By Jessica Johnson
My aquarium-going habit started when I was twenty-four during a family visit to Boston for my brother’s college graduation. His degree was in music, and I had swerved from studying science toward a graduate degree in creative writing. Questions about our obscure paths to middle-class adulthood hovered, omnipresent yet mostly unsaid.
I stood on the pier outside the New England Aquarium with my parents, my brother, and his new girlfriend, whose existence was a surprise, whose ways were surprising. My brother had not prepared us well, nor her, and so we didn’t know what to do with each other. Every new utterance seemed to require a response I didn’t know how to make. I wanted the weekend to be over.
We stepped through the aquarium’s glass doors and passed through the frenzy of admissions. An ever-echoing din filled the building.
In the Jellies exhibit, tanks arced along the wall with headlines like, In 2020, Will You Be Eating Jellyfish Sandwiches? The curved water boxes held illuminated parachutes, parachutes large and small, ghostly white or lit by colored spotlights so that they glowed pink or green. I watched the jellies ascending through the tank in breath-like motions, trailing their ribbony cords. I drifted from my family and felt myself—my self with all the craggy edges catching on the world—fading as I peered into one tank, then the next.
Maybe you have experienced it, too, the fascination of silent invertebrates behind glass. I looked and looked and still wanted to look longer, unsure of what I might be looking for. I could see their motion, their form, the traces of their inner workings. I wanted to hold them in my mind, to hold onto their form or function, to somehow have them.
It was then that I became a sucker for glass, for its promise of revelation.
I first desired the creatures of the intertidal when my brother and I were kids. Sprung from the station wagon after a long trip to my grandmother’s house on one of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, we would run down, past the house, to a wide stretch of beach. As we stepped onto the cobblestone of rounded rocks, the ground began to sizzle: crabs no wider than a Canadian dollar coin in the cracks between the rocks. Because we could, we kneeled and pried rock after rock from its resting place; the crabs scattered trying to wedge themselves into a further crevice or go still on the edge of a shadow. Their hard backs seemed painted with deep purple, or avocado green, or, in greater numbers, speckled with the color of dried blood.
Because we could, we’d pull one from its shelter. We wanted to feel its articulated legs picking across our palms. As the crab carried its discoid body to the edge of a hand, we’d put another hand in its path, making it walk a treadmill of kid-flesh. If one of us set a crab down, the other would prevent its escape.
At six or seven, wanting to know them, wanting to keep them, we chose the most obvious way—
carrying them back to the house in a bucket. If she remembered to, our mother made us release them before bedtime; if she didn’t, we’d find them limp in the next day’s heat.
They were never as interesting in the bucket, attempting to climb out, scrambling for cover in the white plastic cylinder, as they were on the beach. But what to do with them? We couldn’t, of our own volition, let them go.
As we got older, we kept trying to hold the beach’s fauna, if not physically, then essentially. We kept trying to keep something of them. On long vacations, we made friends with local kids who spurred us to become classifiers. The crabs’ undersides were flat and white, but their armor had a pattern: a white spire in the middle, longer and narrower, supposedly indicated maleness. For days, we prowled the shore, flipping them over to determine their sex. Boy, boy, girl, boy, girl, girl, girl…
Bored with classification, we started looking for fancier and more elusive invertebrates: the moon snail, the sea cucumber, the big and scary spider crab. We became connoisseurs. When we found our specimens, we now knew better than to collect them, and the memory of their precise existence faded soon after we returned to the house, washed our feet in the outdoor spigot, and blended ourselves into the rhythm of dinner and bed.
How old was I? Eight? Nine? At some point, I started staring at my reflection in a wide bedroom window of the house near the foot-wash station, practicing detached comparative judgment on my own body, learning to think of it as something to be manipulated, disregarded. I silently cataloged the differences between myself and the more acceptable others, the graceful and bendable girls who could run on the wide, sandy beach confident in the knowledge that they were definitely not fat. Separating me from them was a slight layer that waxed and waned. Some years I could see the faint outline of my ribs, other years I could not. In some lights my legs looked hopefully slim and long, in others heavy in the thigh. It’s just babyfat. I had it too. You’ll shoot up. I did—I was gangly. Just wait a few years. Whatever my female relatives said, my self-observation was like a time-lapse photo montage of a natural disaster, small pictures speeding toward an unwanted outcome. I separated my body from my self, rendering it available for study, taking a kind of comfort in the observer’s role.
Eventually, like our European forbears in the West, we children became extractors, using the beach as a source of material to serve our utilitarian purposes. We collected driftwood for forts and shells for glue-gun craft projects that, once made, never lived up to what we’d imagined.
Finally, in our early twenties (after a period of teenage hedonism during which the beach was something that you shook out of your hair after a night of partying) we became consumers. Growing up we’d watched our parents and grandparents pick oysters from the rocks, occasionally shucking and swallowing one right there on the beach. We too dug clams, soaked them in buckets, and, with our laptops open, concocted “saffron-infused” broths in which to steam their ribbed, mottled shells, their soft bodies.
Clams, but not oysters: while we’d turned from little naturalists to extractors to consumers, the beach changed without our noticing. Maybe because of overharvest by tourists who didn’t know to throw the shells back, or maybe for a more global reason, the oyster stocks declined, and if we had oysters, they were from a farm at Fanny Bay. Despite the fact that I could buy its species and swallow them nearly alive, the desire for some congress with the intertidal, the desire to keep and know it, the desire that later drew me to the glassy tank of jellyfish, was never fully satisfied.
Enter the aquarium: a larger, socially sanctioned, and (crucially) climate-controlled creature-bucket. The Boston visit turned out to be the first of many trips to sites of curated nature, which I continued to frequent as I got older, had jobs, and spent more time indoors. During vacations, during the drifting alienation of business travel, I sought refuge in aquariums, conservatories, exhibitions. Whenever it seemed like there was nothing else to do, I indulged the impulse to look at life in vitro, to collect facts and then walk out into the blue sky.
In his 2003 history of the aquarium, The Ocean at Home, Bernd Brunner relates an anecdote from mid-nineteenth century Europe, the time and place when aquariums came into vogue, both as a form of public entertainment and as home décor. A German aquarist, Gustav JÃ¤ger, described how “even educated” visitors would sometimes, in an agitated aside to the ticket taker, ask “What in heaven’s name am I supposed to see in there?”
What am I supposed to see? Aquariums are built to reveal, giving human visitors the impression that they are meant to “see” something beyond what’s physically there—they are meant to see as in have an insight. Through a glass barrier, they allow the visitor to see into realms she can’t ordinarily penetrate; I can see in, but by allowing me to do that, by existing only for the purpose of allowing me to do that, aquariums suggest that there’s something to be gained by doing so—a perspective, an understanding.
Aquariums seem to be products of the cultural assumption that we can know things best by removing ourselves from the situation and looking in a detached fashion. We treat knowledge something fixed and apart from us, locate-able: something we come to.
But something I come to is also something I walk away from, something I can’t take with me. And so, with the glassed-in creatures of the intertidal, the more I looked, the more I wanted to look. The more aquariums I visited, the more I wanted to visit. The creatures there seemed knowable, but as their images faded in my mind, not particularly known. Like the man in JÃ¤ger’s story, I saw in but had no insight.
Nevertheless, it was insight I was seeking when, four months pregnant, I (once again) made the quick trip from Portland to the Bonneville hatchery and sturgeon interpretive center to watch the sleepy, giant fish floating behind the glass. They drifted from the murk-like zeppelins toward my window and hovered there. I stared at their ancient, folded eyes, at the shape of their bodies, their ridged backs and shark-like tails, unsure of what they could tell me, but relieved to be looking, separated from the bodies on display.
Pregnancy plunged me into my own biology and made me long to escape by gazing, to locate the relevant biology outside a detached self. Some women crave the experience of growing a baby, but I was not one of them. My fantasies of motherhood involved helping with homework, reading books aloud, and watching soccer games. I wanted to be the parent of a first-grader, but a pregnant lady? Not so much. Although it was medically normal in every way, my pregnancy rocked me. Aside from the inconveniences and subtle indignities (the constant nausea, the inconveniently frequent need to urinate, the rapidly shrinking wardrobe) what quietly terrified me was the end of agency, the loss of my perceived control over my body and my time. I was used to beginning my day before dawn and checking through items on my ambitious list, but pregnant, it felt like I lacked the energy to carry out basic obligations, like my job. I couldn’t get myself from point A to point B: on the way home from work, desperate for the couch, I’d pull over to vomit or nap in a parking lot, unable to drive for even five more minutes. Pregnancy was happening to me, unfolding consequences that I could not walk away from. My uncomfortably full torso and I couldn’t be removed from whatever was going to happen next.
During the long months until my daughter was born, my general fear was punctuated only by ultrasound appointments, during which I could see a schematic black and white picture of the creature, of her skull, bones, brain, and spine, moments when I could see all of this outside of myself, high on the screen above my head, when the technician was measuring parts and telling me what they meant. The part of pregnancy I liked, the part in which I feel the most myself, were the rare moments when my pregnancy turned into an aquarium and I returned to the cold, gentle comfort of observation.
Eight months after visiting the sturgeon at Bonneville, my husband and I and our baby, on an extended family camping trip to the Oregon Coast, took a break from the campground to spend an afternoon at the Mark O. Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. Just inside the doors, school-age kids leaned over a long, man-made tidepool, poking chubby fingers into a cluster of fat, green anemones, exclaiming when the anemones’ free gelatinous wands reflexively pulled closed. In the middle of the room, a small crowd had started to gather around the tank where a keeper’s arm reached down from the surface, deus ex machina, to feed an octopus. Tentacles clutched the arm with ferocious speed as the crowd gasped at the cephalopod’s power and intention.
Outside, a bright wind was taking the sky away from itself, sweeping the smoke of last night’s campfires out over the Pacific. Inside, it smelled like a cooped up sea, the floor’s cemented pebbles slick with splashed water.
I shuffled toward inner rooms where columnar, vertical tanks revealed the native species we may never have seen in the long sand flats, the intertidal marshes, things we may have found, half-rotted, on the hard sandy beach: the razor clams and sea cucumbers, the lampreys, the salmonids, the rock fish, the skate.
Maybe you have felt this way too: the sensation of inhabiting an unfamiliar role. I was the one with the gently swaying gait, the stable shoes, the old jeans, the ten dollar sunglasses nestled in my hair, new to being a caregiver. The one with an infant harnessed to my chest. Her legs dangled from the Baby Bjorn, slightly bent in total rest. Beneath the receiving blanket that shielded her nap from the overhead lighting, her grapefruit-sized head slumped against my hoodie. Her sleepy breathing was like the gentle rasp of a tiny, subtle violin.
In the early days of parenthood, we were trying out activities to see what would fit our new reality the way I tried on old clothes to see what would fit my changed body. The aquarium seemed like a way to get back in touch with my pre-maternal, non-maternal self, the person who’d been dormant for eight weeks of round-the-clock newborn care.
The Center’s walls held conceptual exhibits on coastal phenomena, things like upwelling, the effect of invasive species on the intertidal zone. There was none of what my professors called charismatic macrofauna: no seals, no penguins, no dolphins, no tragic whales. This was not the aquarium of Disney-like exotica, but the visual demonstration of a college marine ecology class, the university (Oregon State) turned inside out, the models of our collective knowledge on display (even if the deductive processes that construct that knowledge remain hidden). Each important piece was precisely illuminated. A person could learn something here. Less an aquarium than a science center, it was an aquarium as I always wanted aquariums to be. I should have been riveted.
I could sense my husband’s how much longer? glance as he wandered toward the gift store. (Pity the spouse of the nerd, the obsessive, the over-focused.) The baby kept sleeping.
But instead of lingering at each module, I found myself glancing over the text and moving on with my sleeping cargo, touching nothing, trying no levers, pushing no buttons, forming no hypotheses, making no connections. Whatever the tanks offered, I didn’t really need. The itch to find something in them had vanished. In an un-self-like fashion, the old self—the removed, gazing self—was no longer there.
And so the aquarium’s allure ended: with my daughter shifting against my chest like a cloud on a still day.
Caregiving is treated as a low-status occupation in our culture, distinct from the academic enterprises in which we construct our knowledge of the world outside ourselves, most of which define themselves in terms that assume a mind-body dichotomy—terms that have us approaching other bodies with minds rather than with bodies. Caring for babies and children, the ill, the disabled, and the elderly is a poorly paid type of labor, and the money gets worse depending on the amount of actual time the worker spends with the patient or charge. Little training or education is required to do it; the perception is that anyone can. When a family member cares for another, as I was caring for my daughter, it’s associated with instinct rather than knowledge, and I’d been conditioned not to take pride in this flood of instinct by a culture that elevates experiences of insight over experiences of intimacy.
But taking care of an infant—that common, instinctive activity—launched me into the caretaker’s way of knowing, an experience and an expertise that rendered the aquarium powerless.
The way I knew her redefined for me what it means to know a living thing. Unlike the knowledge created and disseminated through our universities and textbooks, knowledge created by caretaking is not durable, not static, not share-able, could not be put behind glass, is not exhibit-able.
As I veered away from the tanks, I knew she would sleep for at least another half hour. I knew how the slight back and forth sway to my walk kept her asleep. I knew she would be hungry a few minutes after her eyes opened, leaving me just enough time to get to a place where I could change her diaper before she began her red-faced grimace, her squeaky see-saw cry. When we stepped outside the science center into the ripping wind, I knew that she would need to be shielded from light as well as air, and I would grab a blanket to wrap around her, and she would be covered and safe before I consciously realized that I had made her so. I knew the meaning of each squirm and vocalization. My body was so finely attuned to my daughter’s body that I could sense her need before there was any signal I could name, before I could even say how I knew what I knew.
In the weeks since her body left my body, we were awash in the cycle of wordless attention, the feeding, sleeping, waking, holding, and cleaning, the repeat and adjust and repeat that comprised her continued thriving. And so we floated through the aquarium, gelatinous, unprotected, and interdependent, with the mildest interest, from sea urchin to rock fish, herring to barnacle, inseparable from our ourselves: creatures caught in our own tide.
Author’s Note: Now, with two children (aged one and four), I find myself more immersed in caregiving than ever, and I continue to think through all the ways the caregiver’s role frames my perspective. On our summer trips to the coast, my daughter has begun to explore tide pools. So far we’ve managed to leave the crabs alive and well.
Read our Q&A with Jessican Johnson
Jessica Johnson’s poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in Tin House, the Paris Review , Kenyon Review Online, and Harvard Review, among others. Her book of poems, In Absolutes We Seek Each Other, won the DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press chapbook contest in 2014. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, son, and daughter and teaches at Portland Community College. Find her online at www.chromeislands.com.