What strikes me about the mayfly is that he lives for less than a day. Actually, a day plus 365, if you count the year he spends as larva, floating around in freshwater, feeding on miniscule plants and shedding his skin every two or three weeks, each layer unsheathing a slightly different body. By the end of the year, the mayfly finally has wings, and so he rises to the surface, and he flies — for one day.
One day! In 24 hours, the mayfly will learn to fly, lose his virginity and father children. He will watch his last sunset, this one sunset also his first, so unlike you and I — who are jaded because we’re sick of seeing sunsets on Instagram — he’ll probably appreciate it.
When I was a kid, I was less fascinated by short-lived things than by their opposite. I remember going to California when I was 11 or 12 and seeing redwoods that were large and old, impossibly so, like 530 years older than the oldest thing I knew, which was my grandmother. These were trees that saw generations upon generations of baby ospreys hatch from their eggs and baby bobcats being fed by their mothers — and saw them all die, too, all the while softly swaying back and forth in the wind, like giant metronomes.
For some reason, those long-living trees aren’t as interesting to me anymore. It seems to me now that we’re surrounded by stuff that has been around forever. Never mind the redwoods — think about the tortoises, the whales. In 2007, a giant bowhead caught in Alaska had a 19th-century harpoon tip embedded in its neck. Even weirder is Turritopsis dohrnii, the jellyfish that was the subject of The New York Times Magazine cover story last week. The Turritopsis can make itself younger, reverting to its juvenile stage after it has reached sexual maturity. From there, it can recycle its cells and age again — which makes it, in a sense, immortal.
Tortoises, whales, jellyfish — I said these things have been around forever, but that sentence is actually nonsensical. “Forever” can’t reach into the past. Time marches in only one direction, and if you trace back its steps, you’ll find a beginning: the egg that hatched into the tortoise, the embryo that became the whale, the larva that grew into the jellyfish. “Forever,” in these cases, relates not to the past but to an endless future, and the attendant infinite possibilities.
Which brings me back to the mayfly. I wonder if he knows that mayflies live for only 24 hours. Does he fret? Does he suffer an existential crisis? When he first flies out of the water, does he look around mournfully because he knows he’ll never be able to see the world beyond the shrubs that grow on the margins of his river? Is he torn between the impulse to explore and the impulse to get it on, knowing, as he does, that he only has 24 hours left to live?
I like to think those questions don’t trouble him. In fact I know they don’t, because the mayfly lacks the brain parts necessary for anxiety, but I like to think he just tells himself that he’s going to live forever.
I was looking at a map the other day and realized that if you draw a vertical line connecting Sweden and Kenya and keep the line going all the way around the globe, you’ll have split the planet into a half I’ve seen and a half I have not. And that’s cheating, because the first half includes places like Suriname and Idaho, and I’ve definitely never been to Idaho.
So I resolved I was going to see the unseen half. But that resolution is fueled by equal parts optimism and foolishness. Think about it: I stand about as much chance to see all of Earth as the mayfly stands to see the world beyond his river.
Sometimes I lose sight of the fact I’m not going to live forever. Compare me to that jellyfish, and my life is only marginally longer than the mayfly’s. I don’t really care, though. The possibilities seem just as infinite.
Teo Soares is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .