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  • Writer's pictureAnne Hodges White

The Chambered Nautilus on How to Live

"...metaphores are dangerous.

Metaphores are not to be trifled with."

Milan Kundera

The Incredible Lightness of Being

When it broke, I could see inside. Then I could see. 

It had been perfect, this chambered nautilus. Polished and elegant, a palm-full of three-dimensional roundness, it sat on a shelf where I could see it as I walked past it several times a day. A couple years back, I unwrapped it from its straw packing and assumed it had been shipped from a village in Micronesia, along with others of its species, by reef divers eager to reach an international market in thrall to its beautiful shell.

Holding one in my hand promised a sensory experience, more direct than viewing a photographer’s cutaway of its spiral. Or an artist’s drawing of its sepia-striped exoskeleton. Or a mathematician’s superimposed Fibonacci sequence — that inexplicably perfect shape reproduced in art and architecture, flowers and hurricanes, galaxies and embryos of all species. You’ve seen it. You’re familiar with this shape: continuous movement as it circles its center, opening out, expanding.

First, understand that the science governing the whole of this creature drew me in. I couldn’t stop researching, reading: I needed to uncover, to analyze, to know. Ah, the analytical thinking apparatus at work. Source material abounds. I can be relentless.

I learned that the nautilus expands from its center by a precise mathematical factor. (If you’re interested, a factor of phi, that is, 1.618, for every quarter turn it makes, inscribing a logarithmic curve that repeats itself, round and round, in what is often called God’s fingerprint. If you’re not interested, your eye will find the next paragraph.)

The sepia-on-cream pattern laid down on its shell speaks of an inherited message, its DNA typed out in an ordered oscillation of color. Off on, off, on. Think of zebra stripes and cheetah spots. In spite of this patterning, each chambered nautilus expresses its individuality. No two shells are alike.

It evolved a body structure so advantageous in efficiency and function, so true to the laws of conservation of energy, the species has survived for 150 million years and five mass extinctions — all before humans. In fact, before fish.

And here’s the wondrous part. Until recently, scientists didn’t understand how the animal maneuvered vertically. It spurts water, like a jet engine, to move forward, but how does it rise to the surface and sink to lower depths? Like this: In and out through its permeable siphuncle -- a spinal tube connecting its chambers -- the nautilus exchanges sodium and chloride ions, equalizing both water and air pressure in its chambers. The mechanics of this swap manages vertical movement. In short, it has mastered ballast and buoyancy; it exploits both gravity and lift. If you’re thinking of submarines, you’d be on the right track.

Routinely, my curiosity can be cerebral. But this will not do.

We cannot approach an understanding of any being by reducing it to the laws of physics, biology, and chemistry, or by ignoring our feeling for the natural world. Then how might we approach the miraculous?

Distracted, I turn too quickly, impatient in movement. I hear it hit the floor. That new and gaping rupture on its outside spiral, exposing three of its mid-life chambers, draws me into a deep and fathomless hole -- as savage a shock as the opening of a fissure, but as promising as the discovery of an ancient artifact, mysterious and powerful and foreign.

My finger dares to touch thin walls between chambers, fragile discs that seem to be circular steps to some higher place. The science of the nautilus fades as necessary but secular; the inexplicable open-ness of its tear becomes numinous. This damaged chambered nautilus teaches me:

It continuously pushes into the unknown along its growing edge, but always circles its center, the seed of its essence.

It prefers life in the slow lane, maturing patiently, adding chambers — as many as thirty in its twenty years, a long life for a cephalopod — and taking its time, avoiding the rush. 

It does not slough off its past or abandon itself: it moves its soft body into a larger chamber, transcending the former but including all that came before.

Once it discovered buoyancy, it could explore the mystery of verticality, abandoning ancient life as a bottom-feeder and choosing the high road, seeking the light.

It knows the journey toward self is not linear. Rather, it is a spiral held long and hard inside limits, growing by encounter, by demanding work on itself, never finished, returning again and again to the position where it began but on a higher level with a wider reach. It understands its process to be disciplined attention, its cyclic reach to be real freedom.

It understands that old wineskins cannot hold the new wine.

It lives in a chapel-with-a-center and keeps silence, that curious and mysterious resource.

It knows where home is.

The nautilus ably supports the weight of the poet’s trans-rational leap from the literal — science, fact, reason — and soars upward into metaphor, anchored in meaning and suggesting something close to being, always miraculous, always an emanation from above.

From the chambered nautilus, I infer quiet, rigorous, disciplined instruction of how to live.

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