Monday, March 19, 2012

Look what the tide washed in

The winter winds to a close. In a few days, back to New England to catch the spring, which apparently has already arrived. No more daily walks on the beach.

There are lovely reefs just off shore, and strange stuff gets washed up on the sand. So off I go to Paul Humann's beautifully photographed Reef Creature Identification, one of three indispensible volumes (also Corals and Reef Fishes)for anyone living by the sea in Florida, the Bahamas or the Caribbean, kindly provided by daughter Mo. There to discover that the mysterious green blob pulsing in the tide pool is a sea hare, phylum Mollusca, class Gastropoda, a shell-less snail.

And now I'm stuck for an hour, turning pages, enthralled and astonished (once again) by the variety of living creatures, the shapes, the colors. What is it about the tropics that evokes such extravagances, such gaudy show-offerery? Oh wait, not everyone is so dashingly adorned; here is the donkey-dung sea cucumber which looks like…

One of those washed up on our beach once. It must have been an off day in the Holothuroidea department of Intelligent Design.

A nudibranch named Caribbean Spanish Dancer. An urchin named Magnificent. Stinker Sponge. Christmas Tree Hydroid. Sea Thimble. Light Bulb Anemone. Venus' Girdle. Splendid Flatworm. Social Feather Duster. Polkadotted Hermit Crab.

Sponges, jellyfish, anemones, bryozoans, urchins, snails, slugs, starfish, chitons, sand dollars, tunicates, corals, fish: What do they have in common? A mouth and an anus (sometimes the same). Eat and be eaten. Make more of same.

And in every cell, unsuspected even a generation ago, the double helix, those same sugar-phosphate handrails, the same paired nucleotide treads. All of us, including me in my goggles and flippers, woven out of starstuff on the same dazzlingly simple chemical loom.