Non-FictionWinter 2023

The Wanderers — Ryan Habermeyer

When insomnia visits, I find myself numbering wandering things: sand, pollen, electrons, wildebeests, Aristotelian wombs. Or Shelley walking the Alpine glaciers, unnerved by their sublime stealthy creep. Had he arrived two hundred years later, he might have seen the glaciers bleed fat, red tongues which spill out of crevasses. Not a biblical plague but a microscopic migration, an exsanguination caused when algae buried deep in the ice slowly make their way to the surface where photosynthesis — and possibly sex — create the bright red patches on the glacier surface.

Wanderers within a wanderer. Glaciers are restless things, after all. Flowing, oozing, heaving, sliding. The base grinds across rugged terrain while the anxious middle layer moves faster. This difference in speed causes tension on the brittle crust, which leads to fractures and splits. As the temperature shifts warmer, a thin film of water forms on the glacial surface into a quasi-liquid layer, the lattice of a million miniature ice crystals disorganizes, and the molecular bonds dissolve, unleashing an eerie symphony of physical change. In Farthest North, a fin de siècle account of the expedition through the polar archipelago, Norwegian polymath explorer Fridtjof Nansen records glacial, Arctic nights as “faint, dreamy colour music, a faraway, long-drawn-out melody on muted strings.” Groans, pops, crackles, rattles, and echoes fill the otherwise silent altitude as the ice warps and pockets of ancient atmosphere escape.

Four hundred thirty million years ago, the music of glaciers soundtracked extinction, as it does today. Then, at the end of the Ordovician period, a sudden glaciation of the Southern Hemisphere sent the world of Brachiopods and graptolites — curious specimens only a biologist can love — into a death spiral. Four other mass extinctions would follow the Ordovician: the Devonian, the Permian, the Triassic, and the Cretaceous.

Less than 100 million years after that terminal glaciation, Devonian vegetation colonized the continents, giving shade to the first insects and arachnids. However, greening comes with a price. As forests ran wild, they not only leeched carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, cooling the global climate, but their greedy roots spewed phosphorous into the soil, which trickled down into the water table and swept out to sea, creating colorful algal blooms potentially resembling oceanic raves. Starved of oxygen in these conditions, water-inhabiting placoderms like the mysterious Dinichthys herzeri vanished while tetrapods fled inland and evolved into reptiles.

The Permian extinction 250 million years after the Devonian greening almost ended all life on earth. Siberian volcanoes belched toxic fumes, ripping holes in the ozone which allowed ultraviolet radiation to ripple across Pangea. Amphibians, half-mammal and half-reptilian synapsids, conodonts, and even the queen of the sky, griffinflies, died helplessly. Only fungi thrived.

Every apocalypse heralds nascence, and we would have missed dinosaurs without the Permian die-off. They survived the Triassic extinction 50 million years later, but eventually met their end in the Cretaceous 165 million years after their birth. An asteroid struck the Yucatan Peninsula, wiping them out. They waited patiently 65 million years to be resurrected by Steven Spielberg.

…        …

Evolution is so capricious. Transvestite beetles, necrophilic wasps, and sadomasochistic scorpions have somehow survived, but other species —thousands? millions? — have left no fossil record. Only a handful have survived all five mass extinction events. None is quite like the jellyfish.

Brainless, boneless, bloodless: jellyfish rule the ocean. Martial arts guru Bruce Lee built a philosophy on emptying the mind and becoming formless, shapeless, the same as how water in a cup becomes the cup. “Water can flow or it can crash,” Lee says, advocating “be water, friend.” To which jellyfish, if they had eyes, might wink and say, Tell us something we don’t know. A gelatinous body, itself a kind of chaos, cannot be ruined by the chaos of ocean waves. At 700 million years young, jellyfish are one of the oldest living species. They predate the Cambrian explosion, the geologic equivalent of the Renaissance. It is not so reckless to imagine jellyfish in Earth’s beginning, when it was little more than a boiling, cosmic soup.

Scientific minds have long wrestled with jellyfish. Pliny the Elder believed their sting could cure frostbite and kidney stones. Linnaeus puzzled over them, calling them animalia paradoxa, then zoophytes — neither plant nor animal —, before naming them Medusae after the ancient Greek Gorgon whose gaze turns men into stone. Huxley wondered aboard the HMS Rattlesnake how such rudimentary creatures equipped with a single orifice for mouth and anus were more accomplished navigators than birds, turtles, or dolphins. Even now it remains a mystery, though it’s possible the skin of their dome, laced with neurons, reads the earth’s electromagnetic pulse.

Novelist Margaret Drabble, inspired by Pliny and Hélène Cixous, calls them the fish that burns like a star. Jellyfish galaxies do exist. These interstellar clusters, filled with hot gas, spiral in deep space. As they slowly strip away, they leave in their wake a gaseous plume like blue cosmic tentacles. Sharing shape, they also share the ability to give off light with our oceanic sovereigns.

…        …

An elegant myth that could explain their bioluminescence: once burning stars, jellyfish fell into the ocean, becoming nomads and rulers of the sea. Such a myth might have pleased the ancient Greeks who gazed at the night’s sky and called the stars planetes. Wanderers.

In the middle of this sixth extinction, with rising global temperatures and ocean acidification erasing biodiversity, jellyfish populations — dismissed too often as mere fragile balls of mucus — are somehow thriving. Reserve some holy envy for the jellyfish. If they can survive five mass extinctions, then maybe, just maybe, the rest of us have a chance.

…        …

Perhaps the future is in brainless, boneless, bloodless things.

…        …

On the open waters, a jellyfish feigns lifelessness and yet the stretched tentacles are waiting, wreathed with thousands of miniature caverns. Like a monastery full of cells, these pockets house nematocysts, little more than barbed coils of venom. The jellyfish waits and waits and waits. Listening to nothing, or maybe everything. Knowing no boredom, no horror, no sadness, no joy. A soundless, scentless existence seems awful. Yet even the most rudimentary jellyfish possesses a complex nervous system of more than 10 million nerve cells, which means they can feel more than most creatures on the planet.

Millennia of evolution slowly shaped their profound sensitivity to touch and today help the jellyfish detect minuscule osmotic pressure imbalances around them. The electrical polarity signals their cellular membrane to change from impermeable to permeable and deploy a toxic harpoon that accelerates faster than the Apollo space shuttle.

The neurotoxin is not fatal. It merely paralyzes, lovingly seducing prey toward consumption.

…        …

For millennia, archaic humans rarely strayed far from what they knew. They hid in caves. They invented small things. They roamed a comfortable radius. Then a tribe died. Tools forgotten. Mental libraries vanished. Slowly, we moved out into the world trying to find what we’d forgotten, exploring cautiously while trying to give birth to civilization. History remembers the explorers. The Polos, Magellans and Vespuccis, all less human than legends.

But give me wanderers, not explorers. Ancient Hebrews in the desert. Romanis in Bohemia. Kierkegaard in Cophenhagen, Baudelaire in Paris, Robert Walser in the Swiss countryside. Idlers, drifters, dromomaniacs, somnambulists, flâneurs. Those without maps or paths or passageways.

Give me Denisovans. The great wandering hominins of prehistory. We hardly know them, except mere archeological traces from the frigid mountains of Siberia to the jungles of Laos. They left behind only three molars and a fossilized pinkie tip, plus a jawbone fragment from a Tibetan cave. Yet we know they walked and walked and walked.

Picture them foraging the Mammoth steppe. Picture them interbreeding with Neanderthals. The Neanderthal brain is slightly larger and more elongated than his cousin H. sapiens, prioritizing vision and smell but lacking the mental real estate for more nuanced cognition. His mind sieves information. It struggles to remember an almanac of shapes: the lattice orbs of a spider’s web, the curve of a Smilodon tooth, the honeycomb tessellations that scream sweetness. Looking, always looking, until the Neanderthal must have felt like a shape among shapes. He codes the world. The spiraling triangles of the Aloe vera petals dull aches, while the unmistakable shark fin says swim. A carnival of scents and sensations travels through his limbic system but find little room to nest in his shrunken hippocampus. He remembers red is warm, yellow is fever, rain is blue, green is the stench of decay, but forgets so much. His neocortex, outer layer of tissue like a pendulum clock governing the sense of time, is the same as his cousins’, only his develops too rapidly. He understands time as a cycle—an endless loop of beginnings and endings.

And then there’s the Denisovan brain. We can only imagine it. As far as we can tell, it was larger than even our H. sapiens one. More neurons might equal more imagination, but also more vulnerable to disease. Perhaps her neurons, like ours, are shaped like cones and pyramids—but also like stars, vortices, even spindles. Perhaps they grow dendrites that weave and branch and tangle in fractal patterns, creating a labyrinth of dense forests like Sleeping Beauty’s briar. Her mind is a fairy tale.

Perhaps for her, time is not linear as it is for H. sapiens, relentlessly moving forward like trying to catch an arrow shot in the dark. Perhaps for her, time is a knot she weaves without beginning or end. Perhaps she makes no effort to distinguish between memory and experience and imagination. Her neural forests crisscross paths and tangle themselves as signals proceeding divergently rather than convergently. Her mind wanders spontaneously. It knows it cannot be a singularity. It wants to be legion.

While the centuries roll on, let’s imagine the Neanderthals hunting, the H. sapiens building, and the Denisovans daydreaming as they walk and walk and walk.

…        …

They must have been daydreaming. Reconstructed skull fragments show square eye sockets, wide mouth, and a thick temporal bone. Temples mark the weakest spot on the skull, the juncture where four bones fuse. Hidden behind this bone and muscle is a key to hominid evolution: the temporal lobe. Hidden within these squirmy folds is the hippocampus, an elastic gray tissue which orients mental geography and governs memory-making.

Embedded in the Denisovan temporal lobes, the ones we can imagine we inherited from them, is the default mode network. A complex system of neurons responsible for daydreaming. Sideways time. In neuroscience, the default mode network refers to those inadvertent brain activities disconnected from overt, conscious thought, the vital functions performed involuntarily at wakeful rest. The brain meandering on autopilot.

We are neither Aristotle’s rational beast, nor Freud’s subconscious id, nor Augustine’s sinful soul. We are intricate vessels of wandering thought. The anthropology of man is the cartography of daydreams.

…        …

We are what we daydream, so fantasize gently.

…        …

The Desert Fathers, who wandered into the wind-swept dunes of North Africa seeking Christ, understood this. Isolated by the Scetes, they feared the strange, alluring power of mind-wandering. It turned them inside out with self-loathing. John Cassian was one of many fourth century mystics who believed the mind, theater of sensations, must be hollowed out and tamed. Thoughts “infected with poetry” and “wandering off in slippery streams” must be excised like a gangrenous wound until the void was filled with God. Simple, frugal, unsexed, self-mutilating, he turned asceticism into the new martyrdom, preaching quieti mentis: encounter the divine through unceasing wordless prayer and a stilled, silent mind.

Better to be Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the aeronautical mystic who crashed his plane in the same Natrn valley more than a millennia after the Desert Fathers went extinct. Whereas his predecessors spent a lifetime purging their humanity and fearing mirages, Saint-Exupéry wandered four days among wind, sand, and stars, hallucinating invisible things essential to the eye.

…        …

Perhaps the accidental fantasy is happiest.

…        …

For two millennia, science didn’t dream of jellyfish as much more than primitive.


Yet, somehow, the jellyfish has pried back the curtain on nature’s secrets.


Somehow they’ve thrived in hot, acidic waters while 10 thousand other species go extinct.


Somehow they regenerate missing anatomy.


Somehow they’ve learned to dissociate their cells and mature backward into childhood, unlocking the secret of immortality.


Somehow they thrive wandering alone just as well as traveling in blooms.


Somehow they’ve invented two dozen ways to reproduce.


Somehow they’ve evolved multiple sexes: male, female, hermaphrodite, transgender.


Somehow these brainless, boneless, bloodless blobs embody the deepest human longings.

…        …

Imagine an ancient Denisovan grandmother climbing down the white cliffs at Calanque de Morgiou and crawling through a network of limestone caves. Armed with a torch and charcoal, she begins to paint. Ibex, aux, stag, seal. Her own hands, even. And then, high on the ceiling, unlike anything her kind has done at Lascaux, Chauvet, Altamira, Leang Timpuseng, or Coliboaia, she sketches jellyfish. Dozens of them. Their tentacles drooping down with the stalactites. Perhaps she felt a kinship with them, these peripatetic loners that washed ashore at night with bodies leaving traces of alien light in the sand.

…        …

Maybe the stars and jellyfish are distant cousins. Jellyfish the wandering extroverts. The stars introverts, locked in their shy orbits. Dissatisfied with their orbits, they send out emissaries to wander for them. The stars, after all, fill the universe with light.

Light has no half-life. Its particles know no time. Endless. Restless. Forever stretching until it no longer remembers its source. Light can be imagined as an Arthurian knight on a quest for the grail, which is to say, in search of its own decay.

Thought travels like light. It moves lazily in open spaces until meeting opaque bodies. Brick. Silver. Flesh. Then it bends, reflects, diffuses, leaving behind a trace of itself. Thoughts scamper like rats in a maze. Silent. Numb. They fill the body, electrifying the neurons, wave after wave down the spine and tangling the spleen, vibrating on the lips desperate to escape the flesh.

…        …

They say light is a wave, but looking at the aurora borealis it seems more like tentacles. The luminous dance begins 93 million miles away. As the sun boils, its gravity struggles to hold on to the intensely hot particles that bend and twist at its surface. It snaps like rubber bands, ejecting flares of radiation and plasma into space. The wind from these flares races past Mercury and Venus, before passing through the earth’s magnetic shield which filters cosmic debris.

It’s a good thing soundwaves decay. Otherwise, as this electromagnetic radiation descends into the mesosphere, the hissing and crackling would burst eardrums. Sixty miles above the North Pole, plasma and gas and ionized atoms mingle in the magnetized space. They stretch and bend and collide, creating dizzying streams of light. As the light precipitates in the atmosphere, the red and purple ribbons fade into blue wisps, into green vortices, into rippling yellow curtains.

It was not until 1882 that a Danish astronomer first photographed the cosmic pageantry of the aurora borealis. Wandering in the far north, he photographed the Indigenous Sami people, hoping to preserve their memory before they were lost to the tides of history. Viewed alongside his portraits of these soft, wrinkled human faces, his single aurora borealis photo — blurry greys and whites streaked against the night’s black tarp — venerates the fate of light in this terra incognita: cosmic tentacles wandering among more fragile, pedestrian kinds of light.

…        …

When our Denisovan grandmother finishes painting, let’s imagine her unpinning the knot in her hair and letting down tangled braids. Let’s imagine her and others like her walking northwest into the glacial sheets with the last of her kind, wandering — or maybe daydreaming themselves — out of existence.


Ryan Habermeyer is the author of the short story collection, The Science of Lost Futures (BOA 2018). His stories and essays have most recently appeared in or are forthcoming from Conjunctions, Alaska Quarterly Review, Copper Nickel, Massachusetts Review, Cincinnati Review, Puerto del Sol, and Seneca Review. He is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Salisbury University. Find him at

The author: Debra Marquart