental manifesto.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Coral reefs are the proving ground for mankind's ability to `come to terms with nature'including our own," writes Davidson The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South, who has lived in Key West and studied coral reefs both above and under water for years. Davidson traveled and dove around the world to do his research. His book includes many striking facts: oceans cover 71% of the earth's surface; coral reefs are home to approximately one-quarter of all marine species; the most widely cited estimate of square miles around the world covered by coral reefs is 240,000; Charles Darwin's first scientific book was The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs 1842. And one of Davidson's most captivating chapters outlines the bizarre sex lives of fish. Despite reefs' grandeur, we humans have destroyed them at alarming rates, Davidson explains, as we have destroyed much of nature. His imaginative language for example, "Coral reefs are the Russian novels of the sea world" and treatment of scientific terminology are impressive throughout. Davidson believes that "if we are to save the reefs, we must understand them better. But here we have come full circle, we have returned to our initial question. How do you comprehend something as complex as the coral reef?" Davidson's thorough book, which helps to do just that, will appeal primarily to environmentalists and divers but should be read by travelers to ocean settings as well. Eight pages of color photos, not seen by PW. May
Library Journal
Not a scientist but a writer and diver, Davidson Under Fire: The NRA & the Battle for Gun Control, LJ 5/15/93 has consulted with many scientists and other marine specialists worldwide in writing this book, whose broad scope ranges from Darwin's first views of the coral reef to the International Year of the Reef in 1997. Davidson has dived near many reefs, and his awe of this complex structure is evident. The "enchanted braid" is a double strand. The reef itself, the seagrass beds, and the mangrove forests are the larger braid, and the coral reef alone is a braid of animal coral polyps, vegetable algae, and mineral calcium carbonate deposits. A great deal of science is included, although the presentation is for a general audience. Extensive footnotes and bibliography are useful for further research. This is not a light read but an informative one that covers many points of view. Davidson cares about the future of the reef environment, and this shows in his writing. Recommended for public and academic libraries as a general introduction. Illustrations not seen.Jean E. Crampon, Hancock Biology & Oceanography Lib., Univ. of Southern California, Los Angeles
An exploration of the only ecosystem where animal, vegetable, and mineral components rely on each other in such intense symbiosis. Through personal experiences and scientific analyses, the author discusses the history of corals, Darwin's relationship with them, the ecosystems that they support, and individual reef systems throughout the world. The author also advocates preservation, retelling the deaths of several reefs and exploring options for their conservation. Includes eight pages of color photographs. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
This natural history of coral reefs and our relationship to them delivers a measured but damning indictment of human environmental folly. Ten percent of the planet's reefs are degraded beyond recovery; another 30 percent will likely decline over the next two decades. Davidson, a freelance writer with broad interests (The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South, 1996; Under Fire: The NRA and the Battle for Gun Control, 1993), notes coral reefs' importance as essential strands in "the enchanted braid" of our global ecosystem. Reefsþ"the rainforests of the ocean"þtake up a fraction of the sea but host a quarter of all marine species. They also boast the ocean's most stunning combination of beauty and abundance. Taking more poetic license than the scientists he interviews, Davidson describes the sensory feast he observed firsthand diving on the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and snorkeling during his days as a beach bum in the Florida Keys. Davidson's knack for the picturesque analogy serves him well. Limning the intricacy of their complex ecosystems, he characterizes coral reefs as "the Russian novels of the sea world, full of passion and avarice, convoluted and interweaving story lines, and colorful characters by the dozens." From the biological ABCs of coral polyps and reef formation, he moves on to address the global factors threatening reefs as never before. A depressing panoply of man-made agents contributes to the ongoing decline: blast fishing (in which crude bombs are used to stun fish), cyanide poisoning (which captures exotic reef fish live for sale to affluent diners in China), along with more prosaic but ultimately more damaging factorslike untreated sewage, agricultural chemicals, and increased sedimentation from logging and development. Davidson's accessible, heartfelt portrait of man's deleterious effect on the sea is a sobering examination of the devilishly complex corner humanity is painting itself into. (8 pages color photos, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780471177272
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 3/28/1998
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 296
  • Sales rank: 643,543
  • Product dimensions: 6.28 (w) x 9.55 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

OSHA GRAY DAVIDSON has written for the New York Times, the New Republic, the Nation, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the author of The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and short-listed for the Helen Bernstein Award. He is also the author of Under Fire: The NRA and the Battle for Gun Control, a New York Times Notable Book in 1993, and Broken Heartland: The Rise of America's Rural Ghetto.

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Table of Contents


"Who Has Known the Ocean?" Animal, Mineral, Vegetable.

Darwin in Paradise.

The Rise of Corals.

The Heart of Lightness.

The Outer Strands.

A Song of Love and Death.

Fish Stories.

Neither Brethren nor Underlings.


The Jakarta Scenario.

"Either We Go Deep or We Starve." The Apo Scenario.

Return to Oceanus.

Disasters, Catastrophes, and Tragedies.

Unweaving the Outer Braids.

Once More to the Keys.





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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2012

    The Enchanted Braid is a particularly informative novel filled w

    The Enchanted Braid is a particularly informative novel filled with interesting scientific information that however does not read like a textbook. This book takes a look at life of the coral reef and its importance in the world. He answers the question, how do you comprehend something as complex as the coral reef?, throughout his chapters, he gives a basic understanding of what is all involved in a coral reef. It is not necessary to know about coral reefs before reading this novel; he provides a good understanding by explaining hard to understand concepts with good analogies and examples with the use of his own personal stories. The author uses a poetic style when discussing his point and telling his stories. You can see his poetic side just by looking at the chapters names; he uses quotes as the titles of his chapters that pertain to what the content is. He also states the importance of preserving this amazing life form and talks about the dangers it faces. He is very proactive about saving the coral reefs he states “Man’s finger print is found everywhere in the ocean” and describes the impact humans have on the coral reef. This novel is a great read for avid divers and general audiences who would like to learn more about coral reef. He explains the coral reef in a comprehendible way that is easy and fun for all audiences.

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