A Review of Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone by Juli Berwald
When I was about six years old, I visited San Diego with my family. As I was playing on the beach, I noticed that the tide had brought up hundreds of jellyfish and then receded, leaving the waterline littered with their clear bodies. Being the intrepid conservationist that I was, I set out to save them, pushing them one by one back into the water with a stick. I must have only gotten to help a couple, but I still remember that day vividly: the wonder of coming into contact with jellyfish for the first time and the desire to help get them back where they belonged.
Many people, especially those who have grown up around the water, have stories about jellyfish, be it finding them littered on the coast in gelatinous pieces or watching them surrounding you deep in the ocean. But most of us do not give a second thought to their life cycle, their ecological niche, or even the impact they have on the oceans as a whole.
Juli Berwald doesn’t remember the first time she saw a jellyfish. She grew up in St. Louis and only found her passion for the ocean on a high school trip to Tel Aviv when she went diving for the first time. She went on to study marine biology, graduating from the University of Southern California with a PhD in ocean science. She drifted away from the field, however, her family obligations and the reality of life of pulling her away from her passions and into the world of textbook writing.
Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone, and Berwald’s decision to write it, is her own journey back into the world of the ocean. It is as much a personal narrative of self discovery as it is a scientific text about jellyfish. Berwald’s unique position as a scientist and writer gives her the capacity to convey scientific concepts for anyone to read, and to captivate her readers while doing so. The book is chronological, moving from her earliest moments of jellyfish wonder to her trip, quite literally, around the world in search of the significance of jellyfish to humans. She seeks to better understand the place that jellyfish have in her own life and simultaneously, the lives of each of us.
Berwald captivates you with her first words. Her descriptions of a river of jellyfish mix with the reader’s own memories of interacting with these mesmerizing creatures. Throughout the book, she is able to take you with her through her powerful descriptive prose: “The movement of their bells trailing gossamer tentacles were like millions of eyelashes blinking open and close and open again, giving me a feeling that these alien animals could peer deep into the soul of the sea.” The reader is transported to a different world, coming to understand the unique biological niche that these beautiful animals occupy and their impact on systems as far reaching as nuclear power and food. Berwald dives deep into the world of jellyfish, describing their complex ability to interact with their environment, their economical swimming, their mysterious nature, and even how to prepare and eat them.
Berwald’s narrative is lighthearted and intimate, while still dealing with issues of great magnitude. We are offered a peek into her real life, from interactions with her children to her attempts to raise jellyfish for herself. She has the unparalleled ability to combine scientific knowledge with intimate personal details and humor: “Creating light is one of the commonest ways in which marine organisms communicate with one another. When I swirled those phytoplankton in the jam jar, I was seeing their screams.” She does not take herself too seriously and recognizes that she too is a passive observer in the lives of jellyfish. Her portrayal of herself as an outsider at the scientific conferences she visits in pursuit of understanding more about jellyfish makes her less of a lecturer and more of a friend, allowing her to act as a bridge between scientific research and our personal interactions with the ocean.
Despite her captivating prose and fascinating scientific details, Berwald too often takes you out of her brilliantly written book to comment on issues of climate change and the necessity of changing human behavior or the similarities between jellyfish and ourselves. The obvious nature of the message detracts from the narrative and prevents the reader from coming to their own conclusions about the significance of jellyfish in their own life. Instead, the reader is told what Berwald thinks the take aways should be based on her own journey. In a way, it feels like Berwald has tried to do too much by combining narrative, scientific, and call to action in a single book, and would have been better eliminating the latter of the three.
Virtually no one else has the skills and experience to have put this narrative together as expertly as Berwald. It is a story of discovery, love, and most of all beauty, reminding us that scientific discovery should never be limited to the obvious. And in the end, “The story of jellyfish is really about our own possibilities.”