Summer of Urchins and Love

When egg and sperm collide, anything can happen

i. The Prophet

I was twelve or thirteen the summer I discovered Kahlil Gibran’s prose poetry classic, The Prophet. I was entranced by its lyrical mysticism, and I lazed away afternoons reading the philosopher’s wisdoms about life and love. The Prophet stirred my adolescent passions.

For her birthday that year, I made my grandmother a card on which I pasted a black-and-white photograph of her five grandchildren posed tallest to shortest. Opposite the snapshot, I neatly printed the prophet’s words:

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

Grandma was a no-nonsense registered nurse, recently retired from General Motors, where she had spent decades triaging sick, maimed, or mortally wounded assembly-line workers. I loved her ability to stare life in the eye without losing her sense of wonder or her love for beauty. I fancied myself like her. I thought my newfound muse would move her, too. She scrutinized my creation with twinkling blue eyes.

“Oh, my!” she said and hugged me—she must have been touched by my naiveté. She placed the message in a gold frame on her shelf, where it became a touchstone for me as I grew up and learned something about the words I had so cavalierly taken as my own.

ii. The Paradox

I was seventeen the summer I fell in love and (almost) had sex. The boy and I had our first outing over Memorial Day weekend, and by the end of July, he had sworn his love and said he thought we should do it. Intercourse seemed inevitable; we’d been working steadily toward it since our first date. This was our status the night I nearly lost my virginity.

It was late, sometime after the national anthem gave way to the wee-hours TV test pattern. Stars blazed beyond the matchstick blinds; the breeze was spiced with horse manure, soil, and tasseling corn from the fields beyond my house. The boy and I were making out on the couch in my family room. We read each other’s eyes by the blue kitchen lights fluorescing beyond the dining room pass-through.

I was wearing my silky sleeveless dress with the hemline two inches shorter than my mother allowed. My buttons were undone, my panties around my knees, and he was touching me in places I hadn’t known existed. Whatever sex was, I felt myself rushing toward it in the form of my first orgasm, a yearning of love and body heat.

I soared into the starry universe. Corn fields, crickets, and my boyfriend tumbled to the earth, far below. From those heights I watched as desire transformed our two bodies into one. So this was sex. But I also saw love—that wondrous, eternal organizing force that connects, makes sense of, and gives meaning to everything else, including sex.

In another thirty seconds I would have lost my virginity.

Then my stepfather appeared like an elfin ghost at the kitchen sink. I snapped back into my body. The boy and I froze in place. My stepdad politely clapped his hands, coughed, and said, “Kids? Is that you? It’s probably time to go home,” meaning the boy, who was nearly on top of me. We stopped breathing while our nearsighted interloper, silhouetted against blue light, squinted into the dark family room.

My first boyfriend and I never got that far again. School reconvened. He left for Iowa. We drifted apart. But the experience of that July night has remained with me like a koan.

Sex is a pleasurable means to an end.

Love is that end.

iii. Evolution

Charles Darwin posited that biological inheritance, variation between individuals, and resource competition result in natural selection, which drives evolution. Of course, our modern understanding of evolution is far more complex than Darwin could have imagined; it wasn’t until ninety-four years after the 1859 publication of The Origin of Species that the structure of DNA, the molecule of inheritance, was introduced in the scientific journal Nature. Since then, computers and sophisticated molecular biology tools and techniques have made Francis Crick and James Watson’s groundbreaking discovery testable knowledge for middle-schoolers.

Yet Darwin’s basics are the foundation of modern biology’s unifying scientific theory: evolution. We now know that genes, made of DNA and carried on chromosomes, are Darwin’s units of inheritance. Variation arises when DNA is shuffled and mutated during the formation of eggs and sperm, or later if genes mutate or on/off switches toggle in response to the environment.

However it arises, each egg, sperm, and new individual is a unique possibility, a variant on the themes of one or both parents. Other things being equal, variants carrying beneficial mutations will thrive to reproduce.

Those carrying deleterious mutations will not.

Natural selection operates on a population level. That is, individuals do not evolve. They are who they are. But those who reproduce send their genetic legacy forward, which alters the next generation’s gene pool to favor beneficial variants. And so on. Evolution is defined as a change in a population’s variant gene (allele) frequency.

Deleterious mutations tend to disappear.

Evolution has no agency. Natural selection is a process. Yet, to me, they are blind gods interested only in species fitness. Maybe that’s the proper order of things—a biosphere bending toward advantaged gene pools. But how, then, do we calculate the value of a life that fails to reproduce?

Your children are not your children.

iv. Conception

I had zero interest in evolution when I conceived David.

That night, his father and I made love joyfully, with purpose, as life longed for itself. It happened in an old farmhouse near Delaware Bay. When I climaxed, I felt swept to the sea where life began: whisked over the marshes into the Atlantic, enjoined with ghost crabs on tidal flats, sea trout in salty creeks, and right whales migrating south to warmer seas and winter calving grounds.

This was an orgasm to be experienced, not studied.

Forty-two weeks later, David squirmed in my arms and my uterus contracted in muscle memory. I believed he was mine, not the son of Life’s longing for itself. I lacked a biologist’s sense that any single child’s life is inconsequential as long as enough children survive to the next generation and secure the future of H. sapiens.

I began thinking in those terms when Dave was two and I returned to college to study biology. One year later, doctors discovered the brain tumor caused by a mutation he was either born with or acquired early in life. When he was five, the brother he longed for was stillborn; nobody understood why the fetus died. At six, David completed cancer treatments, and I returned to graduate school to study sea urchin larval behavior.  

v. Urchins

Sea urchins are heavily studied as a proxy for human fertilization and development. They are easily spawned in vitro as they release their gametes when injected with potassium chloride. Like humans, [A1] their eggs are many times larger than their flagellated sperm and are surrounded by a glycoprotein envelope[A2] —an urchin’s vitelline[A3] , a human’s zona pellucida.[A4]  The first sperm to breach this envelope triggers a chain reaction, the slow block, [A5] which causes the envelope to balloon away from the ovum, barring entry to all other suitors. An urchin slow block generally takes less than sixty seconds and is visible under a microscope: a fertilized egg floating like a tiny ringed Saturn in a saltwater universe.

The new zygote cleaves into two identical cells, then four, eight, and so on. Soon, the cells differentiate into three germ layers: endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm, destined to become gut, muscle, and nervous tissues. From this point, urchin and human developmental pathways diverge.

A day or two after fertilization, urchin zygotes are free-swimming and self-feeding larvae that will metamorphose into juvenile adult form after five to ten weeks. In contrast, a human embryo implants in the mother’s uterine wall to be nourished by the placenta for roughly thirty-nine weeks. Urchins reach reproductive maturity a mere two years post-fertilization; humans, only after more than a decade of development.

Urchins produce myriad young, arising from astronomically high numbers of gametes and promiscuous reproduction. Humans produce precious few offspring, who are heavily reliant on parental support.

An urchin colony sheds gametes directly into the sea, nearly simultaneously, to increase fertilization odds. During spawning, the colorful emulsion of eggs—my urchins’ were blood red—and white sperm swirl from the seabed like an opaque cloud of possibilities. For urchins, sex is simply a means to a reproductive end.

Humans conflate love and sex, and, while they are related, they are also utterly different. Sex moves our DNA into the next generation’s gene pool.

But I think love offers immortality.

vi. Neurogenesis

Urchins and other echinoderms—sea stars, sea lilies, and sea cucumbers—lack a brain although their well-developed nerve rings perceive light, touch, temperature, orientation, and water quality (salinity, for example).

Humans have a well-developed central nervous system (CNS). Our sexuality likely resides in the cerebrum, along with cognition and language. The cerebellum, behind and below it, coordinates movement and equilibrium. The brainstem, atop the spinal cord, regulates heartbeat, breathing, blood pressure, and other autonomic functions, like vomiting. As well, nerve signals between the brain and body go through the stem as they rush along the body’s highways, ferrying sense, thought, feeling, and response. The entire CNS is bathed by cerebrospinal fluid that passes through the fourth ventricle, a slim cavity between the brainstem and cerebellum, as it circulates.

In both species, the nervous system develops through neurogenesis, a process under genetic control, which is tightly orchestrated and precisely timed.

My son David’s neurogenesis failed to follow the prescribed plan. Instead, a few of his primitive neural ectoderm cells formed a rogue alliance that became medulloblastoma, a tumor that originates between the cerebellum and brainstem and grows to invade them both. Nobody realized this until he was nearly four. Then, his skull growth slowed. The tumor grew. He couldn’t stand on just his left foot. He began projectile vomiting. Fluid pressured his brain as the fourth ventricle became blocked. His head hurt and he refused to go to preschool.

He turned four in the hospital, two weeks after the growth was partially removed in an operation that left a nine-inch incision down the back of his head. Four months after his first surgery, I graduated college with a major in biology. Science did not ease my grief, but it did give me perspective.

As a mother, I found it impossible to believe my child’s body was flawed.

As a biologist, I recognized that genetic variation, so necessary for species survival, also produces morbid combinations.

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

vii. Beauty

The kids in David’s classes struggled to read, write, do math, or all three. Their letters were upside down and backward; their numbers didn’t add up; their bodies relied on wheelchairs, walkers, or medications. Some would listen quietly; others were studies in motion and sound. Each carried a label; most, more than one. David’s was “Other Health Impaired,” a blanket covering his struggles resulting from cancer therapies that had eradicated his tumors. Learning issues aside, he was intelligent, gregarious, insightful, and weirdly sophisticated from his unusual travels and experiences. Too, he displayed the empathy of those who have known difficulty.

The summer he turned nine, David and I were both in school. Every morning, he attended enrichment classes with children from all over our rural county while I taught undergraduate labs. I picked him up at lunchtime and, together, we pursued my thesis project, which concerned sea urchin larval behavior.

Before our research began, we collected two dozen spiny and flat (sand dollar) sea urchins, which stayed in aerated aquaria in the Biology wet lab. They would be artificially spawned when my test equipment was ready. Until then, David liked to watch them creep along, scraping algae from the aquarium glass with their bottom-side triangular teeth. They would cover themselves with sea grasses, small shells, and sand, like modest spinsters dressed for tea in green lace and pearly brooches.

We took them to his class for show-and-tell one day. With a sloshing bucket between us, we arrived to find his classmates in a hushed semicircle. Taller kids stood behind shorter ones, who sat cross-legged in front. They craned to see into the bucket, with its spiny urchin balls and velvety brown sand dollars.

I held up a spiked purple Echinometra while David told what he knew, which had nothing to do with reproduction. The urchin crept across my palm and waved its long spikes. The kids inched forward, a T-shirt-and-denim wall scented with playground, soap, and sweat.

One front-row boy peeked into the bucket, where the tan-spined Lytechinus wore angel-wing shells and eelgrass. “Why’s that one got stuff on its head?”

David answered that it was camouflage, then reached in to pick it up. The boy skittered backward. “You crazy! That thing will poke you!” David rolled his eyes, smiled, and gently touched the spines.

The class held their breaths, their bodies tensed with excitement and hesitation. A blonde girl in the back row followed David’s every move with somber gray eyes. She touched the spines gingerly when he stopped in front of her.

“Did you see her?” he said later, in the car. He scanned the bus ramp where his classmates waited for rides. The bucket’s aerator hummed on the floor beside me.

“See who?” I asked.

“Lenore.” He described her and I said, “Yes, the girl in back with gray eyes.”

“She’s beautiful,” David said.

The prophet says, Beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.

viii. Larvae

David and I spawned the urchins a few days later. I slid the hypodermic into each animal and injected potassium chloride. Immediately, each one oozed a blood-red or white emulsion—gametes. When the oozing stopped, I swirled all of the eggs and sperm into a large beaker filled with clean seawater—a fertilization chamber—until that tiny artificial ocean was pink and fraught with possibility.

I pipetted a sample onto a slide, added a cover slip, and staged fertilization under the microscope. I brought the sample into focus and showed it to David. He stood on a chair and gazed through the oculars while I explained the facts of life in terms of squiggling sperm, pink eggs, and ballooning membranes.

I watched him watch genesis. I thought about sex, love, and David, and wondered if God had watched as one of my husband’s millions of sperm breached my egg’s zona pellucida and thus shut out all other possibilities. Our genes became David’s, for better or worse.

Within three days, the fertilized urchin eggs, now zygotes, were proceeding through urchin larval development: prism, then two-, four-, six-, and eight-armed pluteus stages, each step wondrous.

A microscopic prism looks like a disembodied hand cupping a shimmer of quivering cilia. As it develops, each prism elongates into a parabola-shaped two-armed pluteus with slender, delicate, cilia-banded arms that beat microscopic algae toward an embryonic mouth at the parabola’s base. Eight-armed plutei are large enough to be seen without magnification. Within weeks, the mature pluteus loses its arms, becomes misshapen, twists onto its side, and falls to the bottom to settle.

David and I tended the larvae as they grew, comparing their ability to swim vertically at each stage by dropping them into a clear glass column filled with stratified saltwater. I discarded each larva after testing it, something I regretted. Living larvae are beautiful creatures: fragile, shimmering, blue-green ornaments.

ix. Love

David’s ninth birthday fell between urchin spawn and metamorphosis.

My brother Tim, a magician, came to visit. We planned a party, and David groomed his invitee list: Wayne, Becca, Ryan; maybe Michael; some Sunday school friends. Lenore.

I hadn’t heard her name since show-and-tell. “Lenore?” I asked.

Yes, he said, that girl from school.

On party day, he dressed carefully and fluffed mousse into his radiation-burned hair while his bachelor uncle whispered sotto voce, “The Lovely Miss Lenore.”

The party was his best ever: presents, bakery cake, and Uncle Tim’s mesmerizing gaze, wild stories, and colorful flourishes of balls, bright scarves, and silver rings pulled from thin air. The kids squealed with every flash of his imaginary wifflebane dust.

Lenore and David grazed arms and stole shy smiles from each other. As the party wound down, our son suddenly turned and lightly kissed the Lovely Lenore. A blush of longing passed between them. His father and I exchanged surprised smiles. Then, just as suddenly, the children snapped back to ordinary lives, ice-cream-sodden cake, and crumpled gift wrap. As far as I know, David never fell in love again.

What we couldn’t know then was that his body was slowly coming undone by radiation damage. This process was as invisible to us then as the tiniest slice of DNA gone wrong had been the day he was born.

x. Metamorphosis

The summer wound to a close, school started, and David began second grade. Lenore returned to her school in another part of the county. Their summer romance faded away.

By September, most of the larvae had been outcompeted by siblings, wasted in experiments, or had otherwise perished. One day, I drew a sample that produced a single, perfect miniature Echinometra with microscopic spikes peppering its legless round body. Metamorphosis left it unable to swim. My research was over.

I showed the juvenile urchin to David after school. We talked about metamorphosis. “Great change,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, remembering his birthday party, the kiss, and the transformative power of life longing for itself.

xi. Sex and Death

After graduate school, I thought David’s dad and I might try to have another child. My husband was less enthusiastic. A soft autumn light filtered through the pine trees beyond our kitchen window the morning our subtle struggle came to a head. David was already on the school bus, and I would be leaving shortly to teach biology to tenth graders.

I said we should try again.

Without rancor my husband replied that he found it hard to think about doing that when one of our kids had died and the other one might.

His words were a belly punch that sent tears into my eyes. “Isn’t that the point?” I asked. What were the odds we would produce a third unhealthy child?

But my logic did not sway him, and soon, we stopped having sex altogether, although I believe our love remained.

We divorced a year later. Neither of us would have more children. He, David, and I remained close-knit for the rest of David’s life, which ended the summer he would have turned thirteen.

Much later, I realized that David died at the same age I had been when I gave my grandmother a photo of her stair-stepped grandchildren with Gibran’s words printed alongside. The prophet [A6] also says, Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

xii. Sand Dollars

I spawned sea urchins again ten years after David’s death, for a college intro to biology class. The students had mostly grown up fast in tough neighborhoods. There wasn’t much they didn’t know about sex.

The night before lab, I collected keyhole sand dollars from the nearby Gulf of Mexico. They live in patches close to shore and are easily found. I waded into the summer-warm shallows and swept seawater into a bucket. The aerator purred on its rim. I located the sand dollars by squishing my toes into the soft bottom. Within ten minutes I had a dozen large specimens. 

Dead sand dollars are brilliant white and are commonly painted and sold at beach shops as Christmas ornaments. One is easily recognized by its flat, round shape, which evolution has perforated five times and etched with a five-petal flower and a star at the flower’s center. Each of the star’s five points is a pinhole through which eggs and sperm once oozed.

A live sand dollar bears the same marks, muted by velvety brown skin, tiny cilia, and soft spines that react to a finger-graze or seabreeze by sweeping rhythmically in concert with tiny tube feet fringing its lunules.

Sand dollars are beautiful, delicate, worthy creatures.

xiii. The Last Lab

I reached campus early the next morning with my sand dollars, bucket, and bubbling aerator in tow. I drew potassium chloride into a syringe and synched the teaching microscope to the computer to project the scope’s magnified slides onto the screen behind the instructor’s lab bench.

My students wandered in and took their seats. I gave a basic urchin anatomy lesson and let them touch the velvety spines and tube feet, to feel life quiver. They marveled that this was the same organism they knew as a Christmas ornament. I injected each animal after giving the intro. Red or white fluids oozed from the gonopores.

“How do you tell females from males?” a young man asked.

“One’s stuff is white?” I thought it was obvious. The class giggled. I handed him an eyedropper to collect sperm and one to a woman to collect eggs.

I hit the overhead lights and pipetted egg and sperm samples onto separate slides. First, I staged the eggs under the microscope. Instantly, the projector screen was a pinkish cosmos littered with galaxies of eggs, each planet-like egg the size of a fist. My students’ eyes widened and shone in the darkened room.

I switched to the sperm slide. The screen became a pulsing mass, then so many blue dots under medium power and a swarm of black bees at 1000X magnification. The students murmured, Whoa. Damn. Check that shit out.

I talked about oocytes, spermatozoa, and fertilization, then restaged the egg slide and used a paper towel to wick sperm across the cosmos. The class held its breath. I reviewed the process, including the rapid vitelline expansion when the first lucky sperm broke through. I isolated a single ovum on the screen. Its fuzzy edge throbbed as thousands of sperm beat against its membranes. When its vitelline ballooned then condensed into a thin corona, the class drew a sharp breath.

Then a young man’s voice came like a prayer from the dark. “Yo—that’s what happens?”

I hoped the lesson was twofold. Sex is a means to survival’s end. It allows us to collectively overcome changing environments and adjust to shifting ecologies. It plays the luck of the draw. It illustrates how the most well adapted individuals are infinitesimal and insignificant in the scheme of things, and those who are ill fated are also exquisite and necessary. I wanted the students to sense that sex is one small part of an incomprehensible force that drives the universe and shapes everything, everywhere, all the time.

Biologists don’t study love, although I suspect we should. It, too, is adaptive. Love gives us hope in spite of sorrow, pain, and missteps. Love assures us that the ephemeral is immortal even if we don’t understand how or why. Love is eternity glimpsed through wonder’s lens.

That lens has many forms: a certain kind of orgasm, a poet’s transformative words, an Ohio summer night for a girl on the brink of womanhood. It is a tiny pink ocean filled with saturnine zygotes and shimmering larvae. We look through a glass, our breath is taken away, and we are transformed by the knowledge of eternity.

I think about this when I think about David. He never grew up, had sex, or passed along his genes. Still, some part of him is immortal—I think he knew that, too. I saw it in his eyes when he kissed Lenore, that girl he met at school. It happened on his birthday the year he turned nine: the summer of urchins and love.

About the Author

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Anne Visser Ney

Anne Visser Ney is a writer, biologist, and U.S. Coast Guard veteran. Her work has recently appeared in Ruminate, the Fourth River, and Brain, Child, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (fiction) and the Whiting Award (creative nonfiction).

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