The Blob, the Monolith and the Units

Jackson’s Gap, Ala.Manoy Creek is six feet lower than the summer pool depth at Lake Martin right now, exposing structures and branches we don’t see in warmer months. Attached to many of them are transparent green-brown globs that look like brains. I wondered if these might be sacs of fish eggs, but Dad said fish lay eggs on the bottom of the lake, not in weird blobs near the surface.

We took an opportunity to inspect one at close range on Thanksgiving morning when we hoisted a chair from underneath the dock, the furniture having been a victim of strong winds back in the spring.

A string of smaller globs was affixed to the back of the chair, and we prodded them with a fireplace poker. The substance was gelatinous, fishy smelling, surprisingly dense, and covered in symmetrical star patterns speckled with dark green dots. We thought it might be a type of algae or fungus.

Googling “jello-like blob in lake” informed us we were wrong.

It turns out these blobs are the soft exoskeletons of prehistoric invertebrate animals called bryozoa that eat plankton and other microscopic particles floating in the water. Bryozoa reproduce by cloning themselves, with the individual zooids (or cellular structures) that comprise a bryozoa forming colonies using secretions from their bodies. The concept is similar to that of a coral reef, except I’m going to guess that most people would think coral reefs are beautiful and bryozoa are gross.

The bryozoan eats by extending tiny little arms into the water like a squid, capturing tinier bits of food, and pulling it back into a U-shaped digestive tract. The bryozoa bodily functions aren’t discernible to the unaided human eye, otherwise I would not have picked them up with my bare hands, nor slashed their self-made skeletal jello commune with a fireplace poker.

Thanksgiving units

Like the bryozoa, our family’s Thanksgiving this year was simple, strange and self-contained. We ate outside and sat at three card tables spaced six feet apart with seating arranged by the household. We wore masks when we went inside to wash up, where every window was open, every ceiling fan turned on, and the central air and heat turned off four hours in advance of my parents’ arrival in accordance with specifications detailed in an email written by my dad, a retired geotechnical engineer who referred to each dinner guest as a “unit”.

Mom and Dad (Alabama Unit 1) and my brother, his wife and son (Alabama Unit 2) left after dessert to enjoy the rest of the evenings mask-free at their separate homes in Auburn. Matt, Lily and I remained at the lake house with the bryozoa, where I spent the next two days obsessively researching my new discovery on the internet and studying them up close (but not touching or poking them) from a kayak.

Late Saturday evening I was driving home alone back to Franklin after having spent the last few hours with Lily eating Thanksgiving leftovers and binge watching The Real Housewives (Potomac season 1). Lily (Georgia Unit) had gone back to her college apartment in Athens and Matt (the other half of my Tennessee Unit) had left a day prior to visit his father and brother in Knoxville.

On my late-night drive through north Alabama, I was listening to Fleetwood Mac radio on Pandora and trying to pinpoint the precise time in my 43 years when I started thinking more about the past than the future when a New York Times alert lit up my phone, announcing that a mysterious metal monolith that had appeared in the Utah desert a few days ago had just as suddenly disappeared.

Monolith in the desert

Officials from the federal Bureau of Land Management discovered the monolith at the base of a barren slot canyon while surveying for bighorn sheep. A couple days later, they discovered it had vanished. The monolith could be art, aliens or a prank. I suppose it could be all three.

Many believe the piece to be the work of sculptor John McCracken, known for high contrast resin-covered plywood planks that blur the line between painting and sculpture. He also made metal monoliths like the one found in Utah. The problem connecting McCracken to the canyon monolith is that McCracken died in 2011.

But McCracken believed in alien life and time travel, and his son thinks this piece in the desert is the kind of thing he would have created or at least appreciated. I am not a curator, collector, artist or historian, but my working theory is that McCracken made the piece and arranged for the unit’s future installation and removal prior to his death.

Cosmic Jello Blob

Fossil records show that bryozoa have been on Earth for 500 million years before I poked one at the plague Thanksgiving. They are one of the oldest animals on the planet, and yet they are still news to a great many of us.

Satellite images indicate the monolith was in the desert for four years before anyone found it and made it public. That it would be discovered in this mysterious, time-bending year is serendipitous.

But what of 2020 is concrete? What will we take from this time of unease and restrictions, anxiety and workarounds? I think it’s worth emphasizing that time stretches further than any one year, it’s a line (or maybe a Jeremy Bearimy) reaching beyond any one person.

My personal takeaway from this year is that we’re living on a planet with lots of opportunity for discovery and interpretation. We’ll be wrong about some things. We’ll learn some things. We’ll find some things we didn’t know we were looking for. And it doesn’t matter which timeline we’re working with — bryozoan or monolith — we’re all spinning together on the same cosmic jello blob.



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