Anyway, I have been taking care of a couple of Marimo
moss algae balls for a couple of years now.
Their entire appeal, to me, is that they are little, fuzzy green balls that sit in water. That’s kind of it. They don’t move. They don’t really grow. They don’t do much at all. I love them.
When a friend saw the round fishbowl full of water sitting in on my shelf, he got excited and said, “Oh! Did you get fish??” And I grinned and said, “Even better. I got moss balls.” And I showed them to him and he made a face. “What do they… do?” “Nothing.” “Oh... uh, okay.” “Exactly.”
Marimo algae balls are found naturally at the bottom of certain cold lakes. The idea of them as a naturally occurring entity charms me to no end: each ball is not a single plant, but a dense clump of individual algae filaments that grow together! They form in round ball shapes because the motion of the gentle lake currents shape them that way! They exists as colonies of many, many balls, layered on top of each other, at the bottom of these lakes! The lake currents jostle them and turn them around so that they all get enough exposure to sunlight to grow! All the individual algae filaments in each ball are green and alive all the way through, even the ones in the center of the ball, so that if the ball gets split apart, it doesn’t die, it just forms two balls of living algae!
In taking care of these Marimo algae balls at home, it makes me feel nice to know that, under proper conditions, they are mostly happy to be left alone in water, as long as you change their water every week or so, and you give their water a swirl every once in a while so that all sides of the ball get exposed to light and grow evenly.
And to be clear, I use “grow” very loosely.
My favorite thing about these algae balls is that they don’t appear to grow at all. I looked it up once and saw that they can grow up to 5mm in diameter every year, but in the couple of years I have been taking care of mine, I do not think they have gotten any bigger. I like imagining taking care of these little balls of algae, keeping them alive for decades, only for them to be just about the exact same size as when I started caring for them. What, then, would I have had to show for all this time I gave to them, caring for them?
If they are alive, but don’t grow in size at all… if they are exactly constant in their aliveness, does that make them, in some way, immortal? Is that what makes me feel so much love for them? The fact (or the implied promise, maybe) that you can care for them, but they never grow, which means you can take care of them forever, until the end of time?
Though it feels like they can grow forever, they can also get hurt they can get hurt quickly, and react quickly, and die quickly when they are not in the right conditions.
Because they naturally grow at the bottoms of lakes, they don’t need much light to live. Not only do they thrive in low light, but in fact, too much bright light will hurt them. If you place them in the direct light, they will quickly turn brown, then turn white, and die. If you don’t notice them when they are struggling, if you don’t move them away from what hurts them, their potential to stay constant and unchanging, to live forever, is lost.
I like the idea of a practice that you have to keep doing, that gives you no signs of change or growth or any affirmation that you are doing anything right at all, and that only gives you signs when you are doing something wrong.
I like the idea that instead of having only one right way of doing something, everything is right unless the algae balls speak up. I like that they seem to say, “As long as you’re not doing something wrong, you’re fine! I’m good! Relax! Just let me enjoy my water, and keep me out of the light!”
There is something about these little globes, composed of thousands of tiny living things all packed together who will live happily in the right conditions without any issue and without any noise, that makes me love them immensely, like they are little planets of shy, quiet beings keeping to themselves. And I get to help them do that.
And I like that in caring for them, there is nothing ever new to show for when you are caring for them well — that the constant practice of caring for them is its own (and only) reward.
From "quietly provocative" international best selling author and TV writer Jonny Sun, a weekly illustration and reflection on a personal object close to his heart.