“I remember my green extensions, my catfish nuzzlings and minnow
wrigglings, my gelatinous materializations out of the mother ooze.”
— Loren Eiseley
It is June and I write to a man I’ve never met, an eminent zoologist at the Smithsonian. I’m not a journalist, I tell him. My questions are of another sort. I wonder whether, as oceanographer Jeremy Jackson claims, we are living through “the rise of slime,” a return to conditions that prevailed in the primordial oceans, before the evolution of fish. And I wonder whether jellies are part and parcel of this rise, weedy generalists who might be thought of, according to one Australian researcher, as the cockroaches of the sea. I ask if I can come visit. Poke around and ask questions. I don’t say I traffic in metaphor. It doesn’t feel necessary or relevant in this early phase, and I worry that I might come across as a crank, chasing crackpot ideas into his lab.
Soon it’s mid-July and I’m waiting at 10th and Constitution, outside the north entrance to the museum. It’s a Friday morning and there’s a line of preschoolers in matching yellow shirts, each connected by a long rope. Italians and Germans wait in the vestibule and an officious security guard directs traffic. It is not yet oppressively warm, as it will be when I leave the building that afternoon, but there is already a slight swelter in the air. The zoologist, Allen Collins, arrives just after ten in a bright yellow hat, easy to spot in the busy summer crowd. He is an immediately likeable, athletic man in his late 40s, with two young children he has just shuttled to soccer camp. He leads me through a bewildering series of stairwells and back hallways to a newly established lab for culturing jellies, which is where we find his summer intern, a bright student at a prestigious high school near D.C. They’re having some trouble with one or two trays of polyps that don’t appear to be growing, but she manages to find one for me under the microscope. It’s an unfortunate reality of the work I do, I say, squinting at a tubular structure I have difficulty describing, that there aren’t many petri dishes in my life.
We chat with the intern in the windowless room, which is little more, Collins admits, than a closet, but his goal is to have some live animals on display, especially now that the invertebrate house at the National Zoo is closing down. Outreach is increasingly a priority for the scientists, Collins says, and to his credit he seems to like it. He tells me that when he recently set up a microscope on a dock in Bali to show the locals plankton, they were incredulous: did he mean to tell them the plankton were both invisible and all around? Still, I sense his hesitation: the outreach is not the work, and there’s some danger (of a professional sort, if nothing else) in letting it take over. The longer you spend with the public, the less time you spend in the lab.
We walk to a crowded office full of specimen jars. The formalin keeps them together, he says, but, shaking one ever so slightly, some flesh flakes off nonetheless. We talk for some time in front of a poster displaying the cnidarian tree of life, a project with which he was intimately involved. He wasn’t always a scientist, he says. In college he studied math and economics before beginning a career in business. He planned on getting an MBA, applied and was accepted into some very good schools. Then, just for fun, he took a course on the history of the earth and something shifted. He delayed his MBA admission and in the meantime continued taking night courses in biology and paleontology. By the end of the year he was hooked, and his plans changed accordingly. We think life moves in a linear fashion, he says, but it’s more like a flow chart. There are so many variables, potential routes one might take. Chance plays a part, as does luck.
“In motion, jellies mesmerize us,” I read months earlier, on a placard at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, where a temporary exhibit on jellies had been extended for years because of the enormous public response. The exhibit room was dark and ambient new age music streamed through hidden speakers. I watched a young lion’s mane jelly move forward by almost turning itself inside out. “Beautiful,” another placard asked, “or too much of a good thing?” As the long, stringy tentacles tangled with one another, almost as though in knots, I thought the question only hinted at the ironies it contained, which linked beauty to waste and pleasure to ruin.
In Chicago I saw a boy rushing from one display to the next, tugging on his father’s arm. I identified with them both, the hurried and the harried, and in another way with the teenage girl who insisted on pointing out a comb jelly to her friends, calling it a rainbow jelly instead, in keeping with the shimmering of its waving cilia. The exhibit boasted a video game in which players capture various forms of pollution (fertilizer, spilled oil, plastic trash) to prevent the formation of a dead zone, which is the semi-technical (and, I would later learn, misleading) term for the proliferating hypoxic regions in the world’s oceans where some jellies are flourishing. I played the game poorly, both amused and dismayed by the necessity of the interactive gimmick, from which I learned more about the changing nature of museums than about the factors that contribute to so-called jelly blooms, although the game may have been instructive when it came to that as well: for what can you say about a disaster that has been turned into sport?
As for the jellies, there was something otherworldly to how slowly they moved, pulsing through the water as though extensions of it. In Brazil, jellies are água-viva, living water, and as our fetishization of birds may be linked to a longing for flight, perhaps our fetishization of jellies is linked to a longing for return, back to our primordial origins. As birds symbolize hope (“the thing with feathers,” as Dickinson famously has it), jellies may symbolize our nostalgia for a gone world, the one embedded in the salinity of our veins. I admired how they drifted across the panes of glass, seemingly passive participants in the currents. Was it that standing there in the gallery I envied their acquiescence, their movement that was not exactly motion, or was it that, in all my rushing to and fro, all my self-assertion, there remained some part of me that longed to be carried, to give up on influencing events and be swept away instead?
“For much of its life cycle,” I read that day in the aquarium, “a jelly doesn’t look like a jelly at all.” If this were mere metamorphosis it might be of passing interest, but the reproductive cycle of jellies is arguably stranger than that of butterflies and moths. Some adults live only weeks or months, and fertilization happens largely by chance. Generally speaking, a male releases a cloud of sperm, a female a cloud of eggs, and maybe the currents carry these clouds towards each other. Fertilized eggs become tiny larvae called planulae, which then settle on the ocean floor, where they turn into polyps. These can stay dormant for decades, and they can also divide and multiply. At least in the case of the so-called true jellies (or Scyphozoa), they split into stacks of small disks, which break off (the technical term is strobilation) to become, eventually, what we recognize as adult jellies. The medusae (i.e., the adult jellies) are genetically identical to the polyps, however, so there’s some question not only as to what a jelly looks like, but as to what the organism even is, whether it’s the polyp or the medusa or, if both, how peculiar for a thing to be alive in multiple places at the same time.
We’re used to thinking of organisms as individuals, but cnidarians (the phylum of which jellies—and corals, among others—are part) defy that training. They don’t invest their energy in singularity so much as multiplicity (or multiplicity as singularity), even though some medusae can reach the length of two school buses. They spread out. They take up space. They can almost be thought of as colonial organisms, as certain species technically are. One cnidarian Collins shows me, called a siphonophore, looks a bit like foxglove: individual bells budding from and along a single stem. These “bells” are zooids, linked organisms that serve different functions, each highly dependent on the others. Seen one way, the zooids are individuals; seen another way, the colony is. The same might be said of jellies in general: the medusae are alternately individuals or parts of a larger, rhizomatic whole. More remarkable yet, because of their endless cloning and multiplication, their long cycles of dormancy and bloom, jellies might even be thought of as immortal. Sure, the medusae grow and die (although some can deintegrate themselves and reform planulae from the remaining material), but the polyps persist. A jelly can die in one form and live on in another. I’m not sure I’ve done, or can do, justice to how exceedingly strange this is.
But then the world is full of rats that laugh and parrots that call each other by name. Our ears just aren’t capable of hearing them. With its 24 eyes, on the other hand, the box jelly can simultaneously take in detail and atmosphere, but without a brain—or rather, with something like a brain diffused throughout its body—it cannot make the combinations mean. Maybe, as Amy Leach writes, this brainlessness “is a direct consequence of its tremendous powers of sight.”
“Perhaps,” she continues, “neither the animal nor the prophet has been invented who could process so thorough a vision.” Or maybe, I might add, what that processing looks like would be alien to us, as jellies are. Our own brains, rather large relative to our body size, may be the most powerful processing instruments yet developed, but even they may not be effective enough to combine, except in the briefest of instances, the parts and the whole, the moment and the synopsis, the light and the detail. And maybe this is a lucky thing for us, a defense against annihilation. As Leach writes, “it is disquieting enough to be hyperacute or hypersensitive; perhaps being both would very soon melt your brain and leave you quiescent, hanging transparently in the giant dancing green waters of the world.”
At lunch we are joined by a second zoologist, the director of the marine biology center at the University of São Paulo. He has the distinct, charming cadence to his fluent English that native Portuguese speakers often do. His presence is warm but sober, maybe more so than usual, as a friend of his, a leading figure in the field, has just died. He’s curious about what I’m writing, but I say I’m not sure what it will become just yet. I use a jelly analogy and say that my interest has cultured many polyps that have yet to strobilate into full-fledged medusae. When the joke doesn’t take, I add that in my early 20s I visited the popular exhibit in Monterey Bay but didn’t learn a thing about jellies, except that they were beautiful. I didn’t understand that, displayed as they were, they were meant to be, that in visiting the aquarium I was having less of a scientific experience than an aesthetic one, as though proper lighting could hide the fact that this complex of buildings committed to the preservation of marine life had once been dedicated to its eradication.
Beauty is one of the refrains about jellies, and it comes up again in the staff cafeteria. The Brazilian, Antonio Marques, describes an exhibition he’s recently read about in the blighted city of Liverpool. Two artists, Walter Hugo and Zoniel, have installed aquaria containing jellies in an abandoned building. They are meant to contrast their dilapidated surroundings, I gather, but considering the recent alarm over the apparent increase in destructive blooms (one infamous Black Sea event measured a thousand fist-sized jellies per cubic yard), this contrast must be ironic at best. Beauty is a cultural category as much as, if not more than, an intrinsic one, and in its application to jellies I sense the old conjunction of the beautiful and the terrible, I say. Given the state of the world’s oceans—and here the irony of the exhibit enters in—it does not seem at all straightforward to claim the former for jellies without acknowledging the latter. More to the point, what might otherwise repulse us can be converted, sometimes without much effort, into a source of delight, and jellies are maybe part of that perversity. Once at a job talk, I tell the zoologists, I said that jellies are creepy. The department chair objected: what’s wrong with them? she asked, they’re pretty beautiful to me. I said she was right of course, but that what’s creepy about this sludging up of our oceans—Jackson’s rise of slime—is that we take pleasure, through expensive aquarium displays, in its products. Beauty seems almost to excuse our excesses, which strikes me, I added, as an insidious self-justification.
Jellies aren’t repulsive, Marques says—we are. And of course he’s right, but only insofar as the department chair was. Our repulsion is matched by our fascination, and both are embedded in the language of our descriptions. While they are often framed in aesthetic terms—one Monterey Bay exhibit was entitled Jellies: Living Art—they are also framed in the media, and even by some scientists, as a “plague,” as “slime,” as “the cockroaches of the sea.” Behind a glass wall, jellies are lovely; at the beach, they’re a menace. But our aesthetic categories have reversed the ecological ones, and while evolutionarily the ocean is the “right” place for jellies, our presence has turned it into the “wrong” one. Jellies are beautiful only when they don’t impede us; they’re repulsive whenever they do. In both cases, we’re the dominant factor, the constant in the equation.
The dilemma extends to things like rats and weeds and coyotes and pigeons, the synanthropes that thrive in the ecological conditions that accompany human dominance—syn-, meaning with, or together, or alike, and –anthrope deriving from the Greek word for human. A cockroach is thus a like-human, or a with-human, as is a mosquito, though all these creatures could be classified as pests, a word that derives in English from the 15th century French term (peste, from the Latin pestis) for the bubonic plague. That humans breed pestilence might reflect the planetary affliction we are, or have become—a contagion that insists the world (or parts of it) is beautiful even as, or possibly because, it ravages it. This is undoubtedly a misanthropic view, but perhaps in airing it I am merely pointing out the degree to which we have become mis– human—wrongly, or perversely, or mistakenly human. Perhaps the synanthropic world of sameness is one that inevitably gives rise to the mistakenness of misanthropy.
Then again, the current would seem to run the other way: from mistakenness to sameness. Jon Mooallem writes that the loss of big animals like mastodons and smilodons at the end of the Pleistocene “has meant that, for the last 12,000 years, every human generation has inherited a North America that is profoundly out of whack.”
“So many ecosystems we see, study, and appreciate,” he says, “are mostly ruins—a disheveled set of ripple effects, reverberating from the loss of these big and influential beasts.” In cannily placing ourselves at the top of the food chain, the rest of the living world has had to either fall in line with our ambitions or go the way of the mastodon. It’s not that we have eliminated nature, but that we have reshaped it in our image—even if doing so has turned the world into the series of compounding errors (climate change, overfishing, agricultural runoff, among others) that make increasingly large patches of the oceans increasingly hospitable to certain species of jellies.
Marques is right in this way, too: jellies aren’t a plague, and to assert their weediness (another cultural category) is inevitably to acknowledge our own. A weed is just doing what it’s good at, after all, capitalizing on conditions. Jellies can’t be blamed for taking advantage of circumstances conducive to their growth any more than dandelions can be blamed for spreading across a lawn. When it comes to humans, the question is more complicated, Collins suggests: we know better, or should. We have our dignity, Jeremy Jackson says, to uphold. But we’re also opportunists, weedy generalists who consume a lot and who aren’t, on balance, terribly picky about what we eat and where we live. We exploit the planet because we can. And the trouble with being part of the colonial organism called human civilization is that, as with the siphonophores, the intentions of any individual actor are mostly subordinate to the prerogatives of the whole, which are to grow and to survive by any means. Dignity might not enter into it.
For the scientists who study them, the zoologists say, the recent alarm over jellies has raised the question of whether their populations are increasing. Locally and anecdotally it would seem they are, particularly in coastal areas where conditions have degraded into dead zones, which is a misnomer in the sense that these areas are actually teeming with life and abounding in nutrients. It just isn’t the “right” kind of life, the kind that predominated prior to human intervention. (In this sense, Marques says, the zone is “dead”: the previous ecology has disappeared.) And while there are weedy species of cnidarians, Collins tells me these generally belong to two orders of jellies in the subclass Discomedusae: Semaeostomeae and Rhizostomeae. As for “the cockroach of the sea,” the analogy just doesn’t hold. There are already creatures—a relative of lobsters—that fit the description and have a comparable ecological niche. If you look at a chart of the cnidarian phylum, as we did earlier in the day, the species implicated in blooms are relegated to a small corner. Most cnidarians aren’t doing nearly as well, and some (think: corals) are even in dramatic decline. Many are poorly understood and rarely studied.
We have finished lunch at this point and are talking in Collins’s new office, which is, in contrast to his old one, remarkably spare (the new furniture, he says, has yet to arrive). Both men point me to a study by another scientist, Rob Condon of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, who claims (along with his co-authors) that we know too little to say definitively what is happening, although it does appear that there’s a 20-year boom and bust cycle for jellies. Are blooms happening locally? Undoubtedly. Does this have implications for global populations? Too early to tell, Condon says. Marques calls it a conservative paper that doesn’t fall in with the overriding mood of alarm. It stakes out the limits of what we know and what we don’t, he says. It’s good science, he adds.
My visit is coming to a close, but, given that mood of alarm, I want to ask about Lisa-ann Gershwin’s recent book, Stung!, which has been getting a lot of press lately. Both men know Gershwin, but neither has read the book. The two defend her scientific credentials, which are apparent in the writing, but I wonder if there’s a bit of what George Saunders calls the braindead megaphone at work in her rise to prominence—and in the prevailing, sensational message (disseminated by Gershwin, Jackson, and others) that jellies are a terrible, end-times curse we’ve brought on ourselves. Right now, hers sounds like the loudest voice in the room, and whether or not her position is the most informed, it has the capacity—like a good weed, maybe—to crowd out others.
The curious flipside to this comes in the form of another visitor who joins us briefly near the end. His claim about the closing of the invertebrate house is that the Zoo’s director, a former Coca-Cola executive, cares more about charismatic megafauna—pandas and elephants—than he does about conservation. He wants to raise money by putting butts in the seats, so to speak, and he believes (our species being what it is) that a baby panda will arouse public interest better than a nautilus. For him, the visitor implies, spectacle trumps science. It’s a different strain of a familiar cynicism. In one version, a certain kind of animal is wrong for the oceans because it hinders human activity (even if the former is a product of the latter); in the other, a certain kind of animal is wrong for the zoo because it cannot be monetized. In each instance, the human scale obtains, pairing our self-esteem with our self-loathing.
Before long it’s after two and the zoologists have to run to a meeting, but as I’m preparing to leave, Marques pulls up a few prints by the 19th century biologist Ernst Haeckel on his laptop—gorgeous, intricate panels he published under the title Kustformen der Natur, or Art Forms of Nature. Haeckel featured cnidarians prominently in the collection, including box jellies, sea anemones, hydroids, and siphonophores—many of which he originally named and described. Among the most striking of the highly stylized images is the eighth print in the series, which illustrates three varieties of Discomedusae. Swirling from bottom right to bottom left, then across the image at a diagonal to the upper right, is Desmonema annasethe, a species Haeckel described in 1880 and whose tentacles are said to have reminded him of his wife’s hair. His images remind me, on the other hand, of the poster I’m holding, a souvenir from a 2013 Italian conference Collins has given me, which features 22 glossy jellies against a matte background. That they’ve been photoshopped, which is to say aestheticized, strikes me as a contemporary extension of Haeckel’s compositions, as artistic as they are accurate.
I bid the men goodbye, happy to have spent the day talking jellies, at the entrance to an exhibit on human history funded by one of the notorious Koch brothers. When I finally return to my hotel, late in the afternoon, I’m troubled to read, while looking online for the prints Marques showed me, that among Ernst Haeckel’s most prominent claims was that “politics is applied biology,” a sentiment avidly embraced by his countrymen in the years between world wars. For Haeckel, the great proponent of nature as art—and a fine aestheticizer of jellies—was also one of the leading lights of scientific racism, and his beliefs helped fuel the fascism that devastated Europe and turned his native country into the worst abattoir in history.
As I consider the familiar implications, here in my hotel room just south of the mall, I am somehow reminded of the twenty-four eyes of the box jelly: perhaps my inability to separate the marvelous from the monstrous, the scientific from the aesthetic, the reasoned from the arbitrary—or inflammatory—may be, like the jelly’s brainlessness, a defense against annihilation. If only I could make these combinations mean, but then to do so may be to cast aspersions on the whole human endeavor, and misanthropy is truly no kind of way to live. I think back to what Collins said at the start of my visit, in connection to his early corporate aspirations, that life is less about cause and effect than chance and luck and complexity. I’m bumping up against the mind’s limits here, trying both to describe the flowchart and be swept away by it. Much as pleasure may be ruin and ruin pleasure, beauty may be waste and waste beauty, but as for what holds such contrarieties together, it’s slime—glorious, gooey, and human.
Header photo of Aegina by Allen Collins.