Saturday, February 5, 2011

A February horseshoe crab

I love this picture.

My wife has tiny feet--that is the tip of her tiny shoe. The tracks were made by a tiny horseshoe crab last February. Chances are pretty good no one else has seen this particular horseshoe crab, and chances are pretty good it is no longer alive.

But it might be. It might be just a mile off our beach, poking along mud 30 feet below the bay's surface, bigger now, munching on whelk. No way to know.

If it lives a few more years, it may return to our beach to mate. A curious child may squat next to it, an ignorant child may run away screaming. A fisherman may snag it with a morsel of squid, his hands washed in creamy blue blood as he struggles to dislodge the hook. A wave may flip it over, and before it rights itself, a gull may peck at its gills as it flings its telson (not a "stinger"),  into the wet sand, trying to right itself.

But last February, it sauntered along our beach, no more than an inch long, feeling its way along a world I cannot imagine.

Horseshoe crabs see light we cannot. They have 10 eyes, the two obvious ones sitting on top of the shell--they are used to find mates in the gloom of the bay.

They can "see" light with their telsons, their "tails." They have tiny eye-spots on the front of their shells, designed to see ultraviolet light from the sun, from the moon. They know when the moon is new, when the moon is full. Such news is obvious on the edge of the shore, of course, but not so obvious deeper in the bay. The horseshoe crabs time their orgies to the moon.

They also have eyes underneath, next to the mouth--to see what?

We can pretend to know what it means to have 10 eyes, to sense UV light, to rise from the depths to mate under moonlight, but it's all pretending. We cannot know the universe of the horseshoe crab. But we can know that it exists.

I have a classroom set of netbooks, from very generous donations by the Roche Foundation, by the Bloomfield Education Foundation, and by our local Home and School Association.

I love what we can do with them: students can collaborate on projects, we can grab information on the fly, and there is a huge gee whiz factor built into these tiny machines that can liven up a classroom. They are not, however, a window into the world.

The only world visible on a monitor is the human world. Even high resolution photographs of exotic life are just that--human inventions, pixels flashed through electronic streams. They are not real.

A human framed the moment. A human cropped the photograph. A human machine translates the signal into the image on the screen. It is flat. It is manipulable. It is not real.

Oh, but think of the children who do not have access to these wonderful creatures!

I'd rather think of our reluctance to let the children get access to what lives among us.

My daughter, very young at the time, once found a pigeon's nest under the creek bridge that led to our closest park. She watched it for weeks, first eggs, then tiny critters, then fledglings, then gone.

She wrote no reports, took no photos. She just watched.

We keep roly polies ("pill bugs") in our room--harmless crustaceans that bumble around in a few of our terrariums, going about the business of the living, sometimes doing a whole lot of nothing.

My kids can learn all kinds of facts about them from the internet, but the only thing they really need to know for now is what to feed them, how to keep them healthy. Kids ask me, and I explain that I really don't know, because, well, I really don't.

We see that they only shed half of their shells at a time. We see that they tend to hang in groups. We see their antennae busily working the world immediately in front of them. Occasionally some die, occasionally new ones appear.

No pixels, no chips, no pressure. Just our classroom companions, who will be brought back to the outside world when the sun returns.

And what do the children take home with them? I do not know, I'll have to ask them years from now.

I do know that if the kids do not see life beyond the human walls now, it is unlikely to happen later.
I also know that most children (and most adults) confound the world we created with the world that exists. Our economy depends on the fantasy.

So I teach biology. Life. And life cannot be found in a chip.

Great article on hoseshoe crab eyes and other bits of anatomy can be found at the Maryland DNR here.
Photo by Leslie.


This Brazen Teacher said...

"Myths are more sustaining in our lives than economic security." - Carl Jung

Your posts always make me long for a good tree, or some ocean sand.

Anonymous said...

Oh I really enjoyed this. thank you. I teach geometry, and sometimes confound my thoughtful students with the information that what I say is "orange" they may agree is "orange" but our perceptions may be totally different. We can even quantify the wavelength measurement, but it does not help us to perceive what the other person perceives.
The proposal of pixels as reality is far to insidious to even contemplate. No need to look for reasons for an increase in autism, ADD, ADHD, ODD... could we all learn to build, count and spell with wooden blocks,and then go on to make tables, stools (always 3-legged), and cabinets with dovetail joints for the truly gifted? All else is surely mere entertainment for the masses, the new opiate.

doyle said...

Dear Brazen,

That Jung guy was on the ball. In the end, economic security is a mirage. We survive by grace, and grace only.

Just got back from a beach walk--we found a piling tossed up on the beach, covered with barnacles slowly desiccating just out of reach of the bay.

Everyone needs a good tree in her life.

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for the kind words--in a sense, the only universe that exists is the one we have. I can get hung up on that when contemplating things under a roof.

Get me outside, though, and things make sense.