Imagine yourself as a child. Imagine yourself lying awake at night, tucked into sheets. Imagine yourself as aware of your own smallness in the world—a speck, looking at the ceiling and its textured paint and seeing only the stars beyond it, then galaxies, then only galaxies beyond other galaxies.
Imagine infinity in your small brain, untainted by the weight of endings. Imagine your wide-awake terror as you contemplate its span.
Imagine the Midwest. A stretch of plains and trees, of ice storms and snow. A wave of hills that tumbles in a landlocked swell toward the ocean, miles upon miles of rolling cornfields that form the crest of what was once a sea. Imagine yourself a child born upon these plains, your eyes closed, in the lull of ocean waves.
Imagine infinity encapsulated in the red plastic of an aquarium, shrink-wrapped, a gift resting in the palms of your hands. Imagine unveiling it, tearing open a packet, emptying it into the aquarium upon your nightstand, pouring water over the packet's contents, and waiting patiently. Imagine three days later, as you lie awake in the night, how infinity collapses when you roll over in your sheets, when your face draws close to the aquarium, when you squint to see life, suddenly bloomed and billowing through the water: from here, upon the Midwestern plains, the expanse of the stars and the ocean contained at last.
In 1833, frontiersman Joseph Walker mapped Utah's Great Salt Lake. Traveling west from the central plains with 110 men, under the guidance of Captain Benjamin-Louis-Eulalie de Bonneville, a US Army officer and the leader of a westward expedition that would map central routes of the Oregon Trail, Walker was assigned the task of splitting off to explore the lake and a potential passage to California. Though Walker mapped the terrain, the salt flats he encountered took the name of his guide, as did the ancient lake from which the Great Salt Lake was formed: Lake Bonneville.
Today's Great Salt Lake is a remnant of this prehistoric body of water, which once covered most of western Utah and parts of Idaho and Nevada. Lake Bonneville was originally a freshwater lake, spanning nearly twenty thousand miles and emptying through tributaries into the Pacific Ocean. But following a decrease in rainfall over centuries, outflow through these rivers lessened, and eventually the water evaporated. Lake Bonneville dried and shrank, becoming the Great Salt Lake.
Today, the only outlet for water from the Great Salt Lake is evaporation, and the circumference of its shores fluctuates yearly, its area between approximately seventeen hundred and three thousand square miles, depending upon rainfall. The water is shallow, the salinity high, and, as Gladys Relyea reported in the 1937 issue of the American Naturalist, "oxygen content is very low; its nitrogen content is about half that of sea water; its organic matter is limited; and its carbon dioxide content is twice that of sea water." It is an environment that cannot support most forms of life.
Still, as Joseph Walker mapped its contours and the remnants of its predecessor, he came upon "enormous numbers of tiny animals swimming about in the shallow water near the shore."
The brine shrimp, also known as Artemia, is one of the few life forms that can survive in the inhospitable environment of the Great Salt Lake. It shares its habitat with algae and brine flies, and draws an astounding host of migratory birds to Utah to feed.
Brine shrimp are small, ranging in length from 0.3 to 0.5 inches. They are translucent and look like billowing feathers as their legs propel their small bodies through the water. And they are ancient: a State of Utah study found, based on geologic core samples, that "brine shrimp have been present in the Great Salt Lake area for at least 600,000 years." Some researchers believe that brine shrimp are, in fact, descendants of a type of shrimp that once lived in Lake Bonneville. According to the Southern Regional Aquaculture Center established by Congress: "Based on physiological traits, scientists believe that brine shrimp were originally a freshwater species that adapted to saline water."
Other experts believe that brine shrimp arrived at the Salt Lake as embryos, in hardened shells that could be easily transported upon the feet of migrating birds. This is possible because brine shrimp are born either as live young or as cysts, depending on environmental conditions (changes in rainfall, water temperature, and how much algae exist as a food source). When conditions are favorable, usually in the spring months, when the water is warm and phytoplankton are plentiful, female brine shrimp give birth to a combination of developing embryos and small babies called nauplii. Nauplii have indistinct bodies, short antennae, and a single eye. They float through the salinity of the Salt Lake, feeding upon algae and phytoplankton, and in time grow into fully developed brine shrimp. But if the water is cold, if there's not much sunlight—if the algae can't support new life—female brine shrimp lay cysts that encase a dormant embryo in a hard protective shell.
These cysts exist in cryptobiosis, a suspended state of life in which the Southern Regional Aquaculture Center claims the shrimp can withstand "complete drying, temperatures over one hundred degrees Celsius or near absolute zero, high energy radiation, and a variety of organic solvents. "The brine shrimp embryo can remain in this dormant state for years, until warm salt water and oxygen coax it from the chamber of its cyst, and the embryos unfurl into a brand-new world.
These more-visible cysts are likely what Joseph Walker encountered upon the shores of the Great Salt Lake in 1833. In the Utah fall, just before brine shrimp die off en masse in the winter months, wide swaths of cysts called "streaks" often appear in the lake water, coating the surface near the shore. Modern-day brine shrimp harvesters say these streaks resemble oil slicks spanning the surface of the water in layers. They must have seemed a form of magic to Walker's untrained eye. A century later, in 1950, fishermen noticed migratory birds feasting on the shrimp. This led to a growing demand for aquaculture and a growing number of fish hobbyists, and the brine shrimp industry began to flourish. The Great Salt Lake's first harvest took place in 1950 through the Sanders Brine Shrimp Company, the nation's oldest brine shrimp harvest corporation. Though the Sanders Company originally harvested only live shrimp and nauplii, in 1952 it transitioned to collecting only cysts, when it realized the dormant shrimp could be sold to commercial hatcheries around the world as a lucrative food supply for fish.
In fact, brine shrimp cysts can lie dormant for up to twenty-five years—more than an entire childhood, the child's resting hands waiting, mixing packets and water and raising a creature seemingly from the dead, to conjure magic with little more than bated breath.
Harold von Braunhut was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1926, nearly sixteen hundred miles from the Great Salt Lake. Or so he told reporters—family members and the Anti-Defamation League place his birth in Manhattan. He was born as Harold Nathan Braunhut, to Jeannette Cohen and Edward Braunhut, into a family in the toy-making business. He later added von to his name "to make it sound more Germanic."
He grew up in New York and dabbled in business courses at Columbia University and City College, eventually entering the entertainment industry. He raced motorcycles under the stage name "Green Hornet" before going on to manage other talent acts: the Amazing Dunninger—a famed mentalist and one of the first magicians on television—and Henri LaMothe, who jumped off Manhattan's Flatiron Building from a height of forty feet into a twelve-inch pool of water every year, a feat that earned him the Guinness World Record for "Highest Shallow Dive."
But von Braunhut's talent-management career was brief. Like his family had before him, in the 1950s he moved into toy-making, creating whimsical novelty toys that were advertised in the pages of comic books. His "X-Ray Specs" promised buyers that they would be able to "see through fingers, through skin, see the yolk of an egg!" Von Braunhut was also responsible for the boom of hermit crabs as pets with his "Crazy Crabs," the first mail-order hermit crabs. He also made "Amazing Hair-Raising Monsters," which grew mineral crystals on their heads; "Invisible Goldfish," a kit that included a fishbowl, food, and nonexistent fish; and the "Mad Scientist Monster Lab," among other gimmicks. But his most famous invention, the one he patented after walking past a New York City pet store in 1957, was "Instant Life," which promised children that they could create life spontaneously in their own homes. By 1960, dormant brine shrimp were being peddled as magic, transported by mail order from the pages of comic-book advertisements through von Braunhut's newly minted toy company, Transcience Corporation.
The "Instant Life" kit included a shrink-wrapped red aquarium, a plastic magnifying glass, and three powder packets that contained the cysts, marketed as kings and queens of an underwater kingdom and depicted on the package as pink creatures wearing crowns. The kit seemed to promise they would play, have tea parties, swim hand in hand. Von Braunhut claimed these aquarium creatures could return from the dead. He guaranteed they could be hypnotized and trained with the wave of a flashlight.
Though the creatures sold, they did not sell as well as von Braunhut had hoped, and in 1964 he changed the name of his product to "Sea Monkeys," after the curl of their tiny tails. The new name conferred success on the toy, with its promise of sea-gazing joy for a child in the confetti of creatures billowing quietly through lamp-lit water. And so it was that by 1977 more than a million Sea Monkey aquariums had been sold: cysts that had found their first home in the Great Salt Lake were transplanted to the homes of children across America, even to the impossible expanse of the Midwest: a wizardry of false seascapes and galaxies, an endlessness stretched beyond the fluttering of cornfields.
To a Midwestern child, a lake of salt is only the inkling of a dream; von Braunhut's aquarium promised two years of guaranteed life in a bedside sea, though the average life span of a brine shrimp living in the Great Salt Lake is less than one year. By 1968, von Braunhut had doubled the life span of America's beloved aquarium creatures: he developed Artemia NYOS, a hybrid brine shrimp genetically engineered to live for two years. The exact genetic makeup of these hybrid shrimp is still shrouded, protected by patent.
Artemia NYOS is named for a research facility, the New York Ocean Sciences Laboratory (NYOS) in Montauk, New York, where it was born. However, funding for the lab was cut in 1979, and no further brine shrimp hybrids have been engineered. Throughout his life, only von Braunhut and his wife, Yolanda, knew the exact details, which Tamar Brott of the Los Angeles Times reported that he was "constantly tinkering with." So, like Lake Bonneville itself, where Captain Bonneville never set foot, modern Sea Monkeys carry the memory of a namesake—in this case, a namesake that has prolonged their lineage as a form of instant life brokered to expanded life brokered to infinity.
In their hybrid form as Artemia NYOS, they are separated from their origins in the safety of a salted sea bed, a home that is now nothing but a dream across dormant years, across test tubes, across the flattened miles of salt and mountain washed down to the undulations of Midwestern plains. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that long after von Braunhut introduced the magic of Sea Monkeys to the bedrooms of landlocked children, his own complicated makeup became public as well.
In 1979, the same year that the New York Ocean Sciences Laboratory shut down, von Braunhut was arrested at New York's John F. Kennedy airport for carrying a concealed, spring-loaded weapon. The device turned out to be an invention of his own, a "pen-sized weapon called the Kiyoga Agent M5, which telescopes into a metal whip at a flick of the wrist." Beyond the disgrace of his public arrest, however, was a more sinister unveiling by the Washington Post, in 1988: that proceeds from the weapon were being funneled by von Braunhut to Richard Butler, founder and leader of the Aryan Nations. Anti-Defamation League reports soon revealed von Braunhut's connections to the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations. News clippings showed von Braunhut posed before a Nazi flag, as a featured speaker at the Aryan Nation Congress, and lighting a burning cross at its annual meeting in Hayden Lake, Idaho.
After von Braunhut's political beliefs were made public, several toy distributors pulled Sea Monkeys from their product lists. The only company that didn't was Educational Insights, an instructional-toy corporation that took over and now holds the Artemia NYOS license. According to Alan Fine, a former representative of Educational Insights, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: "This has absolutely nothing to do with Harold as a person. It's more to do with what Sea Monkeys are and what they can mean in terms of fun and fantasy for kids and adults of all ages."
"Fun and fantasy," a realm of magic and, as it turns out, of illusion—a small aquarium of whimsy, an expanding and endless world full of creatures separated from their birthplace, just as their inventor separated himself from his own.
In your bedroom, the lamplight soft upon your nightstand, you know nothing of divided pasts, of genetics. You know only that your aquarium is thriving, that the Sea Monkeys are swimming, that you are responsible for the first time in your life for the life of something else. You know that when you peer into the red plastic case each night, you are peering into the mystery of your own life as a creature upon the face of this planet. You are peering into a world full of possibilities, and into the possibility of a world without end. If life can spontaneously manifest from a packet, then it can certainly manifest again and again. You are peering into your future, into the secrecy of this world, how it hides its own origins and its own end, a future that rolls out before you when your Sea Monkeys begin to die, when they start to return slowly to the universe from which they came.
In fact, brine shrimp know the curve of the planet from the vantage of outer space. In aquariums strapped into rockets, more Artemia have traveled into space than all astronauts combined. Artemia have been launched into space to test the effects of gravity on their growth, and to see whether cosmic rays accelerated their cell growth. Biologists at universities across the United States have also sent brine shrimp into orbit around Earth, comparing cysts hatched on earth to those hatched in space. When astronaut John Glenn took his last space flight, in 1998, aboard the Discovery, four hundred million brine shrimp accompanied him to measure the effect of space travel upon aging. As they hurtled through space, somewhere below, in the rural wilds of Maryland, Harold von Braunhut was at work on his last two toys: a pet lobster and an instant frog.
As was routine on many space missions, Glenn chose a different wake-up call for each morning of his journey. On day nine, the day before the Discovery was set to land, Glenn chose Peter Nero's "Voyage into Space." At 4:20 a.m., the astronauts and four hundred million Sea Monkeys awoke to the instrumental melody of Nero's pop orchestrations, thousands of miles from a planet of salted blue water, the outlines of which, from that distance, must have looked almost like that of a lake.
First published in The Believer, January 2015.