Notes on Hybrid Forms

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tubeworms_415_600x450by Bhanu Kapil

A few years ago, as part of my on-going research for a creative writing seminar I was teaching at Naropa University, The Hybrid, I spoke with a “Mad Scientist”; actually, I met him as part of my on-going attempt to be the mother of a son in love with volcanoes. We were at the local science museum, where Dr. Warnock was giving a demonstration [he had an unkempt, patched together, clearly home-made “time machine”] on the birth of volcanoes, which was followed up with 3-D chalk, scissors, and actually building one. A volcano. After the presentation, my son was the only one at the card table, pressing the chalk with so much force into the black paper that it was turning into a small cloud of pale pink dust before our eyes, when Dr. Warnock trumbled up to say hi. In a lull, I asked him about the tube-worms* Lynne Margulis describes in her beautiful book “Microcosmos”: the red animal life that appears only at the fluxing suture of lava flow and ocean, at a seam on the bed just off the coast of the Big Island of Hawai’i – the very place where Pele’s Fire, our retreat, will take place. Dr. Warnock – I didn’t get his first name, though his initial, on his name-tag, was A — knew all about the worms and then we had this conversation, which I recorded.

BK: “Is the bioregion where ocean meets volcano a threshold, in the language you use for what a threshold is?”

AW: “It’s a threshold in the sense that it’s a site of chemical activity. Organisms and communities of organisms sort of dip in and out of it. It’s really hot, and there is so much going on chemically that the tubeworm, for example, wouldn’t be able to survive being immersed in it. So they’ll dip in then go to a cooler area. But when the volcanic activity stops, the community dies.”

BK: “So, is hybrid community, in this context a physical state…or a site, a way of organizing a location?”

AW: “Well, I think of it as related to the site. And something we look at is that these communities are very isolated. They appear then re-appear wherever this kind of volcanic activity is happening, which, as I said, isn’t visible. It’s happening chemically. It’s the chemistry they’re interacting with. And then they vanish. There’s a debate, in fact, about how these communities form.”

BK: “You mean…if the organisms already exist in the water, in the ocean, and they come together as a cluster along some sort of endocrine seam, then they are responding to the possibility of being in relationship — with each other, with nutrients, with temperature. So, if this is dependent on sensing environmental activity and if this activity goes away…then, it’s possible that they disband in some sense. That they are not dead.”

AW: “Exactly.”

BK: “Hybridity is a process of attraction.”

AW: “You could say that, yes.”

BK: “Okay, so what’s the difference between being dormant and not being dead?”

[To be continued: At this point in the interview, my son ran off to pet a Ball Python called Toby and so I had to follow him, obviously, as he could have been consumed by it, potentially.]

* Tubeworm basics [From “Extreme Deep Sea Events,” a web resource for young children and, clearly, adults in need of criteria in order to proceed, which is good in some cases but confusing in others, when it (the extreme event) is happening anyway and you can’t stop it]:

1. There are many different types of tubeworm in the ocean. Some are found at cold seeps (where chemicals leach out of the seafloor in the absence of volcanic activity), some on decomposing whale carcasses, and some near volcanoes and vents in the deep ocean.

2. Each individual tubeworm consists of a soft body surrounded by a tough outer tube of whitish chitin (the same substance that makes up the shells of lobsters and crabs). This tube supports the inner body and protects it from predators (in some species, the tube is leathery, in other species, it is hard). Like plants, adult tubeworms are sessile: they are anchored to one spot, although their top end can move around in the water and can be withdrawn into the tube. Some tubeworms even have “roots”: extensions of their body that extend into the sediment.

3. The part of the tubeworm furthest from the surface where it is anchored is called the plume. The worm never leaves its tube completely, but it can poke its plume into the seawater above. This organ is specialized to harvest the chemicals the microbes need to manufacture food from seawater. The plume often looks red because it is filled with blood close to the surface (a bit like our lungs).

4. Not only can they live under immense pressures deep in the ocean, tubeworms living around volcanoes and vents can tolerate a wide range of temperatures. An individual tubeworm can often experience a range of tens of degrees over the length of its body **(or a change in the same place on its body over the course of just a few seconds): from the background chill of most deep water (a few degrees above freezing), to warm fluids drifting out of vents in the seafloor.

**So, hybridity is something experienced (in this case) by the body IN ITS ENTIRETY as — not site — but environment, in the sense that environments are fluctuating and overlap.

I love this. I love that we are going to the place where all of this will not be an idea, but our atmosphere. The place where we will write and think and be.

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