This story contains everything in the universe, but it starts
with a man throwing jellyfish into the sea.
He's kind of an exemplary man, rather than a real character, but
what we know about him is that he's walking along the edge of
the sea. The tide's going out, and he sees a stranded jellyfish.
First he walks on, because jellyfish are kind of icky and
disgusting, but then he thinks better of it and goes back, picks
it up and heaves it into the sea and walks on feeling quite
pleased with himself. A few steps on, he finds another two, and
in they go. He starts to think of himself as a rescuer of
jellyfish. As he walks on there are more and more and he starts
throwing them in faster and faster, picking them up and heaving
Then along comes a second man. Now we all know that "man"
includes "woman" so let's make our second exemplary man a woman.
Let's, as she's female and the second man, call her Eve. Let's
say she's five foot four, brown hair, blue coat, (it's March)
likes reading SF, listening to the Beatles, and walking on the
beach. After all, if she didn't like walking on the beach she
wouldn't have wandered by just in time to ask our first man:
"Excuse me, but what are you doing?"
"I'm throwing jellyfish back into the sea," says the first man,
who we'd better call Adam, with perhaps a tinge of pride in his
"I can see that," says Eve, who can see that. "But why?"
"They're stranded by the tide, and they'll die in the sun, so
I'm throwing them back where they'll live."
"Well," Eve says, dubiously, "But there are so many of them. You
can't throw them all back. You can't really make any
"No," says Adam, "But I've made a difference to this one."
That's where this story usually ends, but there are any number
of things that can happen afterwards. Eve could join him in
throwing the jellyfish in. They could help some jellyfish, and
maybe they could fall in love. Or she could go off and let him
think he's still on his own but come back with a JCB and shovel
them back in. There's something very satisfactory in that. But,
there's also the Speaker for the Dead answer, where
preventing what looks like a bad thing for the jellyfish is
actually part of some larger good thing, if you left them alone
they might turn into terribly wise trees. What do you know about
the lifecycle of jellyfish anyway? How do you know what helps
them, really? Maybe they're trying to crawl up onto the land to
evolve. What if someone had helpfully kept throwing the lungfish
So Eve walks off down the beach, with the honest intention of
finding a JCB and coming back to help, but all these thoughts
keep seeping into her mind. There's the Gaian hypothesis where
everything the planet does it does because it knows best, and
maybe killing jellyfish is part of that, maybe they actually are
in distress but they're the weak jellyfish. Or maybe -- Eve
raises up her eyes and sees things beyond the jellyfish, beyond
the beach, factories pumping out pollution, the government
putting security ankle bracelets on asylum seekers, invading
other countries, the breakdown of the family. The jellyfish are
only metaphorical really, and "Don't overanalyse this, it's only
a metaphor," is what her last boyfriend said so often that she
broke up with him. She shrugs, in her blue coat, and walks on
They're only a metaphor, but they're real jellyfish too, and the
real problems they stand for are real. Adam, back on the beach,
throwing them in one at a time, really is making a difference to
that one. But what can Eve do to help? She can't do everything,
but she too can make a difference on a small scale if she can
find the thing to do, if she can pick her ground and work hard
on that, trusting other people to do the rest. She might even be
able to make a big difference if she can find the JCB. But the
things she's trained to do don't include JCB driving, or
jellyfish rescue, or world rescue either, and if she starts to
define typing on the internet as "helping the jellyfish" then
the words "helping" and "jellyfish" have drifted beyond all
She climbs the steps up from the beach, thinking she could give
money to people better able to help jellyfish, a solution not to
be sniffed at, though it isn't the satisfaction of
Whatever she does, she has to keep breathing in and out, living
her normal life as well. She can't spend her whole life standing
on the beach throwing jellyfish into the sea. Maybe she could go
and tell other people about the jellyfish, though it's not as if
they don't know already, it's not as if the din of people
telling them hasn't already tired their ears. Even if she found
some new way to put it, even if she had wisdom and answers
rather than just questions and uncertainty, it probably wouldn't
make a difference to very many of them.
At the top of the steps she looks back down the cliff at the
beach, the rocks, the sand, her line of footprints, the tiny
figure of Adam, still throwing the damn jellyfish back into the
receding waves, the vast expanse of sea stretching out like
roiling grey silk, pounding the shore, full of reflected light,
audible even from the clifftop.
Above the clouds, above the whole planet, is the sun, and beyond
the sun other more distant suns, and the whole turning galaxy.
In that scale, one jellyfish doesn't matter any more than Adam
and Eve, any more than the whole Earth.
There's everything in the universe in this story; except
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