Thursday, February 25, 2010

Death of a daphnia

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is

I hold it towards you.

John Keats, "This Living Hand"

A couple of days ago, I slid a daphnia, a water flea, under a cover slip and peeked at it under the microscope. You could see its antennae sweep the water, its eyes, even its frantic heart beat through its translucent body.

After a bit of time, the heart slowed, maybe hypoxia, maybe exhaustion, time to put it back.

The daphnia came from a jug of water that has sat on the windowsill for over two years now, a jar with elodea and translucent snails and some odd jelly-like organism sticking to the side.

Daphnia reproduce every few weeks--over 20 generations have passed their lives in this bottle, their universe.

While trying to put the daphnia back in the jug, I screwed up--the daphnia stuck to the cover glass, and as I tried to coax it into the water, I squished it.

No one else noticed the death. I'm a loon--I spent hours pondering it.

I come from a clan of loons. We travel, we bark, we dance, we live. Mary Beth made friends in the Hunza Valley of Pakistan, and saw a valley of bonfires during an Ismaili Muslim celebration. John tackled a 20/20 cameraman, and got a spot on The Daily Show with John Stewart, and Marnie holds center court no matter where we go, and may be the funniest person on this planet.

I'm the wallflower, and I'm no slouch.

My mom was talented and crazy, but most of all, she was Oirish enough to remind us daily, hourly, that we are mortal. She gave up a shot at the professional stage to raise us, but we were audience enough. She loved us to death.


We live in a culture that denies it.

If a child learns anything in biology class, she ought to learn that in the end, death is as relentless as life, and life as relentless as death.

Our own death remains unknowable, of course, and I fear it in proportion to my love of life. Still, I saw both my parents finally give in to long illnesses, and both laughed, laughed, in their final moments of consciousness.

Not sarcastically, not smirkingly, not even ironically. They both laughed joyously. Neither believed in heaven, and both prayed there was no hell. Their faith was in the herenow.

Faith has no place in science class, but mystery does. Science is about pushing the borders of what we can know.

I know the daphnia I observed under the scope had some sense of awareness. I know the sun provides plant with the energy that keeps me alive. On rare, too rare, occasions I know that I will die.

And on those days I remember this, moments clarify, and joy deepens, not for what I will lose, but for what I have. In a culture that teaches children to fear their own shadows, I hope to show them the ultimate shadow, the inexplicable end that puts things in perspective.

Dozens of daphnia still dance in the windowsill jug, eating, seeing, being.

I want my students to have daphnia moments.

The Daphnia photo is by Paul Hebert at the Public Library of Science, via wikimedia.


John Spencer said...

In writing about "a humble paradox," I am struck that those who have a humble view of life (meaning they believe in the mystery of it, the fragile reality of it, the notion that we will die) are able to live it to the fullest.

Your post makes me think of my grandpa. He believed in death. He saw it on the battlefield. He experienced it in his family. He walked the line close to death and wasn't afraid - and yet he was able to access that courage only because he wasn't convinced he was immortal. He valued life (even life of animals) because he knew it was a vapor.

I go back to Ecclesiastes at least once a year because it reminds me of what matters "under the sun." It's easy for me to go there when I live in a desert. One of my favorite pieces of advice is when he mentions that it's better to go to a house of mourning than a house of celebration.

It's not that he's against celebration. The man implores his readers to eat, drink and enjoy work. It's that one's perspective on life is shaped by whether or not he believes in death.

(p.s. - sorry that my comments are long enough to be blog posts)

Kathryn J said...

I bought some daphnia and attempted to keep them alive in my classroom. I'm not sure what the problem was with my makeshift jar/aquarium setup but they did not live. I am a loon too because it still bothers me.

However, you are right that it should be part of understanding biology. I taught "grow and develop" as one of the 7 traits of all living organisms without any emphasis at all on the final stages of life. I need to rethink that too.

doyle said...

Dear John,

"Believe in death" sounds awkward at first, but it a wonderful phrase--since so many of us cannot conceive of our own deaths, we refuse to look at the possibility.

Death, of course, is inevitable. We pretend otherwise at our peril. and once death is accepted, it changes how you live.

From Wendell Berry:

Asked one day why the Shakers, who expected the end of the world at any moment, were nevertheless consummate farmers and craftsmen, Thomas Merton replied: “When you expect the world to end at any moment, you know there is no need to hurry. You take your time, you do your work well.”

Dear Kathryn,

My daphnia survived by accident--I brought in a pail of pond water for another teacher, who put it in a jug and left it on the wndowsill. The top was sealed with parafilm. The parafilm eventually came off, but the cycles of life continue. I use this jug frequently in class.

When we talk about "abiotic" versus "biotic," death comes up. Even my corpse is biotic. Not sure what point my molecules resume their abiotic status, but it gets (some of) the kids thinking.

I may borrow both of your words for a follow-up post on death in the curriculum.