Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”

The first thing you need to know is that phosphorescent jellyfish have nothing to do with phosphorus.

The name comes from the Greek term phosphoros, meaning “torchbearer” or “bringer of light,” and refers to the light Venus displays in the morning. The Latin term for this display was Lucifer. Hennig Brand, the person who discovered phosphorus through experimenting with his own pee, believed he had discovered the philosopher’s stone. He jealously guarded the toxic white substance, distilled from urine and an unwavering belief in the scientific process, but he was forced to part with his methods when he ran out of money. The recipe made its way to Robert Boyle, who used phosphorus to light sulfur-coated sticks, a precursor of our matches today.

White phosphorus is dangerously volatile—used in fire bombs in WWII and self-igniting flares—and toxic, causing matchstick factory workers to develop phossy jaw. Red phosphorus, made by exposing white phosphorus to sunlight, is considerably less exciting and can be found on the side of a matchbox probably sitting in your home right now. None of that, though, explains why these non-stinging jellyfish light up the bays in the Atlantic ocean.

My grandma spends her summers in a cottage built by her father on beautiful Cape Cod. It is tucked away from the road, its lawn of shed pine needles and worn, sun-bleached shingles a sore thumb on the avenues lined with green lawns and white-washed summer homes. If you didn’t know where the ten-foot opening in the trees was, you’d miss it.

It’s a five-minute walk to the beach, and during the one week I spent with her every summer, just the two of us, I often elected to spend my afternoons splashing in the salty spray. We’d grab our towels, beach chairs, and sunscreen and meander along the sandy footpath between houses, me leaning away from the hedges where poison ivy allegedly grew. I’d spend hours in the water, often treading it to avoid inadvertently stepping on a crab and surreptitiously licking the salt from my lips (it tasted good, alright?). I was fascinated by the seaweed that popped like bubble wrap, the barnacles that grew on the buoys, the broken quahog shells, even the occasional periwinkle. But nothing delighted me more than the phosphorescent jellyfish.

You can barely see these jellyfish: Their flesh is completely translucent, and you would have to be eagle-eyed to spot their thin grey veins floating by you. But some summers, my week would fall when they were plentiful. I’d feel them skirting by my biceps, bouncing off my fingers, brushing past my chest. In order to catch them, I’d stare at my hand, a few inches below the surface, and wait for the tide to bring one past me. Sometimes I’d get lucky.

The luckiest jellyfish, however, were the first ones I ever discovered. I showed my grandma the gelatin splayed out on my hand, and she grabbed a bucket and told me to put as many as I could find in there. We carried about twenty or so back to the cottage and waited until night came. I peered into the hot pink bucket to find all my brainless friends glowing.

All the videos I can find of these comb jellyfish today don’t quite capture the mystery of a childhood summer night, watching these creatures glow quietly into the night. 

Honestly, I have a plethora of metaphors to explore already: Satan can seem to bring light to the world but that isn’t the true light! Exposing things to the daylight makes them less dangerous! Capitalism makes people operate in a scarcity model which hinders progress! Animal names are deceptive! Further investigation into childhood memories makes them less magical! But none of them ring as true as the juxtaposition of the amazement that sung through me as I watch those simple creatures glow and the callous glee of squeezing their guts out years later.

See, the thing I didn’t tell you was that my love of these jellyfish was not contented to gather them in a bucket to observe. No, my love manifested in other ways: some blobs I cradled and cooed at, devastated when I accidentally let them slip through my fingers; others I threw like frisbees to watch them glint against the bright blue sky for a brief moment; the large ones I batted between my hands, like I was separating an egg yolk from the whites, and then clenched, watching the goo ooze from my fist.

When I first relayed this story to someone who didn’t grow up manhandling sea creatures, they were horrified. I didn’t understand—the jellyfish were basically one step away from single-celled organisms. Why would I care about them?

It is scary to see blatant disregard of other people’s lives on a near day-to-day basis. On some level I can distance myself from it—I voted for x, I reposted on my Instagram story, I donated to a local organization. It is scarier to admit that disregard rests within me as well: the ability to be cruel without a shred of empathy—to love something and still crush it, to analyze what happens, to inhale the toxic fumes of my own power.

I hope that exposing this callousness to daylight will neutralize it, turning from white phosphorus to red. I’m afraid, though, that it will instead stabilize, normalize, reconfigure, receding back to the side of the matchbox only to be struck again.

6 Comments

  1. Kyric Koning

    That kind of introspection I can totally get behind. We don’t even realize some of the things we do until there are others nearby that see us and then we need to reassess what exactly sits at the heart of the matter.

    Fun little mix of scientific and storytelling.

    Reply
    • Alex Johnson

      Thank goodness we live in community, right? I’m glad you enjoyed my attempt to put together two subjects that really have no business mingling together.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    “It’s scary to see a blatant disregard of other people’s lives on a near day-to-day basis … It is scarier to admit that disregard rests within me as well.” This gave me chills. Your writing makes me think more deeply about myself, especially in how I respond to things going on in the world. I’m grateful for that, and for this writing community in times like these.

    Reply
    • Alex Johnson

      Appreciate you, Kayleigh. This comment means a lot, and I’m glad my wrestling resonated with you at least in part.

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    Halfway through reading, I figured your post would come full-circle to discuss whether or not pee really neutralizes jellyfish stings. Thank you for writing something much better than that 🙂 I appreciate the beautiful imagery of jellyfish glow juxtaposed with what you really did to them, and the reflection that comes from that.

    Reply
    • Alex Johnson

      Oh man, the thought didn’t even cross my mind!! Who knew phosphorus and jellyfish had so many potential connections? Thanks for reading 🙂

      Reply

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