The Sea in Our Veins
“No matter how high and dry the mountaintop, no matter how secluded and modern the retreat, we sweat and cry what is basically seawater”
“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”— Rachel Carson
My daughter Kaia Isolde was born just over three years ago. Her world still seems to be growing a little more spacious every day. Her tiny body is so delicately attuned to me and to her mother that it becomes difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. It has been over three years since I cut the umbilical cord between them. Scissors in hand, I watched it pulsate in small waves. Then, from one moment to the next, it stopped moving. The midwife placed her hand on my shoulder, and I understood. It was time. I cut the cord, and just like that, my daughter was separated, on her own. But somehow, it seems, our three bodies have remained inseparable, deeply entangled and connected. I suppose in some delicate ways, they always will.
My astonishment drifts back in time. The blood that flows through my girl’s veins, where are its headwaters? In the womb, drinking and eating and breathing were all one for her; it was what her mother gave her; it was what trickled through that small umbilical river from which everything the child was had flowed. Are these her headwaters? What came before?
If her blood flowed from mother’s blood, must I not also trace back the flow of her blood? This would take me upstream to her mother’s umbilical unity with her mother. And so I follow the watershed up through the generations, upstream and past the point where I know their stories, their faces, their names. The bodies begin to metamorphose before my eyes, until the upright walk of distant grandmothers cowers forward and downward, mother by mother by mother, into a four-by-four tread, past all of her mammal grandmothers and even past all of herreptile grandmothers, until limbs reform into the fins they once were, and body parts as separate as breasts, teeth, and hair all grow back into the early skin of ancient mothers from whence each emerged.
These mothers inhabit the brackish water of Pangaea’s primordial shoreline. They are called Tiktaalik. They have all the bones of my girl’s upper arm, her forearm, her wrists, and her palms, but they also have scales and fin webbing. They have large, heavy heads and an even larger, powerful tail. They are fish on their way to colonize the land.
Three hundred and eighty million years have since elapsed. Life on Earth has been around nearly ten times as long, but on the scale of her life, that geological time is entirely unfathomable. So many generations have come and gone that I am left with a sense of vertigo. Yet neither my girl nor I have ever left the waters of that first ocean. I need only to pinch my index finger with a needle, squeeze out a drop of blood, and let my tongue absorb my body’s taste. I am reminded that we both still inhabit those waters.
Cover image courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing
As Lynn Margulis and her son Dorion Sagan write: “The concentrations of salts in both seawater and blood are, for all practical purpose, identical. The proportions of sodium, potassium, and chloride in our tissues are intriguingly similar to those of the worldwide oceans. . . . No matter how high and dry the mountaintop, no matter how secluded and modern the retreat, we sweat and cry what is basically seawater.”
This is not a coincidence, but a living memory. The sea flows through our veins. My little one and I are both creatures of the sea. Blood gives me an immediate taste of our ancestry, but there are other ways in which the ancient waters still flow inside of us, and we inside of them.
Margulis and Sagan go on to observe that “fertilization betrays a common aquatic ancestry for every living animal. The essential act of animal creation still always takes place in water. Derived from sea, river, pond, or the body’s own tissue fluid, sperm and egg always meet in a wet environment.”
Unlike all who now live on land, salmon have never left those waters. Immersed in the lubricants that their eggs and sperm require, salmon continue to make love the way they have always done. Their lovemaking is with the surrounding medium itself, where there is no strict outside and no strict inside, where bodies are at once discrete and porous, where the environing terrain is at once habitat and womb.
The female releases her eggs into the redd she has dug into the gravel bed. It is an act of trust that the water will receive her children, protect them, and nourish them with the oxygen they need. When the female releases her eggs, a male discharges his milky cloud into the redd. The water carries the cloud, and it drifts past the couple. By the time it has been carried further downstream, new lives have been conceived, each a single cell at first, then a cluster of cells, then a body breathing, moving, itching with small life.
Once hatched, they will consume the yolk sack that was their mother’s farewell gift. After a few weeks they must learn to feed themselves. They will mature, and eventually they will set out on their unthinkable journey into the ocean, where they will grow into formidable adults and learn the skills it takes to navigate thousands of miles of unmapped seascape. Even as their journey takes them far away from their home river, none of them will ever leave the body in which they were conceived. They remain, for life, immersed inside the womb of the water.
This excerpt is adapted from Being Salmon, Being Human: Encountering the Wild in Us and Us in the Wild by Martin Lee Mueller, Chlesea Green Publishing, 2017