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U Jelly

March 6, 2011

I’m in  Baltimore visiting my younger brother this weekend.  I got here Friday night.

“What do you want to do while you are here, he emailed me before I left.

“Hang out.”


“Go to the aquarium.” Baltimore is home to The National Aquarium, and I like fish.

I don’t think the term “fish nerd” has gained in currency, but it describes me accurately. I like fish. I’ve liked fish ever since my mother sent me to Marine Biology Summer Camp at the Miami Science Museum, back in the 70s when the popular conception of a typical marine biologist’s day at the office involved apricot brandy and the need for a bigger boat.

I like the smell of fish, not so much as broiling in lemon juice and dill, or shoyu and ginger in my broiler (although I do like that smell) as the smell of a low tide, of the salt spray in the air, the smell of seaweed, of a mangrove swamp. I like the way they dart around or graze. I like the way they shoal up together, or the way they lurk. Fish are beautiful, or very, very ugly, but always interesting, and the only reason I am not a marine biologist is the same reason I’m not a doctor: I am a terrible scientist.

I do like fish, though, even though I don’t spend my life studying them, and my brother’s loft apartment in downtown Baltimore is a fifteen minute walk to the aquarium. As soon as I got into town, we headed over.

It was all there: the real coral, the fake coral with the real fish, the tropical frogs hiding in their terrariums, the shark pool.

We decided that the best perk of being a James Bond villain would be living in a house with a shark pool, but that the salt spray it would throw up would mean that you couldn’t have anything else nice in the house, and it would be better to have books than sharks. Even sharks with lasers.

I decided the best part of having brothers, and going to visit them, is being able to have conversations like that.

We finished our tour of The National Aquarium with a visit to a special exhibition called “Jellyfish Invasion.”

As much as I love fish, I don’t like jellyfish.

When we lived in Tokyo, I used to take my daughter in her stroller on long walks, and one of my favorite routes took us along the shaded lanes by the canals and rivers where moon jellies would sometimes swarm up from Tokyo Bay.

I would look at them, floating in the tea-dark water, for hours while my baby slept, and then walk home in the late afternoon light which I would enjoy all the more for my venture into the shadows by where dark things dwelt.

“You really don’t like jellyfish,” said my brother.

“No, I don’t. They give me the creeps.” I did not tell him I had to walk out of the movie theater during the jellyfish scene in Finding Nemo.

Most brothers, sensing weakness, would seize on it, but not mine. He was curious.

“Giant venomous globs of snot,” he called them. “But you love gross stuff!”

It’s true. I do.

“Not jellyfish. They are creepy.”

“My search for the visceral finds its apex in primordial gobs of unintelligent goo from before the dawn of time,” I said, and he cracked up.

I really do hate jellyfish, and it’s not just that they are gross.

I hate the way they sneak up on me and sting me. They do it when I am scuba diving, swarms of tiny ones that leave a rash everywhere my wet suit isn’t. They do it when I’m playing in the waves on the beach, or floating in a calm sea under the gentle sun, in what would be the giant amniotic sac of Mother Earth, sheltering us from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, at least for a few minutes, when wham, along comes a Portuguese man o’ war, or a piece of a tentacle of one. I love the ocean, but I would enjoy it much more if I didn’t know that somewhere, swarms of jellyfish are gathering, and there is an unbroken chain of water molecules connecting me to them. It’s the transitive property of touching. Six-year-old children understand this property very well.

According to marine biologists, men and women who share my passion for the ocean and its denizens, but are also good at science, jellyfish are propagating in record numbers as a direct result of slight increases in ocean temperatures.

If temperatures rise much more, I’m going to turn on the tap of my giant bathtub in my giant McMansion and jellyfish are going to flow out of the  faucet into my bubble bath.

Cimate change is terrifying, but it’s a distant terror.

Jellyfish are different. I don’t care how far away they are. They can swarm in the Sea of Japan and I still feel menaced.

“You can make a difference” the wall text at the exhibition told me.

I already do what I can to reduce my carbon footprint, and so the happy feeling of self-satisfaction swept past my consciousness. But wait! There’s more!

“Don’t fertilize your lawn.”

I already knew that fertilizer run-off is a major contributor to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, but what I did not know is that the “dead” zone is actually crawling with jellyfish. Admittedly, most of it the nitrogen pollution that is causing the dead zone comes from giant agribusiness, but residential lawns are a significant factor, and I do live in the Trinity River watershed.

If I can keep the jellyfish away by planting a native lawn and fertilizing it with compost and composted manure, then so much the better.

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  1. Aunt Lee permalink

    “It’s the transitive property of touching. Six-year-old children understand this property very well.”

    That’s beautiful writing.

  2. Right ON! You go with your Direct Action! ❤

    P.S. I too love fish, and the ocean, but have never given much thought to jellyfish.

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