Life Lessons from the Odd and Ancient
by ISAAC YUEN
If you’ve been feeling adrift on the sea of life lately, it might be best to seek guidance from an elder. You may wish to fish one out of the drink, like Captain Hendrik Goosen did one salty morning off the coast of South Africa in 1938, but be sure to verify its credentials first, as curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer did after spotting the creature’s four fleshy fins and puppy dog tail. Surprised at being consulted after four hundred million years, the coelacanth may be inclined to impart its accrued wisdom onto receptive devotees. It may decide to reveal its technique for weathering the world’s turnings even while others succumb to voguish whims, stretching lobes into limbs and hands into wings—ventures, it surmised, which lead only to premature ruination and speciated partings. The venerable fish may choose to convey its knowledge not so much in words, for its brain is too fat-addled to form them and its mouth is more for hinging wide than speaking long, but rather through the shimmers of its chain mail carriage, adamant against change, against sorrow. Delve deep. Hold fast. Stay true, even if the world has forsaken you.
Should such teachings prove remote and less than revelatory, you may wish instead to commune with a more terrestrial spirit. You are likely to find one poised at a nearby sidewalk contemplating bird songs and diesel fumes, for the gingko feels equally at home in both Zen monasteries and downtown urban cores. Learning his life story may leave you awestruck by his gumption in rejecting paradise and forging his own way a quarter billion years ago. “There is nothing new under the sun,” swayed Cousin Cycad and the other conifer relations, “green and evergreen is all there is and all there shall ever be!”—to which teenage Ginkgo, self-assured even back in the Permian, responded by unfurling his maiden mane of luminous gold, astounding an age oblivious to sheddable showiness or autumnal melancholy. Nothing since has matched the audacity of that initial feat, not even the subsequent waves of floral trends that have come to drown the earth in gaudy shades and racy shapes. The flowering plants dare not try, knowing that their faunal collaborations, though fruit-bearing and crowd-pleasing, pale against the gingko’s clarity of vision, distilled within the sculpted lobes of each fan-shaped leaf. Gingko art is immanent and inimitable, and is always performed alone.
By now you may think that to live geologically is to live solitarily, and you may be right, for there are many outlastings throughout one’s longlasting. To avoid such forlornness, some ancients have chosen to radiate freely. Take turtles. Like wizened jazz masters, turtles pride themselves on their solid fundamentals and knack for improvisation: a shell standard plus flippers to scull-scull the seas; a shell propped on piano legs to stride highlands and drylands; a shell tipped with siren tongues and beaky maws to snatch passing curios and curious passersby. But while the shell is a turtle essential, it limits not the turtles’ potential; from carapaced conformity arises unexpected diversity, so in the event that one turtle type strays away onto islands where surly goats appear to steal its shrubs, onto beaches where suspect resorts appear to steal its nights—chelonian reunions shall still abound, replete with red-eared slidings and yellow-bellied stackings, rowdy with alligator snappings and leatherback belchings, proudly proclaiming to all the world that turtles exist, that they are very old, that they stand united in turtlehood.
Perhaps for you, simply living long and living known is not enough. Perhaps you crave counsel on how to charge ahead with confidence and certainty. For this you should confer with sharks, who learned long ago to streamline their lives and hone their skills to carve out a niche anywhere, from the muddiest bottom to the loftiest apex. While sharks, like coelacanths, are laconic creatures, personal encounters may still prove illuminating, for they shed their teeth everywhere they nibble and network. Examine these enamel calling cards to glean customized life philosophies. The flattened cusps of zebra sharks preach persistence, for muscular determination will grind down barriers between you and your dreams. The needlepoints from shortfin makos urge you to seize those prime opportunities, silvery and slippery as they are, and never let them go. The great triangles from great whites suggest that the key to tackling life goals is to saw them off into chunks so that each task becomes digestible, even without chewing.
But beware, for not all sharks are success sharks. Some, like the basking varieties, possess vestigial teeth that yield vestigial advice, like now is a grand time to get into door-to-door encyclopedia sales, while their laze-about lifestyles set a poor example for those seeking direction, like you, dear reader, still wondering whether this essay leads anywhere (be patient, like the part-carpet, part-shark tasseled wobbegong). Others, like the cookie-cutter shark, may leave you feeling internally nauseated and externally perforated, renowned for gouging rounds out of the unsuspecting torsos of bony fishes, doughy seals, and rubber-coated submarines. Still, one should not judge it too harshly; if you were born into the world as a cigar with a mouthful of bandsaws, you would be wise to make do with your God-given gifts. Besides, infamy may be a desirable trait, and reputation may last as long as teeth.
Still, no matter how notorious you become, one day you shall be gone, like the ammonites, who in shuffling off this mortal coil left behind many iridescent ones. Your grandest legacies will seem trivial when pitted against trilobite doings, which were even earlier and greater than ammonite acts. There is no sense trying to live up to trilobites, by the way; simply accept they were among the first to see everything and spread everywhere, having evolved new eyes to find their way, from the shallowest shore to the deepest abyss. Those still keen to flee their collective shadow by leaving the sea and climbing skyward should know it is a futile exercise, for trilobites stamped their marks on Earth’s highest peak long ago, back when Oklahoma was near Morocco, and they managed to do it without crampons or oxygen masks, just by summiting smartly, long before Everest harbored any ambitions of becoming a mountain. It is a good thing that trilobites are proactive but not boastful. Otherwise we would hear no end of past exploits, which would lead to laments of past regrets, as those trapped by their calcareous glories are wont to dwell.
Realizing that nothing one does will amount to much may prove disconcerting for those on the path of constant self-betterment. But instead of questing for future fame and fortune, perhaps one can learn to cinch down to the present. For such insight you may wish to query a clown, for the fool takes stock by peering straight into the absurd heart of life. Take the red panda, a living fossil stuffed into adorable attire, lonely in lineage but showy for company, a prissy groomer always game for some tramping and traipsing. All it claims for wants is some bamboo for munching, a tree or two for dangle-footed napping, and an occasional pumpkin for pouncing practice. (Save the video of this for your blackest and most insignificant-feeling day). Even as it diminishes in the cloud forests of western China and across the Himalayas, balancing over precipices real and existential, its masked face betrays no sign of worry. Perhaps the red panda does not grasp its fate. Or perhaps it grasps all fates, all fadings, accepting them entire, and so regards each second as an eon, reveling in the honeyed warmth of the morning sun, the bright savor of each spring shoot, the wrapped bliss self-supplied by its ringed and russet tail. If we can heed this guide and embrace doom like it does by standing tall with arms raised in the most open and heart-melting of poses we shall have secured a very great secret.
Isaac Yuen’s short fiction and personal essays can be found at Flyway, Tahoma Literary Review, Tin House Online, Orion, Shenandoah, and other publications. He is a 2019 Jan Michalski Foundation nature writer-in-residence and currently lives in Vancouver, Canada, on unceded Coast Salish territory.