birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Urchin mouth

Urchins release sperm and eggs into the sea, where fertilization happens, but it is possible to force this event. Once you have gametes, you can dilute the sperm, mix it with the eggs, and eventually watch sea urchin embryos develop under a microscope.

To make a sea urchin release its gametes, you inject potassium chloride into the soft tissue exposed around its mouth. Because I was the lab assistant in a summer marine biology class, this job fell to me.

I was in the lab alone, doing the prep ahead of time, leaning over the shallow saltwater seatable with its clumps of urchins.

I took a syringe and lifted an urchin to inject it.

Although humans use a lab exercise like this in part to understand evolution and the earliest stages of human development, sea urchins have little to project human sensibility on. No eyes, no limbs, just a mouth and an anus.

Nevertheless, when I inserted the needle, I swear the urchin winced.

This was the muscles around its mouth contracting, which is the whole point of the potassium chloride -- it triggers the gonads to contract and release the gametes. It was supposed to contract, but I felt terrible.

I had done other terrible things. I had the teaching assistant job because in a previous summer I had had a research assistant job at the same marine lab. I had manipulated hermit crabs by attracting them to the chemicals that snails release when they are wounded or dying; hermits come in hopes of trading up for larger shells. I had created my lures for crabs by killing snails, freezing them and extracting their proteins and embedding them in agar which I would put out in little cups in the shallow water of the bay. I once killed a gravid hermit crab and blended her up to see if other crabs would come to the broken proteins of her body; I cried as I did it.

But somehow the wince of the urchin was the final straw.

The Letter

I Misunderstood