Sunday, May 15, 2011

Danse Medusae

I studied marine biology, and so I know that jellyfish are not intellectually sophisticated. In fact, they have no intellect at all, since they lack brains entirely. They do have a “nerve net” of interconnected cells, and some have cells that relate to sensory abilities like sight—of a sort—and smell and touch, but that’s as much as you’ll get; no jellyfish is going to compose this century’s Mrs. Dalloway. Maybe an American Idol spin-off, but that’s about it.

Jellyfish also, as far as I’m aware, don’t really have any sort of social network or group behaviors. That is, they do occasionally travel in vast swarms (some of which are becoming more prevalent as a result of global warming—see this pop-sci briefing or this scientific review for more details)—but they’re not doing things with each other so much as alongside one another. As far as modern science can judge, they don’t have love affairs or jealousies, grand ambitions or dark schemes.

So there’s absolutely no reason why they should have this aura of mystery, the grace of a dedicated and passionate ballet dancer, the suggestion of ghostly wistfulness like a phantom returning from the afterlife to visit a lost love or right a wrong.

Their relatives, anemones and coral, beautiful as they can be, don’t prompt these leaps of the heart or inspire imaginings of an internal, emotional life worthy of Tchaikovsky. Is it their gauzy, drifting movement that does it, that convinces us they must be buoyed by a delight in their own delicacy, by the joy of floating dreamily on the currents?

It’s the only explanation I can come up with. But I have to admit that I haven’t thought about it in too much depth; I’m too busy taking pleasure in their movements, and the thoughts they conjure, myself.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}


Anca said...

Beautiful writing to go with lovely photos of these creatures. Is it that they seem so evanescent? An entirely illusory notion for anyone who, like me, has been stung by one. The pain does NOT evanesce for a looooong time.

Good Ol' Ant said...

Hey, * I * wanted to say that the photos and text are beautiful and complement each other beautifully.

Next time you write about jellyfish, you'll have to tell us why they're called "medusa" in French (and other languages?). Is it that the sight of them transfixes a person -- or is it that the sting is petrifying?

Joseph JG said...

Wonderful post!

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