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Jellyfish and Stars
Overcoming the gloom of the climate crisis
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Every year for more than two decades, we’ve spent the last weeks of summer on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. It is a magical place, even with over-development and too many tourists, this thin strip of land in the Atlantic manages to enchant.
When we arrived last Saturday, I ran — as I always do — to the beach to greet the ocean. Before I reached the water, however, I looked down. There were thousands of jellyfish on the shore.
Small moon jellies and bigger red ones, ranging from the size of a dime to a softball. Some appeared to have been newly washed ashore, others decaying in the hot sun. Each wave brought more in from the sea. You couldn’t go in the water (no one was wading despite the heat) and you couldn’t walk along the beach for fear of stepping on them. (Jellyfish still sting and release venom after they are dead — plus: yuck.)
Not only were there no swimmers or walkers, but there were very few birds. No sanderlings, gulls, Eastern willets, terns, or sandpipers. A few pelicans flew overhead. They seemed to know they should stay away. Unlike normal times, the waves broke ashore without the accompanying polyphony of birdsong.
Of course, jellyfish usually show up in August in the warm late summer currents off North Carolina — and jellyfish can — and do — swarm. And we’ve had to avoid them before on the Outer Banks. But this was, well, weird. It looked like Scyphozoa had launched a D-Day invasion on Nags Head.
It was eerie. And sad.
I felt a little lost that my seaside morning walks — a great joy for me every year — were on hold. However, that wasn’t the sole source of my sadness. Rather, as I looked over the gelatinous graveyard of sand, great waves of grief came over me regarding climate change. Scientists have long expected that jellyfish would increase as the oceans warmed. As much marine life is struggling against extinction, jellyfish are thriving as predicted: exploding populations of them inhabit the oceans. I occasionally think only cockroaches and jellyfish will make it to the future.
If you’ve not been paying attention, the oceans aren’t just warm. They are hot — hotter than anyone expected at this point in our climate crisis. The Washington Post recently covered the “sea surface temperature anomaly.”
If you look closely, you’ll see that one of the worst area of warming is the North Atlantic, off of the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States.
“The North Atlantic has baked in record daily warmth every day since early March,” reported the Post, “With the average sea surface temperature in this region now approaching 77 degrees Fahrenheit, as hot as it’s ever been and more than 2.5 degrees above average, the North Atlantic has warmed almost beyond the most extreme predictions of climate models.”
When I saw the jellyfish, I knew they might be just a fluke of the season. I disliked how their appearance would impact my vacation. But, more than anything else, I thought of the warming ocean. Although the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, I’m sure, would rather I not say this: I wondered if they were a slimy harbinger of the future, the beaches that my daughter and her future children would face. In coming years, will the beaches always be full of these mucilaginous sea beasties?
If, of course, the Outer Banks somehow manage to stay above water.
Instead of finding a happy place at the beach, a deep gloom settled in my heart. My spirit was not that of joy, but Job:
For my sighing comes like my bread,
and my groanings are poured out like water.
Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me,
and what I dread befalls me.
I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
I have no rest; but trouble comes.
* * * * *
Sitting on the deck that night, my husband and I stared up at the stars. The sky was clear, the stars bright. At the edge of the continent — no, beyond its edge — here — manmade light does less damage to the heavens. If you look out and toward the sea, the Milky Way is visible. Not as dramatically as in the mountains of the west, but more so than most other places here in the east.
We talked about gloom and the end of the world — all as we pointed out constellations above. Suddenly, a meteor streaked overhead. We both gasped and watched its long tail dissolve into stardust. Awe. Spirit. God.
“At least we can’t ruin the heavens,” I said ruefully, “the stars will go on. The cosmos is so much more than the Earth.”
And then the memory of an ancient story arose, a question. “Where were you,” God asked Job, “when I founded earth?”
Who determined its measurements — surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? . . .
Can you tie the bands of the Pleiades,
or loose Orion’s reins?
Can you bring constellations out in their season,
lead the Great Bear with its children?
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Can you fix their rule on the earth?. . .
Who has placed in the hidden parts wisdom,
or who gave the mind understanding?
Who counted the skies in wisdom?
and the jars of the heavens who tilted,
when the dust melts to a mass
and the clods cling fast together?
I thought of the jellyfish on the beach. And the ash on the beaches of Maui. The fires in Canada. Small losses and big ones. Of the hottest days on Earth in thousands of years, of heating oceans, of smoky skies. I’m afraid, worried, full of woe.
And yet — those stars. From the wounded Earth upon which we walk to the Pleaides and Orion that we cannot reach, God is there. With us, on our horizon, all around us, beyond us. Awe. Something vast, no words can contain this sense. This creating, pulsing, loving presence that envelops everything.
Amid the gloom, awe is all I have left.
* * * * *
In recent years, social scientists have discovered that awe is a lot. Oddly enough, feeling personal insignificance winds up being a powerful motivator for doing good.
When I was growing up in church, I often heard people minimize the experience of awe with comments like “navel-gazing is self-centered” or “some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” Turns out that experiences of silence and meditation (“navel-gazing”) and staring at the stars or listening to a great symphony (“heavenly mindedness”) enhance “prosocial tendencies” — wanting to help, assisting those in danger, care for those who are suffering, sharing resources, and collaborating and cooperating with others for the greater good. That’s because these great things make us feel small, give us perspective, and find richer meaning in connection with nature and our neighbors.
Of course, each one of us matters. The New Testament speaks of a God who can number the hairs on our heads and cares for every sparrow. And, despite the fact that it is a small planet in a vast galaxy in a what-might-be-infinite universe, Earth matters. It is our very insignificance in this awe-inducing, boundless, ever-surprising and expansive wonder of an existence that can compel us to save each other and save this tiny world we inhabit. Because God - the divine - the Spirit - wonder - embraces the jellyfish and the stars and everything and everyone in between.
* * * * *
The jellyfish are gone now. The wind changed, redirecting the waves. Their viscous carcasses carried back to the sea, or wherever dead jellyfish go. The water is clear now. The sand is now strewn only with shells. Dolphins play in the swells. There still aren’t many birds, though. Almost everything seems to be as it should be.
But the illusion will last only until the next heatwave, the next violent storm, the next house falls into the ocean, the next fire burns to the edge of the sea. Nothing is “normal,” and probably won’t be for the rest of our lives.
Except for the stars. Stand in the darkest place you can find. Look up. Let the vastness surround you. And then feeling inspired and insignificant, go and do something — with others — that our grandchildren might be able to run down a beach without fear.
And don’t forget the jellyfish. Every loss reminds us that we need each other to make it to the future.
Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.
— Abraham Heschel
I saw no Way — The Heavens were stitched —
I felt the Columns close —
The Earth reversed her Hemispheres —
I touched the Universe —
And back it slid — and I alone —
A Speck upon a Ball —
Went out upon Circumference —
Beyond the Dip of Bell —
— Emily Dickinson
Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.
— David Whyte, from “The Journey”
The saintly character is the character for which spiritual emotions are the habitual center of the personal energy. . . . They are these: A feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world’s selfish little interests; and a conviction, not merely intellectual, but as it were sensible, of the existence of an Ideal Power. . . . An immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down. . . . A shifting of the emotional center toward loving and harmonious affections . . . [which brings] increase of charity, tenderness for fellow-creatures.
— William James
If you love the planet and want to help — and you are over 60 — sign up for Third Act, a movement to organize older Americans to make a difference together, partnered with younger adult, and work for a sustainable future. If you are the pastor of a church with lots of members over 60, introduce Third Act to them. They actually have a “Faith Working Group” for those who want to link activism, spirituality, and congregations.
One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, "What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”
― Rachel Carson
And, if you care about living in a habitable world, you should probably refrain from voting Republican until that party recants from its current climate plan — called “Project 2025 — which is, basically, to destroy every measure and regulation that addresses the climate crisis and to increase extracting and burning fossils fuels. The New York Times called it, “A Republican 2024 Climate Strategy: More Drilling, Less Clean Energy.” If you don’t have access to the Times, you can read the story in Politico or The Guardian. Planning to watch the first GOP primary debate? If FOX asks about climate change (and that’s a pretty big “if”), listen for candidates to pull talking points from this plan to burn Earth into fossil fuel oblivion — but, hey, Exxon will be richer.
More awe — a sunset from our beach house. Whether gazing at water or clouds, I often think of Rachel Carson’s words, “The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place.”
Awe is the gateway to compassion.
It is a deep awareness that we are creators, creators who work with the Creator, in an ongoing project of crafting a world. If we do not like the world or are afraid of it, we have had a hand in that. And if we made a mess, we can clean it up and do better.
We are what we make.
― Diana Butler Bass, from Grounded
From September 1 to October 4, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, and world-wide Protestant communions observe the “Season of Creation,” a special liturgical season emphasizing God as Creator — attending to the Earth, climate change, and environmentalism. This year’s theme is “Let Justice and Peace Flow.”
During this season, the Cottage joins this global ecumenical chorus in lifting up theological insights, spiritual practices, and the poetic wonders of creation.
All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
— Pope Francis