Photographs of jellyfish are by the author.
Of course we don’t keep records—why would we?—but my understanding is that we have been around for at least 500 million years, and maybe 700 million. I don’t believe there are any other multi-organ animals that have been around for longer.
Without doubt the whole notion of time is a bit of an abstraction, but I do admit that there is some usefulness to thinking in terms of years since a “year” describes a shifting pattern of seasons that repeat endlessly. For the same reason it makes sense sometimes to think in terms of “days,” since they describe the cycle of light and dark, the appearance and disappearance of that great sky creature the sun. “Months” would also have a meaning if they were used to describe the growth cycles of that other major sky inhabitant the moon, but the two-legged mammals who use these words have applied the term “month” without reference to the moon’s waxing and waning so it doesn’t make any useful sense, even if it might have originally. They also talk about tiny periods of time called “hours”, “minutes” and “seconds”, but clearly it serves no purpose to think like that since those terms don’t correspond to any observable patterns in reality.
To put our 700 million years in perspective, I’d like to point out that those dinosaurs only appeared around 230 million years ago. But then they were gone again by about 65 million years ago. Still, that 165 million years of existence is almost as long as the less than 180 million years that mammals have managed so far. As regards those two-legged mammals (more on them later), they only appeared around 6 million years ago, and the particular type which now infests the whole of the earth’s land surface only appeared about 200,000 or 300,000 years back. All the other two-legged ones are already gone and I wonder how long this lot will last.
The main problem for the dinosaurs, and for mammals too, no matter how many legs they have, is that they mostly tried to live in that dangerous dry world outside the oceans. Hence they were exposed to the effects of that asteroid—which the dinosaurs were completely unable to deal with, so it happens. As everyone knows, more than 70% of the planet’s surface is ocean, so clearly those of us who live in water are the “normal” creatures, and attempting to live on dry land is a strange and dangerous strategy. Especially since those land dwellers need water to survive as much as we do. More than 96% of the planet’s water is in the ocean so naturally that is where we choose to live. Our bodies are around 95% water, whereas those two-legged mammals are only around 60% water. Living in that strange inhospitable environment seems to have left them weirdly desiccated, if no less dependent on water for survival than we are.
Now in case you think I’m just prejudiced against mammals I should point out that the asteroid did have an effect on the oceans too. There were marine dinosaurs as well, but they couldn’t survive it. Ocean life as a whole, though, seems to have come through that disaster better than land life. And anyway, not all mammals are stupid. The whales, you see, were smart enough to realise they had made a mistake in leaving the oceans. Eventually, about 49 million years ago, they started returning to water, becoming fully aquatic around five to ten million years later. Their nostrils migrated across their heads to become blowholes, and their front legs became flippers. The best their nearest land-based relative the hippopotamus can do is to spend up to sixteen hours a day in whatever water it can find up there. But it can only last about five minutes under water!
Those two-legged mammals, though, are a lot less sensible than whales (or even hippos). They are so ill-adapted to the environment they have chosen to live in that they need to build fake shells to survive it. Not a real tight-fitting shell such as a lobster has—that is part of their body—but one they have to make out of land-stuff. They call these loose shells “homes”, and tend to die if they don’t have one. And even that is not enough: they also have to put on another false shell closer to their body—they call this their “clothes”. These close false shells are sometimes just stolen from four-legged mammals who have at least been intelligent enough to grow their own protective covering. When they leave their “homes” the two-legged mammals often temporarily occupy other larger shells too, which they call “cars”, “buses” or “trains”. Instead of being ashamed of their poor adaption to their chosen environment they are often very proud of their “homes”, “cars” and “clothes”. They can spend most of their lives trying to acquire them, or to get new and “better” ones. The two-legged mammals that have the biggest “homes”, and the most desired “cars” or “clothing” are often thought to be more successful by the others. There is a thing in their culture called “fashion”, which constantly changes the definition of what should be admired and acquired, and in an arbitrary manner. By the way, even these tight-fitting and loose-fitting shells together don’t seem enough to make their inhospitable environment properly habitable for them, since in addition they use land-stuff obtained from under the ground to produce heat to make the surrounding temperature in their “homes” bearable for them. The “cars” also seem to require a burning of some liquid underground land-stuff to function. In fact they do so much of this tampering with underground materials they have appropriated that they are even causing the temperature of the whole atmosphere to rise—which may kill them off eventually, and possibly most other life on the planet too.
Then when it comes to food their whole approach is strange. Here in the oceans food is whatever is edible that comes within your reach. But the two-legged mammals don’t just ingest stuff from their immediate environment—given that it is not one that can provide food for them in an available way—but have to go to great lengths to grow plants or keep other mammals trapped that will later be eaten. And they also tend to heat up their food with fire before eating it, or change it in various other ways. Some of the things they eat would even kill them if they didn’t heat it first, a process they call “cooking”. Foods from far corners of the globe are often particularly admired—so different from our approach of just eating what is there around you in the state it already is. For growing their food plants they need to use a lot of water, and up there it isn’t aways available. In fact about half of them (around four billion) experience water scarcity for at least a month a year. Even water for drinking can be hard for them to find in some places—there are plenty of those two-legged mammals who have to walk for miles every time they need to fetch some.
Clearly it should be seen that the two-legged mammals are creatures living by choice in an inhospitable environment, with weird attitudes and values. Apart from the “homes”, “clothes” and “cars” already mentioned, they also spend a lot of their lives gathering other “possessions” around them. Obviously there is no need to gather clutter—as we jellyfish know it is much better just to float free in a hospitable environment, and not surround yourself with useless stuff. Of course we do have some things in common with them: we also use sexual reproduction, for instance, but we are not so obsessed with it as them since we also do asexual reproduction during our polyp stage.
Water is obviously a much more suitable environment for life than dry land, it almost goes without saying. I’m not sure about those sky creatures and their realm, though, since we have little to do with it directly. The sun and the moon seem benign creatures, and very powerful ones, that live perfectly in harmony with their element. They are also both very long-lived since they were already around when we first appeared, and don’t seem to have noticeably aged at all. They have water up there—in fact that is where much of the water available to land-dwelling plants and animals comes from, in the form of rain. It moves around the sky as “clouds”, which donate their contents to the earth from time to time. Sometimes the sun is completely hidden by those “clouds”. I suspect that is when the sun is drinking since one doesn’t see it doing so on other occasions. The tinier sky creatures called stars I know less about since they don’t appear to influence our watery realm directly, unlike the other two. They seem a little in awe of the sun, since they only come out when it is sleeping—even the moon is sometimes seen in the daytime but I don’t recall seeing a star at that time. I wonder if those stars might be related to the asteroids. This latter type of sky creature seems the least benign of the inhabitants of that realm, and the only one that dares to come down to the earth’s surface, usually to kill stuff it finds there (although asteroids seem to die themselves in the process so I don’t see the point). They can’t just be searching for food!
So maybe now you are thinking that I’m not prejudiced against mammals in general, but just against the two-legged kind. I have to admit though that some of those two-legged mammals seem to be able to see through the possession-gathering norm a bit, and even come to appreciate the virtues of water, despite not living in it. About 2,400 years ago, in the place on the world’s surface they call “China”, someone wrote a text called the “Daode Jing”. In it the highest good is described as being like water, because water benefits every created thing and yet does not contend with any of them. Elsewhere it notes that water is more yielding and soft than everything else, and yet it can attack the solid and the strong better than anything. Maybe two-legged mammals in that part of the world are smarter than elsewhere, because I notice that someone born within the last hundred years who grew up there also said something intelligent about water. This two-legged mammal called himself “Bruce Lee”, and he once advised his friends to “be water”. Easier to do for a marine inhabitant like us jellyfish, of course, but a good goal for all creatures to aspire to, whether they are two-legged mammals, asteroids, or hippos. If you want your species to be around as long as ours has been, you could try it.
I don’t know if we jellyfish will last for ever, of course, but we seem to be doing pretty well so far. There are even some jellyfish on the island of Palau who are managing to survive in a lake, rather than in the ocean. Of course the ocean is where they originally came from before some event in the dry world cut them off from it. Perhaps the jellyfish which is most to be admired, however, is the one called by the two-legged mammals “Turritopsis dohrnii”. This one grows into a sexually mature individual, as we all do, but is capable of reverting back to being a colonial polyp. It is therefore as close to being immortal as any living thing has so far come, since this process can go on again and again.
How to cite: Clarke, David. “A Jellyfish Explains Life.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 18 Oct. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/10/18/jellyfish.
David Clarke is a writer and visual artist. He is Honorary Professor in the Department of Art History of the University of Hong Kong. Much of his writing takes the form of academic books and articles, but his fictional writing was included in the anthology Fifty-Fifty: New Hong Kong Writing (ed. Xu Xi, Haven Books, 2008) and a poem was set to music in Hong Kong Odyssey, presented in the 2017 Hong Kong Arts Festival. A free-to-access website, Hong Kong in Transition, which features more than 40,000 of his photographs of Hong Kong taken between 1995 and 2020 is now available.