Sunday, March 15, 2009

Barnacle philosophy

I found the largest barnacle I have ever seen while meandering along the bay's edge yesterday.

The barnacle has not been dead long--the sweet decay of death announces its presence. It still has enough spirit left to talk to me. And it does.

I was alive yesterday, I am not alive today.

My neighbor died last week. A friend of mine's father is very ill this week.
All living things die. All.

I forget this.
Half of my clan has died, and still I forget this.
The monitor lets me believe I am immortal.


Darwin studied barnacles, thousands and thousands of them. I have barely studied one, and a not-so-alive one. (I did spend a lot of time when I was younger watching barnacles sweep their feathers in the water, mesmerized by their rhythm.)

In one day I have learned about the life history of acorn barnacles, that it can see in its early stages, that at its cyprid larval stage it sniffs out adult barnacles, then touches them, then attaches its small body next to adults. It flips upside down, then forms the walls around itself, the walls so familiar to anyone who has scraped the bottom of a boat. I learned this all on the internet.

My barnacle friend sits on this desk, next to this monitor. I sniff it again. My nose teaches me what my eyes cannot.

My nose knows death.

And why do barnacles need to live so close each other? Why do young barnacles smell and feel other barnacles before settling down for their lifetime on a rock in Cape May?

Barnacles are intimate with each other. Unlike clams and oysters and striped bass and so many other creatures ecstatically tossing gametes into the sea, barnacles, um, have relations.

With each other.

Yes, their anatomy reflects this--take a peek below if you're insatiably curious.

My barnacle lived a good life--I found him on a plastic pipe that had been tossed on the beach by a recent tide. He had company, and I suspect they had relations. Empty wine glasses, burned candle stumps. I knocked off his carcass with my foot, and he will likely stay in my home until someone cremates me.

He will sit on the windowsill with the shells of oysters and clams and urchins and horseshoe crabs and whelks and mussels. I hope that someday they all get tossed back into the sea. I hope I get tossed back into the sea with them.

Dancing only makes sense if you're going to die. Dancing costs energy. We do it anyway.

I sniff my barnacle again. I smell the organic molecules breaking down, food for bacteria, energy caught but never used by the barnacle.

In our cultural drive to be more productive, more efficient, more more, the barnacle's rhythmic dance on the rocks reminds me that my children are not their test scores, and that what I teach matters, even the stuff not on the tests.

Darwin suffered losses while he studied the barnacles. He was plagued by illness, and lost his favorite child Annie. Somehow he got through it, and wrote The Origin of Species, an epic work that summed up a life.

I'd like to think the barnacles helped him get through the darkness.

If you want to see a wonderful video of barnacles in action (and beware, men, you may develop penis envy), click here.


Kate T said...

Barnacles need a better PR agent. I have one very strong barnacle memory from Croatia. We were moving the boat to take on fresh water and fuel, and it would be the very last time that I would move the boat. I was leaving the next day for Boston, knowing that I was going to break someone's heart and that mine might just break as well.

We arrived at the fuel dock, and I was up on the bow. I miraculously caught the line, first time, with the boat hook and wrapped the line four times around the winch of the brand new Scottish windlass. I hit the button to start the windlass, it started up, and the gear to the winch slipped and the line began to pull through my hands. I quickly wrapped the line again (5 wraps) and hit the button with my foot. The winch slipped and the line pulled. The barnacles on the line (it lived in the water most of the time) shredded my palms, but I kept the boat from slamming into the dock by adding another wrap on the winch.

Spring lines were thrown and tied; we settled in to taking on fuel. I looked at my brutalized palms and headed to the galley and the peroxide. The captain was angry because I was bleeding on the deck. Then he tried the windlass and the damn thing slipped for him too. Somehow this was still my fault.

So, the barnacles helped me know that it was time to leave. I never moved the boat again.

All things die. My garden reminded me today. Things that I let stand over the winter were pulled down, kitchen scraps are making dirt, and the seeds are going in. The earth smells of spring and I am starting to find my balance. There is a philosophy of compost as well (although my eldest tells me she finds the idea of the pile 'icky'). Thanks for unearthing my barnacle memory.

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

I was worried about the silence--I had not heard a peep from anyone since posting this. After posting nonsense about fluoride and vaccines and beer vs. milk, topics that get the amygdalas going, I tried something closer to the heart.

And nothing.

Then I get a marvelous story from you. I am glad you shared your barnacle story. Thank you.

Kate T said...

Dear Michael -

The silence on my own blog lately is deafening, so I do understand.

Thank you for scratching that memory to the surface. It was so long ago (over 20 years) but now it seems fresh again. That's a gift to me.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Michael!

"I was alive yesterday, I am not alive today" sounds as if it's the next stage of the vertically-ill/horizontally-ill transition.

Patrick Holford, who is an exponent of the horizontally-ill/vertically-ill theory was interviewed by Kim Hill last month. Maybe the barnacles could take a leaf out of Holford's new book? Or maybe they don't eat paper?

Catchya later
from Middle-earth