Saturday, February 5, 2011

February barnacles

We got our first decent beach walk in since the flu knocked me off my feet a couple of Saturdays ago. The February light was spectacularly gray. The brown-gray bay faded into steel-gray fog.

A few huge oyster shells littered the beach--I have yet to find the bed off our beach, but I will. Plenty of smaller oysters have chosen to live on the local jetties, a few destined to end up in our kitchen pot.

Clumps of reddish seaweed strewn at the tide line reeked of wet dog, unusually rank. A seagull sat on the beach, not bothering to move, maybe hurt, maybe not.

On the way back we stumbled on a piling tossed up just beyond the water's reach. Barnacles covered its lower half, some still alive, but not for much longer, bound for life to this piling.

No sense trying to figure out the why of the barnacle. It spends its early life swimming around until it finally glues itself to something, anything. They keep themselves protected with trap doors that snap open when conditions are right, allowing them to comb the sea for food. I've wiled away good chunks of time watching them sweep the water.

When we talk of barnacles in school, if we ever do, we talk of the wonderful adhesive that stick to varied surfaces, of its potential commercial value. Or we talk of they're unusually long sex organs. We might mention that Darwin studied them for 8 years, as if that should hold a student's interest.We could calculate the damage they do to the shipping industry.

We show the photo, maybe a quick video of barnacles eating or mating, then move on.

Few of us dare talk about barnacles just being barnacles, nor would most of us let a child stare for hours at a barnacle on a jetty, at least not during school hours. In the end, what we learn nothing about barnacles, although we do learn a little bit about humans--how we classify animals, how we use animals, how we reduce knowledge to trivia.

And in the end, it may not matter if a child is acquainted with barnacles or not. But I will say this much--if I take a tiny strand of my DNA, and spliced it into the DNA of a barnacle, the barnacle could conceivably make a human protein. If I take a tiny strand of the barnacle DNA, and place it within mine, I could conceivably make a barnacle protein.

We share the same basic DNA structure, the same sorts of amino acids, the same kinds or organelles--we are more alike than we are different. I learned little about the barnacle while in school, but I did learn a little while staring many living a foot or two below the surface of the bay.

The barnacles did what they needed to do, no more, no less. They ate when they could, clammed up when they needed to, reproduced when they wanted to, and eventually died.

As they have since before I was born, as they will long after I die. Barnacles as they relate to humans hardly interests me--I know almost as much about humans as I care to know. But barnacles as barnacles fascinates me, and they fascinate children who stumble upon them in the wild.

The drawing is by Darwin himself, found here at The Complete Work of Charles Darwin.


Kate said...

My most vivid intersection with barnacles came the last time that I moved the boat that lived on for a year. We were in Dubrovnik (oh, how I want to go back to Croatia) and we had to take on water and fuel.

I had the windlass. For my last act on this boat, I wanted to be perfect. I wanted to look like I knew what I was doing, and as we approached the fuel dock mooring ball, I reached into the water with a gaffer's hook, snagged that line, and wrapped it (a few good wraps) around one of the brand spankin' new windlass winches. I hit the switch (the boat was all electric because all winches were downsized to save space).

The winch sprang to life. We started to pull in, and then the gear slipped and the boat was not moving in the direction that I wanted. I wrapped a couple more wraps, hit the switch again, pull.... slip....

The line began to pull through my hands. There was no way I could hold 63 tons of boat on a mooring line with my bare hands, but I held on. Wrapped, tried the windlass again - this time the gears didn't slip and it held the boat as we went stern to the dock.

I looked at my hands. The palms were shredded. Bleeding.

Barnacles. They sure are sharp.

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

Indeed. I almost mentioned it, but your story was much better.

I tore up my hands on oyster shells once (well, twice, but during the same incident). Leslie and i had pulled up along the edge of the Cape May Canal, to make a quick stop at my Auntie Beth's home. I noticed the blood before I felt any pain, and had no idea how I had slice open my hand.

Until I tried to climb out of the kayak a second time. Dumb. Just plain dumb.