Sunday, September 5, 2010

I thought about sessile organisms; some casual waxings on the immobile life

I thought about sessile organisms;
some casual waxings on the immobile life

By mykl sivak

Saturday, September 25, 2004/Sunday September 5, 2010

An Introduction

It’s a nice day. Lukewarm and breezy. This is appropriate for this time of year, when summer shifts to autumn.

In some spots, I’ve noticed the a few impatient leaves beginning to change color. But not here, not just yet. Through the bug-splattered and cigarette smoke hazed glass of my S-10’s windshield it looks like summer. The electrical towers stand in a long row, perched here and there on little hillcrests, beside little Connecticut gullies, along the clear-cut grid-path that cuts a strange swath of scrub brush and grasses from some far away place to some other far away place. Between the towers, the wires dip. Beneath the wires, happy grasshoppers flitter. Their wings are like black and green flags.

The towers look like static robots, sentinels. Perhaps waiting for the moment when they will roll to life to defend humanity from some extraterrestrial threat, defend my precious life. Or maybe they would be the destroyers. Lash at us with their long electrically charged whips. We would stand no chance.

Our little fried-black corpses would litter suburban streets like the dried carcasses of so many rain-drowned earthworms. In the sunny aftermath, little squirrels and robins might peck flecks of tar-black flesh from our charcoal bodies. The deer would step unafraid, in their masses of hundreds, from the wooded nooks that surround our still perfect, former homes to lick the little salty crystals that crust our burned dermises, set them sparkling in the sun like black jewels. That would be weird.

This past week (2004), someone fucked up. The unnamed culprit, an employee of the Stratford, Connecticut sewage plant, failed to properly shut some valve. The result was four million gallons of untreated effluence poured into the Housatonic River and Long Island Sound. Needless to say, when my cousin Johnny and I set out fishing, we went to other spots. The environmental faux pas seemed good impetus to try our hands at freshwater game for a change.

After a quick stop at Wal-Mart for lures, polarized sunglasses and an impulse-purchased camouflage cowboy hat, we continued to Monroe’s Wolf Park to toss our lines into the water and see if we could nab some state-stocked trout, or whatever. The fishing was futile —not a single nibble—but John-boy caught a tiny brown toad that proceeded to urinate all over his fingers in traditional toad fashion. As he rinsed the toad piss from his fingers, I plunged my forearms into the water, plucked a couple of the multitude of freshwater mussels that littered the pond’s muddy bottom and inspected them in my fingertips. Underwater, some rested in a position I would consider vertical, their ghost-white feet exposed, in the copper-brown pond water.

These mussels are rare, disappearing, and inedible to people. Their demise is linked to pollution, damming, and over-harvesting by the old pearl-button and man-made pearl industries. Many are on federal endangered species lists.

I suspect it would not be difficult to bring these benign mollusks back to their former abundance—I doubt they are difficult to farm, they need little in terms of sustenance, and in an environment free of predation and pollution, there is no reason to think they would not thrive.


Animals like these mollusks are beautiful to me in their lack of the more stereotypical animalian characteristics. They possess a virtual lack of mobility—the stony carapace that surrounds them is an evolutionary trade-off for the mobility and other, more-active forms of defense. Essentially, such bivalves have only one defense, the shell, and if it is breached, then hope of survival is nil. If plucked from the water by some wily vertebrate with cunning enough to pry open or crack the shell, or sever the ligament that holds shut the shell’s hinge, what is a mussel to do? The answer is surely nothing. In such an instance, the poor bi-valve can merely wait and maybe quiver, shoot one last load of piss from its anus, until enough of its soft mass is consumed to shut down whatever processes are occurring within to keep it living. Perhaps there is some mollusk “bright light,” or some flood of dopamine-like hormone that floods the thing’s cells and grants some type of tissular death-orgasm to the nearly consumed beast. But I doubt it. Most likely, there is some type of pain, that flashes across the mindless meat, until communication between its systems break down and the thing flickers bit by bit into equivalent unconsciousness. And the happy raccoon bumbles away satiated, leaving a punctuated trail of little clam-farts behind in its path.
So, the shell has overtaken the bivalve’s existence.

Such mollusks begin and end with the shell, and it is the shell by which we define them: bivalves. It is all we have to go on. We do not define our own species similarly (sure we know we are vertebrates with mammary glands but we know this is not the extent of us). We are not conversationally named for the four valves of our hearts, or our vertically mobile ways. We call ourselves by a word that means nothing but that which it refers to. It is self-referential. A man is a man. We are human beings. The latter term referring to the state of existence we share with all that exists, and yet we reserve its use only for our own genetically near-identical ilk. When that guy once stated as a point-of-fact Cognito Ergo Sum, he was speaking of people exclusively. But plenty is that does not think, not in human terms at least, and the presence of netted nerves as opposed to a brain, or the lack of any nervous system at all, clearly does not preclude existence. It is a preposterous thing to even consider.

I believe the word human refers to the whole of that being, that is to say, the sum of our many parts, physical, mental, philosophical and otherwise. Perhaps it also indicates the indefinable, the fact that many current anthropologists (and similarly soft scientists) refuse to accept the existence of something that could be irrefutably called human nature. But is such thinking zoologically conservative or liberal? For surely it is political, ultimately. Is the credit we grant ourselves in such a refusal to stereotype our species founded? Or is it only so-much wishful thinking? I suspect there is a human nature, and like certain mollusks, it is bi-valved. We have our programming, which also dictates that it strive to work against itself. It is a program that seeks its own recoding. It is a self-fulfilling thing. It does what it is told by disobeying, and in the end we all live similarly unsettled existences. At any rate, most of us share the audacity to assume we are in control of our own respective personae. Those who do not, often assume that some spectral and cosmological intelligence is, and that we as individuals possess some special gift to appeal to it personally and influence the trajectory of the time and entropy it controls. But in the end, all of this abstraction is still encapsulated and contained within our soft bloody bodies. Unlike bivalves, our bodies happily express and divulge (through languages spoken, gesticulated and culturally implied) the abstract processes that occur at every moment across the nerve masses held within our brain cases. A mollusk’s shell and its associated immobility divulge no such secrets. The shelled mollusks are not communal beasts, but they are no less connected to members of their own species, nor the other biological, geological and cosmological phenomena of our shared existence, the universe (for example, their reproduction is sexual though passive and ultimately non interactive, a feature we perhaps ultimately share but which is masked by our own cultural and communicative processes and assumptions, i.e. date night). In considering this, I suspect one thing: human nature may find its definition in that fact that we define ourselves, not at the cellular level, nor at the gene-level, nor at the group or sociological level, but at the level of the individual organism. The myth of human pairing or clustering is just that, fallacious. Even a loner is philosophically gregarious, our intellect and modality make us disseverable from our species. We contemplate our lives and formulate our concepts through the abstraction of a language we cannot possess nor express without the interaction of others. Take away language and man cannot make sense of himself or his world. A man is not a mollusk, and if he cannot formulate concepts with the tool of language, he will not be successful as an organism, let alone as a human, specifically.
Unlike the turtle, aardvark, or snail (also a shelled mollusk)—whose existences visibly reach beyond their armor, exist in happy compromise between security and experience—the bivalve is defined by its morphology. Its evolutionary state seems structured upon an unwavering “trust” in the environments and ecosystems for which they are specialized. For example, a larval freshwater mussel must, for the first few weeks of its existence parasitically attach itself to the fins or gills of a host fish. In fact, some species can only develop upon individuals of a particular species of fish (CT DEP: Freshwater Mussels).
Such overspecialization may prove the ultimate undoing these species and the lack of such specialization may explain why humans have been so “successful” in such a relatively short time and why we continue to destroy the necessary and previously balanced situations for countless other species. Instead of adapting to environments, we make environments adapt to us. Such behavior may be evolutionarily shortsighted, but evolution, like humanity en masse, is neither intelligent nor pragmatic; it does what works until it works no longer. Ultimately, nature will amend its evolutionary blunders and try something new or it will abandon a particular strand as obsolete, forever (Steve Ross, I understand this is automatic, I am not seeking to anthropomorphize the evolutionary process).

This is not to say we are somehow worse than a clam, nor to aggrandize these guys. The bivalve’s security is only superficial. I doubt we will ever see a future—somehow post-apocalyptic—in which the Earth has become the undisputed realm of the clam. But even this statement divulges the nature of human thought: we see this place as ours; we consider existence in terms of alpha positioning. It is a predatorial mindset. We speak of the age of the fishes, or dinosaurs, or mega-fauna, but obviously these creatures represent only one facet of an extremely complex special-continuum in each given epoch and across all of time. We seem to define geologic moments by food-chain dominance; perhaps, this is a totally flawed approach. A single lion feeds on populations of many thousands of herd animals. Which species is more successful? By being delicious, easy to domesticate, and genetically pliable to humans, species like cows and corn now exist in numbers far beyond where they would be without their human benefactor-parasites. The question may be complex for the bovine stock, but it would be difficult to argue that the quality of life for domesticated corn plants is not vastly improved by its relationship with man. As the dinosaurs, trilobites, Neanderthals, and so on, rose to food-chain dominance and then disappeared other more ancient things went on unabated, things like blue-green algae, sporozoans, ferns and bivalves, just to name a few, continued on and on along their evolutionary paths essentially unabated continually. Should success be defined by continual existence instead? By stalwart morphological and behavioral coherence? And do such consideration matter at all outside of the human mind? Probably not. None of this is to say, after all that a clam is any less evolved than a man. We are obviously all equally evolved, as it appears that most life found its genesis in a single early incident. The genome tells us this. And since it is not sentient except in the mind of certain of its composite individual parts, Life should not care what form it takes, or if it takes any form at all. However, if continual existence can be consider as a goal of Life, albeit a self-unrecognized goal, then the variety of that existence probably doesn’t matter. It is difficult to state without question that Life does not seek to continue on, that it does not have a goal, since it is clear that if there is one thing all life has in common it is the uncontrollable urge to reproduce, often at great risk or cost of death to the individuals seeking to spread their genetic seeds.


Many mobile organisms have evolved methodologies and behaviors for breaking the bivalve’s sole defense. Gulls, for example, pluck them from the mud, then fly up and drop them from their bills down to the shore stones, cracking the shells and exposing the meat. Even the little, seemingly-skittish and benevolent mummichug minnow can find its way into the shells of mussels and pick them clean with their bony teeth.

The soft-shell clam and other so-called “gapers” epitomize the weirdness of the continued evolutionary process. The soft parts of such clams grow fat and plump, beyond the limits of their shells—the flesh remains perpetually exposed. In a sticky situation, the muscles of these clams will flex, a residual reflex from the days when their ancestors had shells wide enough to seal off their tender bits. But the squeezing is always to no avail. Even their thick, fleshy siphons stick out a full inch when fully retracted. And so, if unearthed from their muddy burrows, they’re fucked. Crabs will gladly pick holes in the exposed clams’ bodies with pincers. The only hope of such clams is to remain buried; they have kept the immobility, but now lack the protective shell for with mobility was once traded away.

The hard-shell clam is a different story. Its beds are subtidal. Unlike the soft shells, there are no tell-tale piss holes to betray their locations; their shells are thick and strong and calcareous. Holding a hard-shell in one’s hand, one is impressed by the weight, substance and solidness of the creature. It has the constitution, consistence and apparent solidity of a stone, but with the sublime geometry of a living thing [see footnote]. Even the hinge, the tough tendon that links the shell’s valves is thick and leathery to the touch. It is a formidable Achilles’ tendon, to cut through it would be a daunting task for anything without access to a well-sharpened blade or a pot of boiling water in which to cook the beast alive, or a pitcher’s arm with which to smash it open against some seaside stone. In New England they are called Quohog, here in Connecticut that name requires a little effort, and many people just call it the clam.

Footnote: It is interesting to consider, the divergence in form between genetic, geologic and astral evolution, the sublimity and complexity of biological processes and morphology versus other physical forms. Of course there is a biological bias, but it is difficult to argue that biological processes do not surpass the others in these terms, and certainly they are far more rapid. A galaxy is amazing and beautiful but is formed haphazardly by only the forces of physics, randomness, and entropy. The structures and systems of life, though also the product of chance and surely not by conscious design, still exist to serve undeniable particular purposes (i.e. an eye is there to absorb light, the heart to deliver oxygen to all parts of a body). Streamlining is essential and automatic. The sun burns for no particular purpose at all, its fission the result of basic forces at work. I will be writing further on this topic in subsequent posts.

I’ve been told questing for this apparently tasty bounty requires patience—wading waste-deep at low tide, combing sandy bottoms with clam rakes—but some opt for a more primitive approach: going in shoeless, sinking one’s toes deep into the subtidal loam and feeling for clams with one’s feet. Such a process seems to offer a Zen repose to post-modern living, and seems a more than respectable way to gather one’s own dinner. However, for those of us along Long Island Sound, eating any filter feeder requires an act of courage; the water here is polluted and dirty, and clams actively suck up pollutants even more than a sponge. But this is life on Long Island Sound.

To be continued…

Next time: The Zen of hunting/gathering, and the barnacle’s big dick

Here's a great guide put out by the CT DEP on the state's freshwater Mussels:
Guide To Freshwater Mussels

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