Elysia Chlorotica

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Image via fastcodesign.com.

by Kelly Jean Campbell

The passage of time seems only to prove that I am an expert in nothing. My hair grows long and my quiet perplexity deepens, puddle-like, permeating down to some subterranean ocean of forgetting. His recent disappearance seems only further proof: what were those hours? What did those long stares mean, or that he introduced me to his children, or what did the passage of three months mean? Nothing means the same thing to anyone. I continue comparing puzzle pieces like cupped handfuls of silt, like mismatched genetic material. In the end, we are all unknowable, maybe each with our own artesian depths of strangeness.

I’ve come to lack the energy even for sadness. After a few morose days, I’m honestly a little proud of my total lack of surprise, the ease with which I labeled your bad behavior for what it was and kept moving, all the while my questions and observations slowly meandering in some saline, muddy pond, occasionally surfacing in protest, then quickly ducking under.

I was probably one of thousands of Internet procrastinators to encounter the recent spate of articles about the “solar-powered sea slug,” Elysia chlorotica. The Eastern Emerald Elysia is native, too, to shallow saltwater, a Nearctic creature that spans far north and south on the Atlantic coast.

We don’t know much about its reproductive habits, but it is capable of sexual and asexual reproduction, copulating or self-fertilizing at will. It lives for less than a year. It has no natural predators. It is adapted to begin to photosynthesize upon their first adult meal of algae, by a process called kleptoplasty: they have stolen the chloroplasts of their prey.

In addition to the final resting place of ancient Greek heroes, Elysia is also the name of a genus of small, kaleidoscopic gastropods. Sea slugs. Mostly, they range in size from smaller than a pencil eraser to about the size of a quarter. They are slow-moving, look more like vegetation than animal. Practice with your vocal cords, run down a list of its family members: Elysia atroviridis. Elysia australis. Elysia bella. Elysia chlorotica. Elysia degeneri. Elysia diomeda. Elysia evelinae. Elysia maoria, obtusa, ornata. Elysia serca, subornata. Elysia timida. As with all prayers, you are conjuring it before you realize what is happening, and suddenly you are whispering the names of different members of heaven, as if asking each one in turn for its acknowledgment.

Etymologists know that the name elysium is derived from a designation of someone or thing struck by lightning: blessed by Zeus, or blasted apart.

The day after I answered his missed connection, I bought 1989 and fell in love with how Elysian the album is. I listened to Out of the Woods probably dozens of times, those crawling little thoughts failing to assemble into what I probably more or less knew about us. I have yet to tire of Blank Space. The tidy binary– Taylor’s so good at those– of the bubblegum-chirped knowledge that “it’s gonna be forever, or it’s gonna go down in flames,” was appealing, and it had a too-cute-to-care aura that I wanted to absorb. Alas, I am no kleptoplast. If I had to be rejected, to see that this time, too, was wasted, couldn’t I have one defining moment, one lightning strike, one pomegranate-seed meal of certainty, marking the change?

The Elysian gastropods are categorized additionally by the manner in which they eat, though this is not exclusive to their genus. To eat, they grasp a piece of algae, puncture its outer wall in their mouths, and suck out its green, prokaryotic insides. They possess very small teeth that allow them to do this effortlessly. For many, this turns their translucent, jellylike bodies green. For others in the Elysia genus, the change is more dramatic.

Juvenile Elysia chlorotica are round-shaped and dark amber, blotted with red pigment. Yet, Elysia chlorotica’s name is not unclear. Eastern Emerald Elysia. It is not until its first delicate algae meal that the Eastern Emerald’s brown-red body is suffused with chlorophyll-green, when its actual shape changes, becoming something often described as leaflike. A crawling leaf. Not only does its color change. The first algal taste engages a set of DNA actually imbedded in the Eastern Emerald’s coding. Once the algae’s chloroplasts are incorporated in the cell’s belly, it begins to photosynthesize — hence, those shallow pools. After its first meal, some strange story coded in the smallest parts of the tiny cells of this very small creature trigger a genetic-gastronomic reaction that permits it to photosynthesize for the rest of its life. It is a eukaryote with the magic ease of a prokaryote. Read this again: After its first meal, for the rest of its relatively short lifespan, the Eastern Emerald never needs to eat again, though they sometimes do, presumably for fun — much like they can procreate by self-fertilization or by sexual reproduction. They are so wise, down to their very DNA, that sex and food are necessary only for pleasure. Elysian, indeed.

Pindar would have us know that “those that have three times kept to their oaths / keeping their souls clean and pure,” are given forever to spend in Elysium. Dante’s affinity for Elysium does not surprise; in the Divine Comedy, he finds it the place where those who lived virtuously, yet before Christ, are allowed to rest.

Call it a pleasant neighborhood of Hell. It is not transcendent, but a charmed resting place, blanketed with asphodel, a close linguistic cousin of the common daffodil. Are you reminded now of some wilting Tennessee Williams character, possibly histrionic Amanda, lost in her memories of feverish jonquil-filled summers, or are you thinking of Blanche DuBois out of place there on Elysian Fields?

Assigning heavenly names to earthly things flavors them with sorrow, as if we are both above and below. Persephone wintered in Elysium, and days like today the wind is more knifelike than cold, all because she ate three pomegranate seeds, a moment of implicit promise that changed everything. Elysia translucens, Elysia trilobata, Elysia trisinuata. Heavenly, crawling, insentient, slime-dwelling creatures of earth. Blow out your candles, Laura.

The chlorotica’s kleptoplasty is a rare, but not unique, example. Its first bite of algae takes it across evolutionary spans, across different biological life ways. Like Persephone, this other, smaller Elysian takes only one small meal, and then finds itself bridging two distinct realms. It is struck by lightning, blessed or cursed only once, by virtue of one single venture. Prokaryote and eukaryote, an animal with plant wisdom in its actual cells, it represents the outermost twigs of what’s called the evolutionary tree reaching and touching each other. May the odd space in between, the space where we do not know what we are or why, eventually be sealed off, just another puddle in our insides. One day, we will die each winter and wake up each spring. We will not feel hungry and we won’t get so worked up about the little things. One day, the ends and beginnings of things will be clear, even if their reasons are not. One day, we will lie in the sun and its light and warmth will fill us up and blot out our loneliness. The children that we secretly wonder about will hatch a week later by our sides, and then we will lie in the sun together. We will have no natural predators; we will never be hungry. Somewhere there is a piece of fruit waiting to be tasted.

The truth is that these tiny apocalypses happen every moment. Each minute breaks the one before it. It’s hard to exist in the always-not-knowing, to subscribe to the tough virtuousness of accepting that nothing ever makes sense ever. All I wanted was, you know, to know whether it was gonna last forever or it was gonna go down in flames. Couldn’t it have been one or the other? I would never blame someone for not wanting to be with another person. It isn’t a fault or a wrong done against me. Maybe no two people speak the same language, maybe we are all unknowable, but odds are also looking good that you’re kind of a jerk. Or a nice person who did a jerk-type thing. That’s the space where I’ll write your name. We are all struck by lightning every second. We are not just anyone, none of us.

I find a few hours later an obscure article claiming that Elysia, in the case of the genus of gastropods, refers not to heavenly, but to elysiid, “leaf-shaped.” I find no other definition of this word anywhere, but hand my search over to qualified etymologists or biologists. No doubt it will make more sense to someone else.

1. Elysium, etymology & Pindar quotations

2. Life cycle of e. chlorotica & other biological info

3. Listing of elysia species

4. In which “elysiid” is referred to as meaning “leaf-shaped”

 

Kelly Jean Campbell is a grad school dropout originally from Afton, Virginia who currently lives in Richmond with her cat, Meeko. As a child, she aspired to become one of the people who chooses color names for crayons. 

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