© Copyright 2016 by June Calender
Living fossil creatures horseshoe crabs have been on earth for 45-million years – which is to say when the dinosaurs were the new kid on the block they were the grannies settling into the mud of the oceans muttering about those ugly, small-brained inheritors of the earth. They survived whatever killed off the millennia-long infestation of “saurs”. Properly considered anthropods, Lumlus polyphemes, are not crabs. Lumlus is the name for the Atlantic variety, the ones from Asia have a different Latin name.
I am fond of these old fellows (or, maybe for the grannies as I just read that the females are larger than the males). They appear on Long Beach about the first of August each year. I’m told others have seen them mating earlier in the summer elsewhere but I have never seen these intimate activities nor do I desire to be a voyeur. What sensual pleasures could I learn from an anthropod?
The second week of August this year I was shocked to see, at the high tide mark, well up on Long Beach, literally hundreds of horseshoe crab shells – and not all of them empty from molting. It was a die off. They were all about the size of my hand (fingers together). Literally thousands of them were scattered like massacred vcictims of some ethnic cleansing, felled by not a machine gun but by ecological poisoning – that is to say, not enough oxygen due to too much nitrogen in the water thanks to fertilizer from the manicured lawns of expensive houses along the shore. To be truthful, I don’t know what killed them. I don’t believe in conspiracies but understand the arrogant ignorance of McMansion owners.
My acquaintance on the beach, Stephanie, is an alarmist and a worrier. She rarely has a cheerful observation. She was greatly distressed by the die off. The water! she announced, and the red Japanese seaweed that is invading and killing the natural seaweed It’s ruining the habitat for real crabs and clams that feed the gulls. Something needed to be done and her phone was not working thanks to those idiots at T-Mobile (she hates them!). We must notify someone. The Cape Cod Times is useless, they are in the pay of the tourist industry and won’t print anything with a negative implication about the water and the beaches. She knows, she’s tried. I said I’d give Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute a call, someone there must be a specialist in horseshoe crabs.
I am neurotic about phone calls; I can procrastinate for weeks simply making a call to my dear daughter (I email). But I did call WHOI. The operator said she didn’t know who was the horseshoe crab expert, she’d transfer me to information. “Information!” was a temp, only filling in; she didn’t know who was an expert. But she took my name and the information and my phone number. In fact, 36 hours later I got a call from someone who may or may not have had anything to do with horseshoe crabs. She told me it might be a water problem and to call the Barnstable Water Department. I didn’t have a clue who that might be and I was sure I’d get a run around and besides I have overexerted myself with one phone call. How much can a true neurotic handle?
The shells, a month later, are crumbling high up on the beach. And we are back to the normal molting pattern with bigger shells – empty, genuinely molted. They are usually found along the tide line. I habitually enjoy an early morning walk along the beach. I meditate about these old, old creatures. Of course these are not old. They are living beings, going about their well-established life cycles. I got into the habit, without giving it much thought, of gathering the shells up as I come to them, arranging them in groups higher up the beach where they seem safe – safe from what? They are empty shells and body casings. They have no predators. No, no, not true. The shell-less creatures are hiding on the ocean bottom trying to look like lumps in the mud avoiding whatever might eat them. I think how very vulnerable they must be just after molting – as helpless as Janet Leigh in the shower in the Bates Motel.
But I digress. I have maintained my habit of arranging them in groups. Always I turn them over, so the shell is up. The other day I was going about my pointless little exercise when a couple walked past me. The woman said, “I like your art.” Art!? “You arrange them in families.” I like compliments and accept them whenever they come my way, so I just said, “Well thank you very much for noticing.”
Yes, I guess that’s what I do. But while thinking about it I also realize that I turn them over, shell up and guts-side down, because of my 1950s nice girl training. In this age of mean girls, the once all-American belief in modesty lives only in women my age and among the Amish. I feel it’s obscene and immodest to display your private parts in public, even if you’re literally a mere shell of your former self. If I were killed in some awful accident, I’d want someone to arrange my body modestly. So I arrange them in modest family groups and feel the better for it. I notice that others sometimes do the same. Perhaps I’m having a good influence in a very, very small and, I’m afraid, ultimately meaningless way. When we humans are as dead as the dinosaurs, Lumlus polyphemes may still be strip-teasing with empty shells that wash up on beaches.