Feature • Amy Leach
THE ROUND EARTH AFFAIR
We were each like a tree grown in a cage. My neighbors and I slept tucked behind thin gates and thin doors, beneath ceilings, stacked and walled away from nature: all light from moons and planets undetectable through the smog. Up until a year ago, what we met of nature during the day was kept in pots or disguised as breakfast. Most of the time we felt we did not need nature: some of the time, when it thundered or trembled, we felt that we did not want nature. And some of the time we felt that we did not know what we needed or wanted.
We had heard that bad things were in store for nature, the way the oceans are over-fished and the skies fouled, but in my city people are not so horrifiable: we’d seen movies of the future, when the earth is finished being ruined—humans wheezing out some last haggard weeks in cement tenements—and yet to us these conditions didn’t look so strange. We were hard to horrify, living already as if nature were gone.
“The round-earth period can only last so long, anyhow,” we’d say. “The earth used to be flat, and for now the earth is round, but the earth is going to be flat again—faded and flat as a bell that thuds and does not ring.”
And so it was useless for anyone to try and sign us on with the ranks of the environmentally panicked, or the environmentally conscientious, or even the environmentally uneasy. We were resigned to losing Planet Earth, whose silence, whose spaciousness, whose Newfoundland, whose whales, were as foreign to us as Planet Huffenpuff’s over in the next galaxy. Imaginary, or very far away, was how we saw “Earth,” the thought of whose demise brought some folks to weepy shrieks.
But while resigned people can be infuriatingly unresponsive to shrieks, they are, in some ways, very easy to enchant: when you expect to lunch on roaches and granite, bread delights you.
There was an infirm building across from my apartment building that finally, two years ago, the city smashed up and carried away, leaving a pitiful square of trash. Then, a year later, they started a park there. The park was pitiful too at first, and since the plants had to endure that winter as infants, my neighbors and I stayed unacquainted with nature for some months. But in the spring the tender and undefeated thin green fingers emerged from the ground and from the stick-trees, and we began to notice the park—even if we were just hurrying by—because bits of it were straying onto the pavement.
In May some small lilac butterflies started to break up the tedium of road. On my way to catch the bus, road, road, road, on my way back home, road, road, road, on my way to catch the bus, road, road, road, road, butterfly. A butterfly, a giddy looping thing which appeared to be out of its dippy mind. It flew very energetically but made little progress, flying in weird and impractical patterns. It was not gently, serenely, carefully floating through the air, like on greeting cards. This butterfly seemed magnificently crazed. It was as if a creature crawling around on short legs had suddenly obtained light purple wings and somebody had forgotten to tell it about the training.
One morning I saw a tiny frazzled bird running back and forth by the side of the road, tormented by the curb. It must have been prematurely unnested—it couldn’t fly, couldn’t jump, could only dash, and so all its worried energy was manifested horizontally. It had fallen off the curb and had no way to get back over it. I stopped and picked it up, small, bony, and soft, and left it dashing around in the grass. Whether people need nature or not, it was clear that nature needed people: I’d seen a man picking a straying green-brown beetle up from the road and putting it back in its park, and I had seen beetles that didn’t get picked up from the road: his beetle, and my bird, absolutely needed people.
But perhaps nature needs us like a hostage needs her captors: nature needs us not to annihilate her, not to run her over, not to cover her with cement, not to chop her down. We can hardly admire ourselves, then, when we stop to accommodate nature’s needs: we are dubious heroes who create a peril and then save its victims, we who rescue the animals and the trees from ourselves.
People need nature, at times, in the same way: since fire and snakes and storms can so easily make bones of us, we need them to be merciful. But if destructive potential were the only reason that humans and nature needed each other, each would have a reason to be polite, but not much reason to be miserable if the other vanished.
Nature, however, seems to inspire in us something more than politeness.
On Sunday mornings, for years, I have taken my delicate chair-bound neighbor Demetrio for walks. Before the park came, we took a look at people visiting the newsstand, people visiting each other, people buying bread. Now that flowers bloom across the street we look at tall red billowy flowers and Demetrio looks astonished, like he is in love, like an old man in love with a flower.
There is a print in our library of a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, called Monk by the Sea. Most of the painting is sky, a north brilliant ice-blue sky. A small figure stands on ice, looking out across rough black ocean. No boats are heading off, and no boats land. It is not a sea for sailing. It could swell up and suck the man down: the sky could whip around and send him slipping into the water: the ice could crack and float away with him. The scene he inhabits has enough power to terrify and extinguish tens of thousands of monks: yet the painting is not Monk Running Away from the Sea, and while he is painted with his back to the observer, it is conceivable that he is not standing there screaming. Nature has another power besides the power to terrify.
Because it is so empty of human commotion, the painting of the monk used to seem archaic, if not incomprehensible: but even though the proportions are reversed in our neighborhood, and nature is now the vulnerable quiet one surrounded by an immense ocean of persons, the sense of the painting has been resurrected for us: for when she is planted across the street, we are fastened with desire: we cannot relinquish butterflies and return to uninterrupted road. We have lost our composure, for the earth is still round, and the earth is still ringing.
FLOWER HATS AND HULA SKIRTS
One nice thing about having a frame of bones is that you don’t get rerouted every time you run into something. Your route can be quite influenced by your self. Having bones also makes it possible to organize your noise, as in tapping and talking, instead of just swishing in the breeze.
However, when you have tapping bones and talking bones, you are expected to tap and talk, instead of just swishing. Each bone comes with responsibilities. Also, being self-influenced can be socially stressful: because they could be proceeding south or east, animals with bones are often asked to answer for why they are proceeding north. Imagine the extra answerability of peewits, who can also go up.
Jellyfish on the other hand are less accountable for wherever they are. Even great paroxysms of responsibility have little effect when you are made of mucous. Jellyfish do pulse their bells, but this pulsing influence is minor compared to the influence of the ocean. For instance, the by-the-wind sailor jellyfish is born in the middle of the Pacific Ocean either with its sail tilting to the right or its sail tilting to the left. All the right-sailed ones blow to California, and all the left-sailed jellyfish go left.
When a jellyfish does manage to pulse itself someplace, it is often up, or down—like the upside-down jellyfish which is born tiny and free-swimming, but then, once it grows to be two centimeters across, turns upside down and pulses directly to the bottom of the sea and sticks there permanently, with its feeding tentacles floating up like seaweed. The only way for a jellyfish not to drift is to plant itself. Down there, stopped, the upside-down jellyfish is as independent from the currents as a jellyfish possibly can be.
Most other jellyfish never stop wafting. Usually, dead jellyfish on the sand have simply wafted out of the water. What happens to jellyfish out of water is similar to what happens to bridesmaid hairdos in water. Living jellyfish in the water look like pink and green flower hats and bright dripping egg yolks and manes of lions, but out dead on the beach sand they look like melting plastic bags.
However, plastic bags can also be transformed by their location: in the water plastic bags become handsome like the moon, so that sea turtles mistake them for moon jellyfish and eat them. Eating plastic bags instead of jellyfish saves the turtles’ eyes from swelling shut on account of tentacle sting. But plastic causes terrible eater’s indigestion and generally kills the mistaken turtles.
Sometimes, while moon jellyfish are being impersonated by plastic bags, they themselves go to Japan to be in salads (jellyfish might seem like they would taste eerie, but in fact they taste like blue rubber bands), or they transfer to aquariums. And once 2500 moon jellyfish were selected to join the moon in space. They spent nine days in plastic bags in space and were sent there by NASA because they are able to sense up and down.
Their gravity receptors, also called statocysts, turn out to be quite useful in the water as well as in space, for the life cycle of the jellyfish makes extensive use of gravity. Jellyfish are born mid-water, in autumn, when floating eggs and floating sperm float together and form polyps. Then the polyps drop down and live as little necks attached to the bottom of the sea. Like the upside-down jellyfish, a polyp just plops statically in one spot. However, for mobile animals, the sea bottom, because grippable, allows for a lot of dramatic action not always possible up in the ungrippable water—water which may at any point fluctuate you and strew you and disperse you from your adversaries.
The floor of the sea is where the purple, orange, and red bat stars live, who constantly fight with each other in slow motion—belligerence knows no tempo. On the sea floor, too, the sunflower star steps along on its 15,000 tube feet, stepping after the purple sea urchin and the red sea urchin in order to eat them. The red sea urchin, of course, usually lasts longer. One way to put off being eaten by the sunflower star is to be eating its feet as it steps after you. Sadly the unfortunate jellyfish polyps have no way to delay being eaten by the dreaded biscuit starfish.
The floor of the sea is also the setting for the potentially dramatic life of the sea cucumber. The cucumbers do not flip or flash or whistle or ever translate into frillier forms of themselves. Neither do they do much mixing with other animals—and mixing usually provides one’s chief opportunities for drama. No the sea cucumber eats dirt and its drama is solitary and ultimate. Every year, for three weeks, it melts down its respiratory and circulatory systems and then rebuilds itself. The danger is that if it gets warm or stressed during this restoration period the poor frail cucumber will burst, expelling all its softened heart-soup. Please do not yell at the sea cucumbers, or pinch them.
In the springtime the jellyfish polyps develop little decorations on top of their necks that turn out to be medusa buds, medusas that will go floating up, away from the floor, away from the fussing bat stars and exploding cucumbers, to drift around in the seawater with peaceful sea gooseberries and stable sea walnuts.
The medusa form of the jellyfish is the famous one, more famous than its stationary polyp form. However, there are some polyps that never actually sprout medusas, but instead assemble their small basic plain selves together into a medusa lookalike. The man-of-war, for example, appears to be one individual, like Leo Tolstoy; but it is actually many individuals living together as a colony, like Leo Tolstoy. The man-of-war is a joint project—many little polyps joined up—so some of the polyps swim for the project and some reproduce for it and some eat for it and some serve as dangling tentacles. The siphonophore, a twinkling blue rope longer than a whale, is also such a colonial project.
As for their twinkling, many jellyfish will only twinkle when jabbed. They do not spontaneously light up. Nevertheless, the jellyfish’s green fluorescent genes have been successfully transferred to piglets who then glow whether they are jabbed or not. Fluorescence and the option to stop fluorescing are not always concomitant; the new piglets have permanently fluorescing snouts and hooves to ruffle up truffles with.
But while the jellyfish is able to beam or not beam at will, there are other things that it cannot stop doing, like poisoning. Jellyfish have to be so poisonous because they are so delicate—too delicate to struggle with their food. If their food thrashed about, it would shred the jellyfishes’ curly gauzy watercolor streamers: therefore they must be noxious enough to subdue their food at once.
Trailing long death-streamers beneath you works well when you have no teeth and are not good at steering; however, death-streamers, unlike teeth, do not allow you to target your victims and hence you will sting everything you touch night and day—both the things you can eat and the things you cannot eat, like benign swimming persons, who, when stung, may experience “a feeling of impending doom” and then sink too quickly to be eaten. Jellyfish venom is similar to scorpion venom and to funnel-web spider venom, neither of which is addictive.
Now there is a little silvery butterfish, which, because it withstands the ever-sting of jellyfish, reveals them to be in some circumstances gentle, even hen-like: the butterfish spends the first three months of its life tenting in the soft poisoned tentacle-curtains of a jellyfish in the Arctic Ocean. The silvery butterfish is probably poison-resistant, since it eats as well as inhabits the jellyfish tentacles. (How to eat something larger than yourself: bite off chunks.) A decent question here is whether the host jellyfish is really hospitable or if it is just insensate. After all, sometimes you do not notice when fish are swimming through your beard but that does not mean you are so hospitable.
What do jellyfish actually sense? Because they light up when jabbed, they probably sense jabbing. And they must sense deepness, as demonstrated by the hula-skirt siphonophore, who regulates its deepness by augustly changing the amount of gas in its float: if you can regulate something, surely you can sense it. Also, if you swim away from something, you can probably sense it, and jellyfish swim away when submarine rovers shine their spotlights on them. Sometimes they even melt in the spotlight: melting is often a good sign of detection.
Another reason to suppose that jellyfish sense light is that they live in light, like tomato frogs and bears and grass. Even grass senses light, although slowly, while light is meaningless for tapeworms. Light sponsors its own comprehension.
Another clue that jellyfish sense light is that they emit light. Consciousness, of course, sometimes falls short of emanation, and jellyfish could be like flowers and people, who express more than they sense. But jellyfish seem to emit light deliberately—sometimes a jellyfish will even drop a glowing tentacle onto a predator and then turn its remaining lights off, which shifts everyone’s attention to the predator, suddenly conspicuous with a fantastic flashy tail.
In the end, though, the best evidence that jellyfish can sense light is that they have eyes. Why do jellyfish need eyes? Bees, of course, need eyes to see other bees dancing; birds need eyes to watch the stars; smart bombs need eyes so they can stare at their targets; and boa constrictors need eyes with infrared vision to see tiny hot animals in the forest. Scorpions and turtles may or may not need eyes, as scorpions have from zero to twelve eyes and turtles sometimes travel with their eyes closed.
Jellyfish, however, do not need to communicate about faraway nectar troves, nor do they navigate by the stars, like birds. But still they have eyes.
Most animals have either keen eyes or sensitive eyes: cats have iridescent tapeta in their eyes for gathering the palest traces of light; but all that gathered scattery light in their eyes, then, prevents cats from perceiving fine details. And hawks detect details, but since they do not have tapeta for collecting flickers, they must depend on the sun to boom down obvious light for them to see by. Your blessing is your curse and your curse is your blessing. Because you see details, you cannot see hints of light; because you see hints of light, you cannot see details. You would need diverse eyes if you wished to be equally penetrating and sensitive.
You would need to have eyes like the box jellyfish, with its sixteen light-sensitive eyes and eight acute camera-like eyes—all twenty-four eyes hanging down on stalks.
However, you would also need a brain.
But maybe that is not possible; maybe, in fact, the brainlessness of the box jellyfish is a direct consequence of its tremendous powers of sight. Perhaps neither the animal nor the prophet has been invented who could process so thorough a vision. 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.
YOU ARE GOING TO FLY
Once a friend and I followed a moth that trudged across a whole grocery store parking lot. It was nighttime—not really a safe time for trudging moths, people generally being too tired, by then, to stop the car and wait. I said to it: “Dear moth, why don’t you fly? Why do you waste your wings?” But my friend, much better than me at allowing winged things to walk, said that maybe it missed being a caterpillar. We decided this: it is a good thing that the caterpillar stage comes before the moth stage, instead of the other way around; moths, if they like, can take long nostalgic walks across parking lots, while caterpillars could never indulge in long nostalgic flights to Mexico.
“Caterpillar, you are going to fly,” everyone says to caterpillars. “You will be transformed!” People think of them as proto-moths and proto-butterflies and are impatient for them to convert into their more extraordinary selves. This is understandable, of course: when that which is like a plodding lozenge turns into that which is like an angel, everything that belongs to the lozenge’s time seems mere preliminary. But think of the nervousness for the lozenge! What sort of disposition could bear the pressure of such a drastic and imminent exaltation? Caterpillars, nonetheless, remain calm, eating their tobacco and milkweed, enviably imperturbable in the face of a brilliant future.
Yet they are perturbable—if not by the future, then by elements of the present, for they are little and plush-soft, crushable, eatable, drownable, freezable. A few have spines, like the hickory horned devil, or intimidating tufts, like the dagger moth; a few have antifreeze to keep their blood from turning to icy slush, but most do not. Most can only inch away from danger, antifreeze and intimidating tufts notwithstanding. Any danger that cannot overtake a caterpillar is no danger at all, a trifle.
Because they cannot run (for caterpillars have only six real legs—the rest are fake: mere stumps to keep their hind parts from dragging and getting scuffed), caterpillars have to do other things when threatened. Some make themselves unpleasant: black-etched prominent caterpillars send out two foul-smelling pink tentacles from their back end and wave them around. Monarch caterpillars are foul-tasting. (Entomologists use that word foul often when referring to the flavor of a caterpillar. They are rarely more specific than foul or tastyI expect that is because they are leaving the assessment up to birds, and birds have a very binary approach.)
The azalea caterpillar, a black-and-white plaid caterpillar with a cherry-red head and legs, when disturbed, arches up its head and thrusts it back, like a hairpin, and arches its tail up like an S. To be honest, it looks more electrocuted than scary when it does this. The yellow-necked caterpillar twists itself into the same shape, except that the yellow-neck vibrates as well, which really brings electric trauma to mind.
Many caterpillars defend themselves not by striking fear in the hearts of their predators, but rather indifference. The large maple spanworm looks like a twig; the viceroy caterpillar looks like a bird dropping. This is not as exciting as looking like an anaconda, but when you are very small, and wingless, one of your main goals in life is to not be exciting. And speaking of unexciting—I think it is safe to say that woolly bears have one of the least advanced defense mechanisms among insects, although theirs is the reaction with which I most strongly identify: when distressed, the woolly bear rolls up into a ball.
Their other main goal, besides not being eaten, is to eat; we are lucky we do not have to share our tables with caterpillars. Elephants attest: in six weeks, in Botswana, the mopane worms eat thirteen times as many tons of mopane leaves as elephants do the whole year long! But for such ravening creatures, caterpillars are very finicky. The mopane worm eats only mopane leaves, the cloudless sulphur eats only wild senna, the sleepy orange eats senna and clover, and the darling underwing eats only willows, but prefers black willow. It is not an effortless venture for the earth to keep caterpillars happy, or to keep them full.
I recently saw the last five minutes of a reality show where lots of women were vying for one man, the women behaving somewhat like insects—witchety grubs frantically trying to bury each other in a bucket-o-bait, or spiders stinging each other’s heads, eating each other’s legs. Not having seen the beginning, not knowing the premise of the show, I surmised that some amount of money was in store for the winning woman. (What other incentive would induce them to participate? Unless they were coerced—but it cannot be legal, I thought to myself, to detain so many women and force them to act like insects.)
However, when they showed one of the youngest ones, filmed burbling after the big introduction banquet, I was nonplussed: not a mercenary at all, she seemed genuinely hoping to fall in love. She said, “The moment our eyes met, I knew there was something special between us! And I felt butterflies in my stomach, like I haven’t in so long!” And she declared, “I live for butterflies!”
I am guessing that this sweet, moony girl later regretted her announcement, which must have induced thousands of entomologists the world over to write her letters: “Dear Britanee, We do too! We live for butterflies too!” Entomologists are notoriously excitable, and notoriously ingenuous when it comes to reality shows. But it is possible that a more guarded entomologist, maybe from the Ukraine, happened to walk into his teenager’s room just as this particular interview was airing and directly posted a sensible letter the next morning to
Dear Miss Brown,
After witnessing your show on television last evening, during which you made the emotional statement regarding butterflies, I feel compelled to write to you and inquire: are you not aware that most butterflies, after they have acquired wings, only live for two weeks or less? That they spend months or even years as eggs and caterpillars and pupae? This is why you haven’t felt that fluttery feeling in such a long time, Miss Brown: the life cycle of the butterfly is protracted. If you really do live for butterflies, as you say, and provide your thoracic cavity as a butterfly garden, you must be patient and remember that you are living for their eggs, as well, and for caterpillars, which require months worth of nourishment, and for pupae, which can wait for years before they emerge as butterflies to give you a few days of fluttery-feeling and then die, or migrate. But with all due respect, Miss Brown, I suspect that you do not live for butterflies at all, but for the fluttery feeling they offer. If this is indeed the case, may I suggest that you let the butterflies out and fetch some Mexican jumping beans instead?
Dr. Osip Iwasykiw
But, in the end, whether people know how small a portion of time is given to the butterfly, how large a portion to the caterpillar, does not matter. For they can never infect the caterpillar with their anxious urges to “Become!” The celery looper, a small apple-green caterpillar, who climbs a toadflax plant, who somehow loses a foothold while walking across a stem to get to a leaf, slips and is hanging on by only its two front crochet-hook feet, the wind swinging it back and forth over the creek, is not thinking, “Alack! I shall fall into the icy water! I shall be swallowed by a fish! I will never, now, wrap myself in silk and wake up with powdery, iridescent blue-and-green wings, fly away with them to fields of cornflower, and mate, and feed on the tears of wild buffalo! My life, my eating, my looping—it has all been meaningless!”
Rather, it thinks, “I’m swinging, I’m swinging, I’m swinging.”
Amy Leach is the author of Things That Are (Milkweed). Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, and she has been recognized with a Whiting Award and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. She lives in Montana.
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