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The Great Crochet Reef

Some of the best mathematicians in the world spent hundreds of years trying to prove that modeling the mathematical structure of corals and sea slugs was unfeasible. These fascinating creatures display hyperbolic geometry, which is almost impossible to reproduce even on computers. But in 1997, a Cornell professor discovered the perfect medium for doing it — crochet.

Now, thanks to Margaret Wertheim, a science journalist and physics author with the Institute for Figuring — along with her painter-professor twin sister, Christine Wertheim — the idea has really caught on, proliferating just like coral organisms do. And it now has a point beyond mathematical interest: publicizing the conservation of some of the most biologically diverse and endangered ecosystems in the world.

Distressed by the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of their native land of Queensland, Australia, in 2005 Margaret and Christine decided to crochet their own Great Barrier Reef out of yarn to capture the beauty of the fast-fading reef as well as to draw attention to the threats it faces, including CO2-caused ocean acidification and coral bleaching, which is primarily caused by global warming. Before the sisters knew it, their work was on display at the Andy Warhol Museum as part of an exhibit on global warming; by now, the Crochet Reef Project includes the work of more than 500 artists and has been exhibited across the country and internationally — accompanied by workshops through which all kinds of people have learned about crocheting (and conserving) coral reefs.

Besides the Bleached Reef, crocheted in shades of white and tan; the City Reefs, crocheted by community contributors; and the Beaded Reef and Branched Anemone Garden, the Crochet Reef Project includes a reef made entirely of plastic trash, crocheted out of strips of used plastic bags and embellished with things like plastic forks, pill bottles, and pieces of milk-bottle caps. This Toxic Reef — the “satanic sibling,” as Margaret puts it, of the beautiful yarn-based reefs — is a reference to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a twice-Texas-sized-and-growing mass of plastic debris floating in the North Pacific where ocean currents meet. Margaret and Christine save all the plastic they’re forced to use — which, despite their thoughtfulness, is a lot — and make it part of their art.

The main idea driving the magnificence of the Coral Reef Project is that it perfectly captures not only the mathematical structure of coral, but also coral’s colonizing, the-whole-is-greater-than-the-parts nature. As the exhibit travels and is viewed by more people, and as more people contribute to its growth, it becomes more and more astonishing and spreads the message of conservation to thousands of people who might otherwise be unmoved by corals’ plight.

“The power of colonies: That is one of the quiet, beautiful lessons of the coral reef,” declares Margaret. “These tiny, brainless organisms are moral agents. It is the totality of all the individuals that produces something that’s of a fundamentally greater order than anything an individual could do by themselves — and collective action is how we’re going to save these environments.”

If you want to be part of the solution, Margaret says, try saving your own plastic trash for a week; it’ll be sure to make you cut down on your plastic use. And of course, do everything you can to reduce your carbon footprint — because it’s helping to crush reef ecosystems everywhere.

Learn more about the Crochet Reef Project. Then read about our campaigns to save elkhorn and staghorn corals.

Want to share your story in our Activist Spotlight?
A sea change can begin with crocheting conservationists — or maybe, it can begin with you. If you or someone you know has found a creative way to turn concern for the planet — and for endangered plants and animals — into change for the better, we'd like to share your story with the world. Send us your spotlight idea here.

And check out other activists we've honored here.







Bald eagle © Robin Silver; crochet coral reef © Margaret Wertheim, Insitute for Figuring