Monday, June 20, 2011

A name but no face

The first time I saw one? I was out in the rowboat, only a couple of hundred feet from our dock, and had, for whatever reason, dropped an oar over the side. I was probably 11, so there is a good chance I had dropped it on purpose, so as to be able to retrieve it. As I was reaching for the oar, I noticed a little white circle, mostly translucent, maybe the size of a dime, floating just under the oar. My hand retracted as the word 'jellyfish' formed in my brain. But I had swum in this lake many hundreds of times and never been stung, or heard that anyone else had. It wafted back and forth in the wavelets I created as I wiggled down in the boat to get a closer look. I held still and eventually so did it. Definitely a jellyfish, or something very similar to one. I watched it until it sank down into the dark silky water and out of view. I imagined it going back down to its secret world and hidden life. I imagined following it and learning.

The oar by this time was far enough away that I had to jump in and get it. I did this with some reluctance, having been stung too many times before, by jellyfish at summer camp on the Chesapeake Bay, and the previous winter in Florida by a Portuguese Man-o-War. Like every swim in the lake before and since, no stings.

My mother afterwards told me that there were freshwater jellyfish in the lake, but only occasionally, and not as many as my grandfather described from when he was a boy. I’ve seen them occasionally since, usually only on really hot days, one or two at a time. I only recently learned their name, Craspedacusta sowerbyi, when they were suggested to me as a possible study organism. Looking them up, finding that they had been studied down to the molecular, I realized I already knew this organism, but only as scattered phantasms floating by on summer days.

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