Barnacle Wisdom.

Lessons from barnacles for adults in transition.

If you are a barnacle, your life is confusing.

You spend the first half of your life roaming the sea trying to not to get eaten by everything bigger and stronger than you. You have little say over where you go as you travel where ever the waves take you.

Then you settle down on a rock that will be your home forever.

Barnacles on a rock in Costa Rica © Anne A. Madden

You find an unoccupied place in a nice neighborhood with other barnacles of your species. You invest all your resources in building a house.

You turn the calcium in the water into a shell — one with a strong adhesive that can withstand the crush of waves and storms.

But with your newly-constructed protection of home and community comes stresses you couldn’t even imagine when you were young. You are now exposed — quite literally — to a terrifying world.

At low tide you are struggling with high salt conditions, no food, no sex, and the incredible feeling of being vulnerable to harmful radiation and heat as you struggle to keep water inside you. You sit and know that if an intruder — such as a predator snail (whelk) chooses to attack you and drill into your home, you are helpless.

You listen for that faint grinding noise that would signal your demise

Surrounded by other stressed barnacles all struggling to stay protected, you are alone.

Barnacles at low tide in Costa Rica © Anne A. Madden

If the rains come — rather than feeling relieved of stresses, you are faced with new ones as you strive to keep salts inside your body without exploding.

You hide away in your home just trying to get through the next minute, and maybe the next hour of your life.

A life that will last perhaps more than ten years.

Then just when it seems life is too stressful to survive and you made all the wrong decisions about settling down…

The tide comes back in.

You are flushed with food and just the right amount of water and oxygen.

Suddenly you have the chance to open up, gulp in the good food, and sense the community around you.

You even get to make use of your gargantuan genitalia (the largest of all animals in relation to your body.)

As a simultaneous hermaphrodite, you get to experience sex first as the female, and then a few hours later as a male!

Also, you can have sex with all of the barnacles you can reach. You bear children that are sent out into the world. You build a stronger home.

Dr. Madden holding a barnacle shell © Anne A. Madden

If you — as a human — feel like life hasn’t taken you where you wanted to go. If you feel like you’ve settled in the wrong place and at the wrong time. If you’re overwhelmed by the stresses of life, just remember you might be a barnacle at low tide.

It is hard to imagine how much better life will get.

But the one thing that is certain is that the tide will soon come back in.


Bio: Microbiologist, inventor, and TED speaker Dr. Anne A. Madden studies the microscopic world, from arthropods (bugs) to bacteria and fungi. She has named a new species, found new beer technology in the yeast in wasps, and has discovered new antibiotics. She finds delight in the lessons taken from how these microscopic creatures survive and flourish in our world.

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