The Hippo


May 31, 2020








Spineless, by Juli Berwald
(Riverhead, 310 pages)


 Spineless,  by Juli Berwald (Riverhead, 310 pages)

Here are two words you don’t often see paired: jellyfish adventure. 
Most of us would prefer jellyfish not to be part of our adventures, particularly if we’ve ever been stung by one. 
But in Spineless, Juli Berwald, an ocean scientist improbably based in Austin, Texas, embarks on what she terms a jellyfish adventure, plunging into the watery world of gelatinous orbs and their role on the planet. It’s a role that’s bigger than one might think, and it’s possibly growing even larger. 
While landlubbers go about their ordinary lives, people with advanced degrees in marine science are debating whether or not jellyfish populations are exploding. The jury is still out, but if jellyfish are, in fact, growing more plentiful, one reason could be that increasing levels of carbon dioxide are making the ocean more acidic and less hospitable to sea creatures with shells while more nurturing of algae, worms and jellyfish.
We hear a lot about algae blooms these days, but there are also jellyfish blooms that occur all over the world, and masses of jellyfish have caused technological failures when they are sucked up into coastal power plants and gum up the works. Most famously for U.S. interests, a jellyfish bloom temporarily incapacitated the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan on its first voyage in 2006. As jellyfish problems go, that puts a couple of hours of angry welts on your leg in perspective.
Berwald doesn’t just examine the problems caused by jellyfish, however.  Having become engrossed with them about the time her children entered grade school (giving her “a blessed seven and a half hours of tuition-free time to catch my breath”), she is a font of jellyfish trivia, the sort that will enable you to bore people for hours at your next cocktail party. 
Jellies, as people in the know call them, don’t float aimlessly through the water looking for a leg on which to attach; they are efficient swimmers and power themselves like water sucked through a straw. A serving of jellyfish — yes, people eat them, as do sea turtles and sunfish — contains 25 calories, 6 grams of protein and no fat. Some species can reproduce without a mate. 
In the course of the book, Berwald not only studies jellyfish, but she cooks them and acquires them as pets, then travels the globe in search of jellyfish knowledge, from the laboratories of Woods Hole, Mass., to a tidal stream in Hiroshima, along the way becoming not just a jellyfish enthusiast but an apologist for the planet, and specifically “the wild ocean” and marine-protected areas, or MPAs. Just 3 percent of the ocean is protected, she notes, arguing for an expansion of 10 percent or more.
With all this information about jellyfish, you’d think Berwald would have the solution to the more immediate problem that concerns most beach-goers: what to do about jellyfish strings, which occur roughly 150 million times a year. 
Unfortunately, she writes that there’s little consensus about the best treatment, in part because there are so many different types of jellyfish with different types of toxins. But for now, it appears that applying hot water to the sting is the best bet. Vinegar works, too. 
“If you are stung, your best bet is to pluck off any visible tentacles using tweezers if you have them,” she writes. “Then douse your sting in vinegar and then hot water. Cold water will make the sting worse.” You can forget about the old-school remedies of alcohol, baking soda and urine.
The subtitle of Spineless promises an examination of “the science of jellyfish and the art of growing a backbone,” but it delivers more on the former than the latter. Mercifully, the book is more science than memoir, because the usually graceful narrative is hobbled at times by the awkward injection of autobiography that strays too far off topic. 
Animal lovers should also note that Spineless regards jellyfish more as object than as creature, even as Berwald makes the case for their importance in the ecosystem. She writes about an incident at the dawn of her jellyfish consciousness, in which she encounters a massive specimen washed up on a shore in Alabama where her family is vacationing.
The creature was three feet wide, so big that children were tugging it about in a wagon, and when the accumulating children take to stabbing it with sand shovels, “splaying open its clear jelly innards,” Berwald stands by impassively and later explains away the savagery as curiosity, the desire “to know what it was made of, to explore the inside of this alien creature.”
Well, that’s one way to look at it, I suppose. Another is a view expressed by one of the more colorful scientists that Berwald encounters, a guy named Monty who says at one point, “What’s of most concern to people is not actually jellyfish. What’s of most concern is how jellyfish affect people.”
Spineless is not your typical memoir about animals in exactly that way; it’s ostensibly about an animal, but the animal itself is incidental, having a primitive central nervous system and no pain receptors or brain, which is why an otherwise compassionate mother can stand on a beach smiling as her child joyfully stabs one. 
Was it alive, or dead, to begin with? This is not noted, as if it didn’t matter. As Monty explained, jellyfish themselves are not our concern, just how they affect our lives. B 
— Jennifer Graham 

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