Photo credit: Madeleine Tilin Photography
One of the reasons I’ve loved writing about jellyfish for so many years is that jellyfish evoke unending examples of metaphor. Jellyfish are angelic in their transparency and grace. Jellyfish are demonic in their sometimes fatal sting. They are ancient ghosts of the past. They are harbingers of ecosystem destruction. The way jellyfish swim is like our breath, creating a low-pressure region that pulls them through the sea. The timing of their pulsations is controlled by a neurological node called a pacemaker, just like the neurological node that controls the beating of our own hearts. In other languages, jellyfish are likened to living water, bad water, itchy water, curdled water, the ocean’s tears, the sea’s bride, and the mother to all of the sea.
In the opening pages of Spineless
, I tell of watching a thick bloom of jellyfish near the atomic bomb dome in Hiroshima. In that moment jellyfish seemed to me a kind of bridge between annihilation and resilience. I write of their endless pulsing — open and closed, open and closed — reminding me of millions of eyes blinking, as if they could look deep into the soul of the sea.
The standard place for most of us to see jellyfish, myself included, is in an aquarium. And jellyfish never fail to bring in a crowd. I have watched little kids run up to the tank, hands flat and noses squashed against the glass. They zero in on a tiny jellyfish and say, “Baby!” It’s like they want to connect to the small of another species. I’ve also seen adults, chatting about work or traffic or some other annoyance in their lives, who approach the tank and stop mid-sentence as if struck by a spell. They will stand before the jellyfish for minutes, quiet and calmed. The same thing happens to teenagers whose noses were in their phones just a second earlier. They, of course, put their phones between their eyes and the tank to capture a video.
Once, I sat for several hours on a slightly hidden bench to the side of a jellyfish tank and tried to methodically analyze the impact of jellyfish on humans. I timed how long different people stood mesmerized in front of the tank, estimating their age, and noting any particular phrases that were repeated. While my data didn’t show any trends, I could never shake the feeling that the common fascination with jellyfish meant something more.
Just a couple of months ago, in August, an event of enormity swept across the country. The moon passed between the sun and the earth, blotting the sun from our view. In Austin, where I live, the eclipse would only cover about two-thirds of the sun’s face, and many people I knew were driving the 12 hours north and east to the totality, to experience the otherworldliness of the darkened day, of the diamond ring of the sun’s corona, of sunset on all horizons. I wanted to go too, but family responsibilities prevented it. I had to be satisfied with the 60 percent I’d get at home.
My daughter, who wouldn’t be starting 8th grade until the next day, agreed to come with me to the University of Texas campus where the astronomy department had opened their doors to the public to view the eclipse through their sun-viewing telescopes. We invited two of her friends to join us.
Swept up in eclipse fever, I rummaged through the garage for a box to build an old-fashioned viewer like the one I’d made for an eclipse in elementary school. A pinprick lens in a piece of tin foil projected the sun onto a piece of white paper on the far end of the box. We tested it in our yard and it worked so well we decided to build three more, one for each of us.
The girls and I arrived on UT’s campus just as the eclipse was starting, and as soon as we found a bit of sunshine, we all stopped and peered into our boxes. The bright white orb of the sun glowed back at us. But there on the edge of the circle was the sharp outline of a tiny nick. “Whoa,” we all said one after the other. Students and construction workers walked over and asked if we could see anything. We offered them our boxes. Their response was the same as ours, “Whoa.”
In other languages, jellyfish are likened to living water, bad water, itchy water, curdled water, the ocean’s tears, the sea’s bride, and the mother to all of the sea.
Now the girls were enthused. We found the astronomy building and followed instructions to the 13th floor, which was mayhem. One of the girls did a scouting run of the line and confirmed that it was immense, snaking down and back up the same hallways, curving around corners. Luckily, we’d packed snacks; 13-year-old girls must be fed frequently. The girls made eclipses out of plum slices and crunched salty chips. They took selfies pretending to pull the overhead chemical showers in the hallway. They showed the other people in line how our boxes worked. We turned the last corner to the room with the telescope at exactly 1:07 p.m. The eclipse would be at its maximum at 1:10 p.m.
When we were let in, I realized that we weren’t going to get to see the telescope itself. Using mirrors, the astronomers had reflected the view from the telescope onto the wall of a conference room. I was disappointed. But the girls weren’t. “Wow. This was so worth it!” they exclaimed in awe of the crescent-shaped white glow. They posed for pictures with the eclipse over their shoulders. They basked in the strangeness of the round sun they’d known their whole lives taking on a new shape. They wanted to linger in the cramped conference room much longer than I expected.
Back outside, the crescent was on the wane, but it was still there. As they had before, people came over to look through our homemade viewers and the girls showed them all how to point the tinfoil lens at the sun. A grey-haired woman in an orange UT shirt, a hipster dude on a bike, a grubby guy with a wooden cross around his neck, an elegant woman in a sundress and pumps, and a soccer dad in a grey polo shirt all asked to use our boxes and then gasped when they found the white crescent-shaped sun. One person had cut the words, "Eclipse 2017 Austin TX," out of poster board and she’d made pinholes that projected tiny eclipses onto the ground in the shape of a happy face. The girls called me over to look under a tree. The dapples, rather than round or oval, were a celebration of hundreds of scattered crescents, a confetti of eclipses.
In our country that has been so battered by bad news lately, the eclipse was a chance to share in the momentary blinking of the sun and to collectively depend on the return of its ageless circular stare. It was a moment to perceive our place in the universe, and it made the machinations of the news shrivel in comparison. I felt as if for a few hours on a very hot Monday in August, the tightened fist of our country unfurled a little. As I watched three young women hand over their eclipse-viewing boxes to curious strangers, I felt as if we were all a little more willing to extend our hand in the joy, not of science exactly, but of a shared experience.
I hadn’t anticipated that the eclipse would provide me with a new way to understand what makes jellyfish so entrancing, but it did. Standing in front of a jellyfish aquarium with a crowd of strangers is also a kind of shared experience, a collective viewing of something unexpected, primordial, and a little alien, like an eclipse. We feel our place in the context of our history on this stunning planet and the ancient world from which we all evolved. And in sharing that recognition, there is a slight unfurling. And now, I can also think of a jellyfish as a hand — opening and closing and opening and closing — reminding us that while it is easy to clench our fist against those with whom we disagree, it is just as easy to open it again.
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received her PhD in Ocean Science from the University of Southern California. A science textbook writer and editor, she has written for a number of publications, including The New York Times
, National Geographic
, and Slate
is her most recent book.