The Algae in the River

A few weeks ago, driving near the Minnesota River, I passed a pond half full of algae. I wasn’t sure it was healthy for the pond. It brought to mind the kelp forests I’d read about in the past, the ones that needed a balance of otter, urchin, and kelp to make the system work. Yet I couldn’t help but think it was lovely, that bright green swirl amidst the blue. It was like what I imagined parts of earth to be like when glimpsed from space by astronauts, the small particulars blending out into a harmonious whole, no single being visible to the naked eye.

Seven months after his death, I finally deleted the last of my husband’s text messages to me and removed his number from my phone’s contacts, making the list that comprised “family” smaller by only one, yet this one was a number of almost infinite weight. It took only three minutes to read them, such a small amount of time to chronicle the end of a marriage, a young man prophesying his own death. Only minutes to read, but I suspected that for me they would hurt for years, ripples reaching outward like a stone had dropped from space into that river, that blend of blues and greens breaking into a ragged disunion, jaggedly imperfect fractals full of edges and holes and sharp lines.

We are a population of more than 7 billion humans, with continuous growth expected. When compared to numbers making up other species, Antarctic krill, copepods, even ants, despite humanity’s vast impact, this number seems a paltry sum. A single gram of soil may bloom with a billion bacteria, no more visible to my eye than I am to those astronauts. Even our own bodies host millions of microbes, as if we were, each of us, our own inhabited planet. All those little beings, biota of the body, colonizers of the clavicle, multitudes on skin—even when lonely, we are never alone.

That algae too was a colonizer, a colonizer of pond, yet a potentially lethal one. A key nutrient and habitat for fish and other organisms, yet when too much phosphorous and nitrogen enter the environment, a consequence of human habitation and activities, the ecosystem of which the algae is just a part of can get thrown asunder. The algae then starts suffocating the pond, so that even those built for aquatic living drown from a lack of oxygen.

So perhaps my first instinct to wonder if the pond I passed was like what astronauts might see from space, circling in their shuttles, bodies buoyant and aloft, unhinged from gravity, wasn’t wrong after all, if they too wondered about suffocation, the strain of all these bodies on a planet, a growth unchecked. And I wondered too if that was why I felt this, this stutter in the lungs, that ache in my chest. Or is this lack of breath I feel simply from the missing body of one, not the seven billion, but the single body of a man whom I loved deeply and left, who then left me?

Tonight I stood on the patio staring at the sky, blue and dark, a stark smattering of stars giving it the barest hint of light over the townhouse rooftops making up my skyline. I imagined that I did not feel sometimes as if I were drowning while awash in oxygen, imagined that on an earth populated by seven billion people, I wasn’t still wishing for one, just one.

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