Sabrina Imbler’s How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures: A Review
by Nicole Emanuel
Sabrina Imbler’s new essay collection How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures (2022) is awash with vivid sensory description. Many passages of this brief yet intensely vital text have lingered in my mind long after reading, but one that I found particularly haunting is a description of that unique phenomenon known as a whale fall:
Without the buoy of inflated lungs, a dead whale makes it to the seafloor relatively untouched, and then the scavengers come. This one had been dead for years, but its remains had become a teeming city in the mud, nourishing clams, mussels, limpets, and snails. This was scientists’ first encounter with a whale fall, the most benevolent kind of burial….Entire ecosystems depend on these deaths, creatures whose lives revolve around chance windfalls of blubber, gut, and bone.
Whale falls linger for decades, feeding scavengers in roughly three stages….In the largest whales, [the] third stage can outlive many of us, lingering for as long as a century until all that is left is the mineral husk of bone. It even outlives the whale itself, surpassed only by the bowhead whale, which may live to be two hundred years old. If a whale’s life is a marvel, its death is its legacy. (85-87)
When I first read this passage, I was captivated by the ghostly beauty of this body-become-city. I was struck by Imbler’s evocation of a singular death that supports multitudes of lives. It also called to mind for me a line from the essay “Sing Back” by Leah Naomi Green: “Without death, we have no soil, no ‘mud,’ no ‘fund of things.’” In subtle ways across this collection, Imbler challenges readers to trouble the life/death binary and to ponder what it might mean to reconceptualize death as a critical source for liveliness, rather than its blank antithesis.
These are serious themes, but How Far the Light Reaches is by no means a somber text. Imbler (who uses they/them pronouns) has crafted a book that is, at its heart, a wildly celebratory exploration of queer life in multifarious forms. They write prose that is both concise and powerful, and this slim book is buoyant with images and ideas. While every essay in this collection could stand alone perfectly well, there is also a cumulative impact that rises while reading the whole text.
Imbler braids science writing and personal memoir into each essay. As the book’s subtitle suggests, every section invokes a different sea creature or community of marine organisms, paired with a narrative or theme drawn from Imbler’s own life. For instance, one section explores Imbler’s evolving experience of transness while also depicting the colorful and chameleonic abilities of flamboyant cuttlefish, which are “creatures born to morph,” as they write. Then there is an essay that navigates Imbler’s relationships with their mother and with disordered eating alongside the Graneledone boreopacifica octopus, which starves itself while brooding a clutch of eggs for four-and-a-half years. Another essay examines Imbler’s growing awareness of consent and rape culture while also investigating the sand striker worm (Eunice aphroditois), which used to bear the common name bobbit in reference to the infamous Lorena Bobbitt case. Imbler is deft in dedicating attention to each of these delicate narrative strands; they examine difficult memories of their own adolescence and young adulthood while also treating the story of Lorena’s life (and how it was sensationalized by the media) with nuanced respect.
Crucially, Imbler also writes of the sand striker worm with an observant and open regard. It is not simply here as decoration, or to serve as a metaphor for the human concerns the essay is dealing with, but is vibrantly present in the text as a being with its own complicated, distinctive mode of life. Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of Imbler’s craft is how they manage to write about other creatures in a way that brings them to life while avoiding the twin pitfalls of excessive anthropomorphism and objectifying exoticism.
This is a very tricky line to walk, and it is telling that so many of the responses to How Far the Light Reachesemphasize the “strange” or “alien” lifeforms that Imbler writes about. After all, it is hard to avoid such language when you are dealing with a jellyfish that can reverse its cellular processes and restart life as a polyp, or a crab that gathers its sustenance from microorganisms that convert chemicals released by hydrothermal vents into energy, entirely bypassing the photosynthesis-based food-chain that scientists used to assume was necessary to all life on earth. These are undeniably animals which lead lives vastly different to how a human experiences the world, so it is understandable that we fall into language which foregrounds their foreignness to us.
But as Imbler writes, “Though the yeti crab’s environment seems inhospitable to us, it is nothing to be pitied. The pressure does not crush the crab, and the darkness does not oppress it. It is exactly suited to the life it leads, however strange or repulsive we might find it. What use is the sun to an eyeless crab? It already has everything it needs.” How Far the Light Reaches is an affirmation of the resourcefulness of biological beings. It draws inspiration from creatures that challenge our conceptions of the possible; it is an invitation to, in Imbler’s words, “look beyond the surface, to conceive of another way of living on Earth.”
Nicole Emanuel is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her work brings together ecocriticism, animal studies, and gender and sexuality studies, as well as other interdisciplinary fields. Favorite topics she has researched and written on include the politics of queer penguin families and multispecies road narratives as a tactic for challenging car culture. She earned an MA at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in 2021 and completed a double major in Biology and English Literature at Macalester College in 2016.