The word that describes “sponge” in Chinese consists of the word “sea”. It’s poetic, but also true to the material’s origin.
In search of paint sponges in an art supply store, I discovered, in a pile of unsolicited debris, packs of seven or eight sponges the size of chestnuts, all irregularly shaped and presumably torn into convenient pieces – like erasers. You’d never guess, but each pack cost almost a hundred dollars.
Then I came across sea sponges in a natural products store, and that’s when I realised that sponges were, in fact, natural products. First attested in the 8th century B.C., the Greeks have been using sea sponges and olive oil for their personal hygiene since the antiquity.
Sponges were first to branch off the evolutionary tree from the common ancestor of all animals. They do not have nervous, digestive or circulatory systems. Instead, they rely on maintaining a constant water flow through their bodies to obtain food and oxygen. Ancient Greeks hand harvested sponges using the freediving method, which involved a diver carrying a rounded stone tied on a rope to the boat – to take him down to the bottom of the sea quickly. The diver then cut the sponge loose from the bottom and put a special net around it; all this trouble for the organism’s incredible water holding capacity and fibrous surface, which gives it superior cleaning and exfoliation power. Sea sponges had been mainly harvested and traded in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea – until synthetic sponges were popularised for commercial use in the 40’s.
Natural sea sponges are porous solid masses that soften and expand upon contact with water. I have since been using a sea sponge with soap as a staple of my facial care. It never really occurrs to me that I am, in fact, using a 600 million-year-old organism. Instead I look forward to my cleaning ritual, reaching into every nook, cranny and crevice using the tufts and ridges of the sponge, as a flush of warmth courses through me, cleansing my skin afresh.
The sponge’s delicate, mnemonic quality suggests care with use, but it also transposes to a reminder of self-care, of kindness. The act of bathing, as such, takes on a new meaning: no longer a stretch of time for the release of emotional baggage, it has become a ritual of exfoliation and polish. In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, my body is but a temporary vessel relative to a 600 million-year-old sea sponge. One day it will turn into stone. Until then, I want to remember what it’s like to be soft.