Plagued by insomnia, I pad downstairs & grab a book at random in the dark. I soon find myself reading about Arctic terns, which fly 22,000 miles each year, circling from one end of the earth to the other so they can spend their lives in continual daylight — an endless frigid summer. They are, the book says, delicate-looking black & white birds with bright red feet & beaks, and very high-strung: they assault anyone or anything that approaches the little hollows in the permafrost where they make their nests. The male & female take turns incubating the eggs, & when the off-duty bird returns, it brings its mate the gift of a small fish.
I’ve been thinking about those porcupines of the ocean, the sea urchins. Their transparent, shell-less eggs have been featured in textbooks of developmental biology for over a hundred years, & Aristotle himself first drew attention to the simplicity of their digestive systems with their five hollow teeth and five-chambered stomachs.
Purple sea urchins, I learned recently, use their spines to excavate hollows in solid rock, & so anchor themselves against the surf. The spines attach to ball-and-socket joints, & can be used also for defense or locomotion. The purple sea urchin genome was sequenced just last November, & 70 percent of its genes were discovered to have a human counterpart.
Among my collection of miscellaneous natural objects is a sea urchin’s flying saucer-shaped shell, or test, which I found washed up on a beach when I was a kid. Thirty years later, it still smells faintly of the ocean.
Can there be anything lonelier than a fourth-quarter moon, which loses its shine so long before it sets? There it is in mid-morning, like a half-eaten midnight snack of milk & cookies. Imagine trying to describe moonlight to someone who has never experienced anything but day.