One day Lulu Miller, the co-founder of the science podcast Invisibilia, was out birdwatching with her father. She was 7 years old and eye level with his “friendly belly,” when she blurted out one of those deep questions kids like to ask: “What is the meaning of life?” Under a hot summer sun, her father’s answer tore open her world. There was no meaning to life, he said. Everything was meaningless.
So begins Miller’s origin story. That 7-year-old would grow up to become an award-winning science reporter with a mission to tell stories that give meaning to life, to investigate why we are here and how we live out our days. One such story was that of David Starr Jordan, a 19th century taxonomist who sought to bring order to the natural world. He spent decades trying to collect every species of fish, and over the years he amassed a shoal numbering in the thousands. But then the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hit, and his life’s work — stored in glass jars — fell to the ground and shattered. But instead of wallowing in his loss, he did the unexpected. He tried to put his collection back together. He looked chaos in the eye, and said, “I dare you.”
That’s where Miller picks up the story. In her new book, “Why Fish Don’t Exist,” which comes out on Tuesday, she dives deep into the story of a man who believed he could make sense of the chaotic world. She investigates how Jordan was able to overcome not only the loss of his life’s work, but the human loss of his children, his wife and his colleagues who all died too young. Jordan possesses a godlike level of resilience and Miller explores where it came from and how she could learn from him.
“Why Fish Don’t Exist,” strangely, could not have been better timed, publishing during a global pandemic that also seemingly came out of nowhere and upended millions — if not billions — of lives in unthinkable ways.
HuffPost caught up with Miller by phone, as she took a walk in her neighborhood in Chicago. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Where are you right now? What do you see?
The streets are empty, it’s completely empty because it’s pretty freezing and rainy right now. But I’m all bundled in my kick-ass giant coat and hat and I even see some bark and pine cones and the moss looks extra green because it’s that gray and rainy.
. . . .
[Jordan] was basically a passing anecdote while I was getting a tour of the California Academy of Sciences, and the little detail was that this guy’s entire life’s work of fish specimens, fish collecting, discovering new species, ordering them, thousands and thousands of jars — a huge amount of it came down in the 1906 earthquake. Shattered, the fish were separated from the names. And as he stood there in all that wreckage, instead of just giving up, he invented this little new technique of sewing a label to a fish so that should another earthquake come, the names would never get separated.
And I don’t know, it just struck me as this little perfect emblem of human persistence and just the refusal to back down in the face of all these huge forces that will always do us in. When I first thought about it, I just was like, “Oh you fool, chaos will keep destroying you.” I don’t know what it was, I just thought he was pathetic. I thought he was an Icarus, I thought he was a fool.
And then I didn’t think about him for years. Then in my late 20s, I had just screwed up a bunch of stuff in my own life and I found myself in my own proverbial wreckage, personally and professionally; I had left radio and I was trying to write fiction and I was really bad at it and I was lonely and I screwed up a whole relationship and I was in a new place, I didn’t really have a community, and I was just alone, and lost. I wanted to keep pining for this person who I really wanted to get back together with but was showing me no signs that he was going to ever take me back. And I suddenly wondered, “Am I being crazy or is this hope and this persistence the kind of faith you need that ultimately wins you, sails you through the storms, like is it actually noble and beautiful?”
And then I thought of this David Starr Jordan guy again and I was like, “I wonder what happened to that dude, because he is the most comic example of this, and did he end up a king with tons of kids and admirers or did he end up alone and poor and a fool?”
So then I set out to — not knowing what else to do — I set out to research his life, thinking I’d write a very short essay and get a little clarity or a little hint of what to do for myself. Then it just spiraled because he had such a weird tale and he was also a profoundly interesting person to study because he left behind so much to go through and he’s funny and he’s kind of evil and it just made him a wonderful person to obsessively research while I wasn’t sure what the heck to do with my life.
Link to the rest at HuffPost