New Degrees of FreedomGo back

3 Reflections

Wet Life, Wet Debt

Astrida Neimanis

Even after the evolutionary invasion of land by adventurous amphibians, survival of life on land was still dependent on finding ways of bringing the oceanic ashore. Moving to a new terrestrial address meant that we had to invent creative means for dealing with the threat of desiccation. One of these inventions was the amniotic egg, which kept amniote embryos perpetually in water thanks to their hard, calcium-rich shells. Other innovations included various salt and water uptake mechanisms, for while aquatic animals were constantly immersed in water and appropriate amounts of saline, terrestrial animals had to actively seek these out. Such inventions ranged from the infiltration of the porous oral and anal surfaces of terrestrial woodlice, to the dew-collecting innovations of a certain Namibian desert beetle who, when fog is dense, scuttles to the top of a sand dune, stands with its head down and belly up, and drinks the water that condenses on and then flows down its body toward its mouth. This beetle was not alone in its resourcefulness. Others produced tough skin (to prevent excessive water loss), absorptive intestines (to allow water in), big lungs (to replace oxygen intake through water), and tears (to keep exposed eyes moist and allow vision to become acute).

But a final innovation reveals the role of water as not only a tool for self-survival, but as a milieu for the proliferation of other life, too. It is what scientists Dianna and Mark McMenamin call Hypersea—that is, the interconnected system of terrestrial life that has extended the sea and taken it along for the ride. The trick: folding our watery habitat inside our bodies. Without the sea to serve as a prime communicator and facilitator, life on land needed to chart its own watercourses—most available in the watery tissues and body fluids of other life forms.

Science fiction writer Ursula LeGuin was right when she speculated that the first tool in our evolutionary history was not a weapon, but a carrier bag. Maybe these carrier bags were the bodies of terrestrial beings themselves. Not only did our bodies need to serve as a watery gestational element for our prenatal descendants, but they also became a hospitable watery milieu in which altogether different species could dwell either permanently or temporarily; these watery carrier bags were our first tool of an embodied, social commons.

In other words: When we tired of the seas, eager to finally stand on our own two feet, we devised an interconnected system of terrestrial life that extended and (literally) incorporated the sea. Survival, yes; but also multiplication.

We are bodies of water. Meaning we primarily comprise water, but we are only bodies at all because of our myriad watery debts. We are all part of an aqueous ecology of wet matter in which humans and other bodies of water (animal, vegetable, meteorological, geophysical) are always already implicated as lively agents in one another’s well-being. Hypersea reminds us that bodies are not only individuals joined together by one form of connective tissue or another; bodies are themselves those tissues, those milieus of life.

We form the condition of possibility for each other’s being. We bathe each other into being, in all sorts of ways.

Astrida Neimanis is Lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Sydney and a founding member of the Environmental Humanities Collaboratory at Linköping University.

Hypersea Ascends: Part One

Mark McMenamin

When Life first appeared in the early seas it was a sudden thing. Very quickly bacterium filled the oceans from deep sea to shoreline. They began the infiltration of estuarine and freshwater environments and could soon be found under damp rocks and eventually kilometers under water. All this apparently in Life's first few millions of years on Earth. But then, an evolutionary stasis set in that lasted for billions of years. As if exhausted by the labor of being brought to birth, life remained at the microbial level for age after age, building up marine stromatolites from biofilms in a rhythmic yet static pattern of existence. Nevertheless, toward the end of that long sequence of intervals that we call the Age of Microbes, the pressure of life began to inexorably assert itself and the biomats themselves begin an ascent to the Source of Being by building stromatolites the size of mountain ranges. This process, however, required so much carbon in the form of limestone that carbon dioxide was removed from the atmosphere and sequestered in rock in such a way as to eliminate its function as a greenhouse gas. As a result the planet was thrust into White Earth conditions, the Snowball Earth, the greatest freeze and glaciation the Earth has ever known; a crushing and frigid rejection of Life's first major ascent.

As the freeze thawed and the planet returned to normal, a curious new biotic factor appeared in the seas. As if in heated response to the icy lockdown, complex life appeared on the seafloor, including the first burrowing worms ready to feed on and disrupt the biomats and propel the carbon back into sea and air where it can perform its warming task. These first large creatures lived in a peaceful, fractal world, the Garden of Ediacara, where bacterial scum, sunlight and nutritious compounds in the waters provided sustenance. This gentle warren could have lead to another long stasis in Life's history, a long interval of overgrown microbial Life if you will, but this was not to be. Large organisms in constant motion—early animals and animallike creatures—found advantage in developing sensory structures on their forward ends. The first brains coordinated the data input from sensory arrays. Then a marvelous and terrible thing happened. The Garden of Ediacara, where ignorance was bliss, gained sight with the appearance of eyes. Turning against their community of origin, the first large predators began to feast on hapless seafloor neighbors. In an explosion of slaughter, ocean habitats suddenly became very unsafe, and refuge was nervously sought in environments at the margins that were too salty or completely dry.

Mark McMenamin is a professor of geology at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

Of Human Destiny, Wetness, and Crabs

Gregory Whitehead

Heraclitus tells us that the psyche craves the wet. As Psyche craved the wet. As her daughter, Voluptua, craved the wet. We are nothing without our wetness; take away the water, and there is just no juice to limber up dem dry bones. The wet is not only a craving, but a destiny; and where the flesh intersects with water, the resulting slurry creates a fertile ecology for some other creature, some other future.

Water and its close hybrid, the miasma I think of affectionately as the Big Sloppy, seep and suck at both the beginning and the end of the Anthropocene. With any luck, our disappearance will be marked not by flares and incineration but by that beautiful gurgling sound as we descend back into the muck, the boglands that are in any event always present within us as human consciousness, that vague, pungent neurobiological zone where forms sink into the dark compost of memory and instinct.

The coming singularity does not exist in the realm of intelligence, yet rather in the realm of mud, as we return our brittle temporary selves to the vast cosmic mushroom soup: that stew, that gumbo, that fungal goop. Humans are nothing but transient habitat for microbes and viruses that are far better suited for life in the eternal flow; far more mutable and adaptive; far more in harmony with the slippery realities of the Big Sloppy.

In the end, the human corpse-floater offers essential sanctuary and sustenance for the crab, and the crab embodies the spirit of Metis, crafty shapeshifter, goddess of waves and waveforms. What a grand immersion, dispersion, diffusion, dissolution; what a welcome destiny to become one with the Big Sloppy, by way of such a fine, cunning messenger.