The Sea in My Veins



“How much of this earth is flesh?

This is not meant metaphorically. How many humans have been ‘committed to earth’? From when do we begin to count the dead – from the emergence of Homo erectus, or Homo habilis, or Homo sapiens? From the earliest graves we are certain of, the elaborate grave in Sangir or the resting place of Mungo Man in New South Wales, interred forty thousand years ago? An answer requires anthropologists, paleopathologists, paleontologists, biologists, epidemiologists, geographers … How many were the early populations and when exactly began the generations? Shall we begin to estimate from before the last ice age – though there is very little human record – or shall we begin to estimate with Cro-Magnon man, a period from which we have inherited a wealth of archeological evidence but of course no statistical data. Or, for the sake of statistical ‘certainty’ alone, shall we begin to count the dead from about to centuries ago, when the first census records were kept?

Posed as a question, the problem is too elusive; perhaps it must remain a statement: how much of this earth is flesh.”

Anne Michaels. 2009. “The Winter Vault”


Here I am living. My mother was killed one winter day some years ago; my father lives. Father’s mother wasted away in a short few months, and then suddenly she, too, was gone. My other grandparents live. Of my great-grandparents, none remain. My older sister has weaned her baby girl and carries another one in her womb; my younger sister is slipping across the threshold of childhood to becoming a woman. We are each of us bearing witness to the minute changes of our bodies, to the flux of the seasons as we amble through them, to the passing years as they scribe delicate lines into the land that is our skin. Where does one end and another begin? The blood that flows through my veins, where does it have its origin? Where are my own headwaters? Once, drinking and eating and breathing was all still one for me; it was what mother gave me and what I received from her; it was what trickled through that small umbilical river where everything I was had ever flown from. Is this where my headwaters are? On the day of my birth, that umbilical cord would somehow, I don’t know how (and there is no one left to ask), wrap itself around my neck and nearly strangle me to death. I almost died before I’d ever had a proper chance to try myself at living. But that was later, afterwards. For now I am asking about what came before. I want to know when and where, precisely, my blood began to flow.

Or maybe the umbilical creek I flowed from is not my headwater, after all. For if my blood flowed right from mother’s blood, then must I not trace back the flow of her blood also? This would take me upstream to mother’s umbilical unity with her own mother, but of course it wouldn’t yet answer my question. And so I follow the watershed that is my family further up through the generations, upstream and past the point where I know their stories, their faces, their names, and further and further yet, until the bodies themselves begin to metamorphose in front of my eye, until the upright walk of distant grandmothers cowers forward and downward, mother by mother by mother, into a four-by four trod, and much further yet, past all of my mammal grandmothers and even past all of my reptile grandmothers, until limbs remold themselves into the fins they once were, and body parts as (seemingly) separate as breasts, teeth, and hair all grow back into the early skin of ancient mothers from whence each of these once emerged.[1] At that point, my question is nearly answered, for the mothers I have come to now inhabit the brackish water of Pangaea’s primordial shoreline. They are called Tiktaalik; they have all the bones of my own upper arm, my forearm, my wrists and my palms, but they also have scales and fin webbing. They have large, heavy heads and an even larger, powerful tail. There is no mistaking. They are fish who are on their way to colonizing the land.

Three hundred and eighty million years have since elapsed , and more generations that I can count. And yet I have never really left the waters of that first ocean. To know that, I need only to pinch my index finger with a needle, squeeze out a drop of blood, and let my tongue absorb the taste of my own body. This is the moment when I am reminded that I am, rather literally, still inhabiting those waters. The biologists Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan have written about this. “No animal has ever really completely left the watery microcosm. 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. These salts are compounds which animals took with them as they made their perilous voyage onto land… No matter how high and dry the mountaintop, no matter how secluded and modern the retreat, we sweat and cry what is basically seawater.”[2]

This is not a coincidence so much as it is a living memory. The sea flows through my veins. I, too, am a creature of the sea. And while blood gives me an immediate taste of my ancestry, there are other ways in which the ancient waters still flow inside of me, and I inside of them. Write Margulis and Sagan: “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.”[3] I think of salmon. Unlike all who now live on land, they have never left. Immersed in the lubricants that their eggs and sperm need for finding one another, salmon, like all fish, went on making love the way they have always done. Their lovemaking is a lovemaking 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, the trust that the water will receive her children, protect them, and nourish them with the oxygen they need. It is a trust so absolute that many mothers do not live to see whether their trust will have been repaid. When the female releases her eggs and they begin to sink down into the redd, a male, or several, discharge their milky cloud into the redd. The water carries the cloud, and if drifts over, through and past the couple. By the time it has been carried further downstream and the water has become clear and cloudless once more, new lives will have been conceived, each only a single cell at first, then a cluster of cells, then, soon after, a body breathing, moving, itching with small life. Once hatched, they will consume the yolk sack that was their mother’s farewell gift, until after a few weeks they must learn to feed themselves. They will mature, and eventually they will set out on their as yet unthinkable journey into the ocean, where they will grow, mature into formidable adults, and learn the skills it takes to navigate thousands of miles of unmapped seascape. And even as they do, even as their journey takes them far away from their home river, none of them will ever leave the body into which they have been conceived. They remain, for life, immersed inside the womb that is the water itself.[4]

Then there are those who, like ourselves, have crossed the threshold from water onto land permanently. Or so it seems. For, as Margulis and Sagan write, every time one of us is conceived, whether we will grow into baby wolf, baby reindeer, baby human, baby golden eagle, or baby muskoxen, father’s sperm and mother’s egg will still meet in water. Those land-bound creatures among us who are mammals recreate the ancient ocean in our own wombs. The feathered ones among us, and the cold-blooded ones among us, recreate the ancient ocean in the fragile oval spheres that they lay into nests, tree cavities, or grasses. There are even those among us who, like humpback, killer whale, or harbor porpoise, have gone full circle and returned to the sea after a few hundred million years away, and who now carry a little ocean within and are carried by a vast ocean without. Whoever we are, and whichever of these lineages we may ultimately have been born into, each of us begins our life in the ocean. In this sense, all of us animals are migrants, wanderers who set out on a long journey but who will, at the precise moment of creation, return to our headwaters and entrust those who come after us to the sea. And as we do, our bodies remember one another into being.

None of this is metaphorical. I, too, in the course of this life, in this body I presently inhabit, once had both gills and a muscular tail, like every other animal of the phylum Chordata does at some stages of their lives. Every wolf, every reindeer, every golden eagle and muskoxen is like me in this sense. Each, in the course of their own lives, has gills and a tail and swims in the ancient water. For most of us, the gills retreat again before our birth, and for some of us, even the tail disappears again entirely. But as we each metamorphose into our peculiar form, we know that none of this is metaphorical. It is simply the way things are. It is simply who we are.

Norwegian version published at Kulturverk

[1] For the evolution of breasts, teeth, bones, hair, and feathers from skin, read Neil Shubin’s chapter ‘Teeth Everywhere’ in his book Your Inner Fish (2009, New York: Random House).

[2] Lynn Margulis & Dorion Sagan. 1997. Microcosm. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press. pp. 183-4.

[3] Lynn Margulis & Dorion Sagan. 1997. Microcosm. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press. pp. 183-4.

[4] And have you ever wondered why male fish have no penises? That is why. They simply don’t need them! They are already where the penis would take them.