Sunday, April 3, 2011

Horseshoe crabs redux

I saw that someone Googled "can you pick up a horseshoe crab" today to find my blog.
I found a half dozen tiny horseshoe crabmolts on the beach today, the smallest the size of my thumbnail.
I rescued an ancient old female, caught high on the beach, twice today. Flies had settled on her the first time around, she shoved off the second. This may well be her last year, but not her last day.

So I brought this back....

Spiders, really.
And like spiders, feared.

Kids, really.
And like kids, fearless.

I was 8, old enough to know better. The lifeguard, bronzed and confident, draped in red, asked us to slaughter the horseshoe crabs.

"Hold them by the tail so they can't sting you, then smash them on the wall."

The wall--a creosote bulkhead jutting into the beach, already slimy with the blue blood and cracked shells of these fearsome creatures.

It was mating season. Not yet old enough to understand a desire that drove these beasts onto my beach, Ideal Beach, I smashed one creature on top of the others, picking the same one up over and over until the shells splintered and the sky blue blood soaked the shells underneath.

Sea gulls pecked into the soft flesh of our dying prey as the legs were still scratching at the sky.

When we were done, tired, stinking, and proud of our aching muscles, we jumped back into the water, washed ourselves, then went home.

Hemocyanin: blue blood. We wore it that day like war paint--stinking of death, sweating under the early July sun.

20 mg of high purity hemocyanin will fetch $175.00

20 milligrams.
Less than the weight of a fat housefly. Less than the weight of our soul. Our blood runs red from the iron in hemoglobin; a horseshoe crab's blood runs blue from copper.

Hemoglobin is cheaper.

Every spring the she crabs come to the beach, several smaller males trailing behind. The bayshore teems with horseshoe crab eggs, tiny bean curds at the lip of the beach. Millions upon millions, so many that none mean anything at all to me. Birds crowd along the beach, feasting. I used to think the birds were what mattered.

A female crab can lay 80,000 eggs in a season. She creeps up onto the beach, riding the spring tide on the full moon. She crabs reach sexual maturity in 9 to 12 years, not much younger than when humans do. May is crazy with life everywhere. Within 2 to 4 weeks, they are ready to hatch. I never really looked at the eggs closely, until last year.

It took me a long moment to believe what I was seeing. Horseshoe crab eggs do not remain opaque. Soon before they egg splits, the tiny pale crab spins wildly. Half the egg is clear, the other half white from the curled embryo. If you look carefully, you can tell that this tiny critter is a curled up horseshoe crab. As it spins, it looks like a tiny blinking eye.

If you watch one long enough, you will catch its birth. It will already have survived longer than most of its siblings. And it will not likely survive the next high tide.

Still, catching the exuberance of a newly hatched critter the size of an ice cream sprinkle on a warm, June afternoon changed me. Strangers saw a wild-haired middle-aged man squatting by the water's edge, staring intently at nothing, gesticulating a bit too much for others to come share his excitement.

I would not have let my kids close to me, either, had our roles been switched. Fortunately for my kids, I am not a stranger.

The smell of a dead or dying crustaceans can overwhelm a kitchen. On an open beach, however, mixed in with the salty life-teeming spray, a balance is reached. At high tide, the smell is almost too clean; at low tide, whiffs of the decaying mud is sharp, but not repulsive. The tide washes over us twice a day, the rhythm of mortality.

I occasionally find horseshoe crabs stranded on the beach. I will gently pick them up, and return them to the water. I may have returned thousands by now. I cannot make up for the hundred I slaughtered. That is not why I do it.

Every summer I show children how to pick up a horseshoe crab. Cradle the carapace with your hand. Do not carry them by their tails. I touch the point of the tail, show a child there is no stinger. They are gentle creatures. Omnivorous, true--clams, worms, and algae, so perhaps not so gentle, but certainly not harmful to humans.

Young loggerhead turtles snack on horseshoe crabs. Humans use their blood in medical research. Otherwise, they have few "enemies." Not sure being higher up in the food chain makes one an enemy. Someday I will feed the worms, unless some stranger stuffs my veins with formaldehyde and buries me too deep to be useful.

Horseshoe crabs live an average of 19 years, or so the scientists will tell you. I doubt the average longevity matters to a horseshoe crab--the mad, exuberant spinning of horseshoe crab embryos one June afternoon reminded me what matters.

Ask me someday....ask me in June. I will show you. Words will not do. I bet you smile like an idiot, too.... 

Personal observations.
"The Horseshoe Crab,(Limulus polyphemus)," Maryland Sea Grant Schools Online Network
A.G. Scientific, Inc., Product Catalog,


Kathryn J said...

Why did he want you to kill the horseshoe crabs? I still remember the first time I saw them on Cape Cod in the '60s when I first came to the ocean. I have not seen one often because we do not spend much time on the bay side when we visit - my teenage boys like the pounding surf of the ocean side with the sharp dropoff.

I still remember my first enchantment with this strange but wonderful creature! Why did the bronze lifeguard want them dead? They don't hurt anybody that I know of.

doyle said...

Dear Kathryn,


And now I wander along the bay, teaching children, teaching old folks, teaching anyone who will listen (and most will), just how gentle these creatures are.

Some things cannot be made up. But still, we try,

Kate said...

You take my breath away when you write so honestly of your life, your passions, your world.

We know what matters. You show us every day and we don't have to wait until June.