The Sturgeon’s Dream: A Libretto, Part One

1,400 total words    

6 minutes of reading

1 / SEA OF THE STURGEON

Time Span: 210 million years ago
Season: None

Notes: Sink into deep time. Sink into the sea. Sink to 210 million years ago, when the first sturgeons appeared. Sounds and noises from weather, rocks, beasts. The continent shifts. The Baltic Sea did not yet exist; Pangea the supercontinent remains whole. A rich and dense forest grows where now the Baltic Sea is, its trees turning eventually into amber, light, luminous.

FIRST SONG: DEEP TIME UNFOLDS
Under the first sturgeon moon
the one sea shudders
a cosmic sigh, this night alone
to welcome
jewel-studded fish
who came to exist
not on this day, night, or month
that year, decade, or millennia, not
out of the blue
but in the presence of that zeal for life—
has become
and now is and
will be
until one future day, in one singular moment
will not. Cease to exist. Vanish. Forever
Foam on the sea.

A wave of moonlight penetrates the surface
refracts
slows
changes course, rebounds,
sparks from jittering photons
from sun reflected via moon to earth
to land on silver sturgeon skin.

If us, we,
had been around then
and addressed a letter to Purkyně, Europe,
Purkyně would write back and explain
that even then
if our eyes had been
there and then
to witness—
the light would have indeed
turned silver,
the moonlight shed
on an ancient sea.

Who is to say what
we would have seen then
would move us now,
us seeing so much
that we forget
to look
and thus see nothing?
A sturgeon’s vision relies on
four barbels dangling near the mouth
to sense other lives, electric pulses, signals, present, vital.

From sea to barbel to sturgeon body, like moonlight hushed into the depth,
currents translating other presences
into a world, an Umwelt of its own.

Electrified by entities
the ocean pulses too, with every molecule:
Organic matter, fluid matter, drifting matter, sinking matter
rising matter, floating matter.
Creatures and critters, multicellular organisms, singular cells
roiling with life.

And on shore, the one shore, the only shore
the same sturgeon moon
Rises also
above that mass of land, above the continent that is
where the first gingko tree
just then
unfurls its branches, casts its shadow
on who is to say?

Note: About Purkyně: Jan Evangelista Purkyně was a Czech scientist who was so famous in his day that a letter addressed to “Purkyně, Europe” would arrive at his door. The Purkinje effect is named after him; it describes the tendency for the peak luminance sensitivity of the human eye to shift toward the blue end of the spectrum at low illumination levels—as here, moonlight on the sea.

Northernmost point at Cape Purakkari, Estonia. [1]

2 / ICE

Time Span: 115,000–11,700 years ago
Season: Winter

Note: In act 2, the Baltic Sea is sealed in ice. All sounds become muted; only the crackling and whirring of glaciers growing and receding. There is a penetrating stillness; the cold of the ice is felt in the music.

A GLACIER SOLO
Who measures time
when between freezing and thawing
lies not one winter
but the formations of multiple landscapes
and the possibilities of a million lives
never lived.

Cracked mirror.
In milky jade reflections
the movements of clouds, stars, the moon.
Howling over ruptured surfaces,
an aching wind lifts up
crystalized gushes, crackles, a drift of shimmering snow.

Underneath
the stillness of a thousand colors pressed into one.
Water solidified,
startled into how heavy and hushed one can get
changing from one form to the other.
How long might this last, it asks,
as ever more of its molecular kin turn
into a thickening plate
dispersing light into iridescences evoking the ancient ones, the stones it covers—
Granite, limestone, gneiss, basalt.
Or just before sunset
the shades of pink and purple haze.

Once, the movements and currents of
a sea, a world,
now the lives they hold
are frozen, quiet.
Where and when
did it happen first, that tipping point
that sparked the change
from liquid to solid?
First, mutual distance and playful intimacy
holding in constant movement,
with always just enough space between one another, to change positions,
shape the shapeless.
Then,
one molecule following another, arranging each other,
in ever-neater lattice structures.

Yet, from the one to the other, the process continued, took over,
became and lasted.
A towering sheet of ice that silences land and sea,
a burden.
Pressure on the subtle forms,
sundering moss from stones, roots from soil, rocks from earth.

A shudder again. At the southernmost edges
a thermal revolution permeates this glacier
with thundering vibrations.
Agitated, water returns
to that freedom of form, the liquid state
trickles and drizzles.
Percolations into thin streams, spurts and flows.
While the ice melts
the glaciers retract,
the landscape sighs, rebounds.
An unburdening
gives way to fjords, flatlands, estuaries
where soon lichen, bushes, shrubs, and grasses
absorb
the barren.

Bladder wrack and in Sämstad harbor.[2]

3 / LIFE RETURNS

Time Span: From 11,000 years ago
Season: Spring

Notes: The ice has melted; a passage appears. What was once an estuary, a dried-up lake, a field of ice, now floods with saline sea. Minerals from the glacial melt leave the sediment rich in nutrients. A sturgeon swiftly explores through the passage that is the Øresund, and others follow—fish, algae, isopods. Life takes hold, roots, coevolves. The water vibrates with the excitement of a newfound place.

THE MOON SONG OF THE BLADDER WRACK
Imagine you learn to sway and float
to be closer
to the light,
as does the bladder wrack.
Toad-eyed bulging bladders on thallus, holdfast to grace.
Submerged near tidal shore and coastal rockscape,
bladder wrack transforms sparseness into an underwater forest in motion.
And here, between the olive-green stems,
where the rays from above illuminate the empty in-betweens,
this world lends promise:
habitat for snails and isopods, spawning sites for herring,
a nursery to the tender, tiny, shelled. 

On early summer nights, the full moon casts
a gleam of light onto the midnight tide.
A sign for the female bladder wrack
to release her eggs,
swiftly dropping future generations,
trusting their descent
towards the bottom of the shore.

The male bladder wrack
senses this cycle too.
Under the swelling waves of midnight light
he sends out sperm
to swim to deeper, darker spheres.
Those eyeless cells
diving to the bottom, the shadows, the vague.
In the twilight of the Baltic
the bladder wrack unites.
Gives birth anew.

Notes: The colonization of the Baltic Sea by the bladder wrack started some eight thousand years ago. There are now four species living in the sea: three that were endemic in the North Sea and one called “invasive,” introduced a hundred years ago. Because of the lack of strong tides in the Baltic, bladder wrack cannot colonize far or fast. As the algae spread around the shores, they adapt to the lower salinity here, in Åland, in the sheltered Gulf of Bothnia.

EELGRASS SWAYING IN THE WAVES: A LULLABY
Undulating on white sand, the eelgrass takes root,
lush underwater meadows in the making.

Its viridescence mirrors pastures on land.
Here, beneath, in crystal clear waters and not arid air,
enamel their allure.
Sunbeams playing with waves cast liquid patterns on sandy beds,
a lucid wonderland.
Eelgrass at river mouths,
lake beginnings, skirting shorelines,
filters and settles, enriches and clarifies,
a sunken Arcadia inviting all to come and graze.
And while each blade
looks as if sprouted into this world anew,
some patches have endured for more than a millennium.
Cloning ancient colonies
self-replication, a strategic decision, many from just one,
adapting, morphing, altering
for the sake of better fit,
for the need to survive, to prosper.

CANON OF THE HERRING SHOAL
Herring navigate in planetary time
align their movements to one another, close and closer still,
and to celestial bodies, far, far away.
A certain position of the sun in spring
sets their inner clock to spawn.
Amidst forest canopies of bladder wrack
females attach their pearl-crisp eggs.
In the slowed currents male sperm drift,
giving rise to milt-marbled, jade-milk seas.

If one were to cast a spell on the waters
and turn their movements into entities,
one might first come up to shape
a school of herring.
Animated waves of bodies, bodies as waves,
muscle and tension of thousands
swimming in unison, congruent turns and swift
electric pulses from lateral lines,
strung into a harmonic symphony.
Day and night, up and down, hungry and sated,
lives lived in the water column.

How does the freshly hatched herring know where to swim and what to do?
The single one, slipping from the egg?
When numbers dwindle, how does it find its shoal?

UNDER THE LIGHT OF THE SPERMACETI FLAME
In the light of the spermaceti flame,
like the golden-hued sunbeam
on a midsummer’s eve,
the fisherman’s wife,
nimble hands revealed.
The tying of nets,
the mending of lines.
In such amber-glazed rooms
the humans thrive,
their settlements aligned
not to celestial bodies
but to the spawning grounds of Baltic herring.

Visit “A Sturgeon’s Dream: A Libretto, Part Two” for the sequel to this two-part series.

“A Sturgeon’s Dream: A Libretto” was created as part of the Åland Universe project by production ensemble Frau von da.

Photo Credits
Featured Image: Noctilucent clouds over the Baltic Sea as viewed from Laboe, Germany. Credit: Matthias Süßen (matthias-suessen.de), license CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
[1] Northernmost point at Cape Purakkari, Estonia. Credit: Abrget47j, license CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
[2] Bladder wrack and in Sämstad harbor. Credit: W.carter, license CC0 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

  • Michaela Vieser

    Michaela Vieser is a Berlin-based award-winning author of ten books, including the national bestseller Tea with Buddha. Her narrative work has appeared on Deutschlandfunk Kultur, BBC, FAZ, Geo, NZZ, Financial Times, Süddeutsche Zeitung, among others. Her features and documentaries have been nominated for the Bavarian film prize and the Grimme Preis.
  • Isaac Yuen

    Isaac Yuen's short fiction and creative nonfiction can be found at AGNI, Gulf Coast, Orion, Shenandoah, The Willowherb Review, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Tin House, and other publications. A first-generation Hong Kong Canadian based in Berlin, his debut nature essay collection titled Utter, Earth: Advice on Living in a More-than-Human World, was published in April 2024.

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