423. Engaging Horseshoe Crabs

February 4, 2015

My tracking horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay soon took over my mind. I did my best to think like a horseshoe crab in figuring out which way it had gone from where I’d last heard its signal. As my skills improved over the months, I got pretty good at keeping track of them day-by-day on their separate excursions. But, too, I kept losing them.

Sometimes there would be intervals of several days between tracking sessions due to wind and weather, leading me to become pretty much a fair-weather tracker. As a result I’d lose sight of the ones I’d been following, and had to make a fresh start when I’d next get out on the bay.

We expected the transmitter batteries to run down after two years, but we got a good part of a third tracking season (2005) out of them before they finally died (the batteries, not the crabs, which can live for about twenty years in the wild).

I was surprised to learn how passionate I became about following twenty-six individual crabs in their travels about the bay. I quickly became truly engaged in the project. I cared about finding each crab and I’d worry when I lost track of it. I’d go searching for it until I (sometimes) found it again or got the feeling I’d lost it forever.

My engagement led me to try to connect with each crab. To put myself in its place as if I were the traveler on the bottom trying to figure where to go next. To do that I had to have a good sense of the terrain, the currents, the temperature gradients, the mussel and eelgrass beds—the entire habitat area beneath me that I couldn’t see, but could imagine at high tide while tracking because of my earlier experiences in the same area when the tide was low.

Engagements are a two-way street. If I wanted to hear from my select population of horseshoe crabs, I’d have to pay attention to them. To put myself out there on the bottom where they were. I’d have to make room for their concerns in my agenda. To do that, I’d have to learn to think like horseshoe crabs think. To understand the motives that guided their travels.

Was that possible, or was that my conceit? Well, if I pushed myself, maybe I could do better. After all, I wasn’t tracking for my benefit but for theirs. I had their best interests at heart. Or so I told myself. I’m doing this for you, dear one. And for you, and for you.

I think what I was getting at was a sense of commitment. Not duty to my job, but commitment to another species entirely that happened to live near me. An outlying population of a species that humans could put at risk out of carelessness, out of not knowing where they were or what they needed to survive.

After all, for many years people had shoveled horseshoe crabs into piles to use as fertilizer. Or conch bait. Even some Native Americans put horseshoe crabs under the squash and corn they planted, sacrificing the crabs for the betterment of their crops.

But I felt moved to connect with the crabs I was tracking, to help them thrive. As they had thrived for almost half-a-billion years on their own without my caring assistance. I felt an intimate kinship with horseshoe crabs, and admired the beauty and graceful functionality of their bodies. They can swim legs-down or legs-up, pushing ahead by pumping their gills back and forth. They can walk on the bottom, dig in muddy or sandy sediments, eat bountiful small mollusks, and fight infection with copper-based blood that congeals to heal wounds. They are proven survivors adapted to estuary habitats, largely unchanged for some 400 million years.

My mind goes out to horseshoe crabs, and every sighting thrills me head-to-toe. Being of such ancient design and so beautiful, they have an undying claim on my attention. I am caught in the spell of their attractiveness, and because I will never be able to understand them, there will always be that discrepancy urging me on to further engagements with members of their august species.

I respond by being with them and interacting however I can: tracking their travels, monitoring their breeding populations, photographing them, making PowerPoint presentations to sensitize others to their presence among us, sharing my respect and enthusiasm. I have an extensive library on horseshoe crabs, and samples of their shed shells on the shelves and walls in my apartment. I surround my nest with reminders that they exist in my presence.

Because of my several engagements with them, they have become fixtures in my daily life. And because of the incongruity with other features of my experience, they introduce a sense of discrepancy or discontinuity that prods my consciousness into full wakefulness so that I pay attention to their tenuous placement in the modern world.

That alerting discrepancy makes all the difference in my including horseshoe crabs in the scope of my daily concern and attention. That is why I have tracked them, read about them, traced their line of descent from trilobites, and photograph them every chance I get. Discrepancy is the spark that ignites into allure, inviting me out of my sheltered mind into the world. Even if I am not very good at tracking horseshoe crabs, I have felt compelled to improve.

Horseshoe crabs and eelgrass meadows call me in that way, as do hermit thrushes, song sparrows, fairy webs, and old man’s beard. It isn’t what I understand that makes my world; it’s what I don’t know because it is just beyond my reach. Without novelty, beauty, allure, disparity, and surprise, engagement reduces to habit, and mindless habits eat away the wonder of being alive and alert to discrepancy.

In a very real sense, I am possessed by horseshoe crabs, and as a result, have become possessive of them in return. The root of ownership is in just that sense of possession through engagement. Engagement makes a claim on my attention. Engagement works both ways. I “own” what I engage with, and it owns my interest and attention.

The circle of engagement is complete. Perception leads to action leads to engagement leads back to perception. I have earlier compared that situation to the image of the ancient serpent Uroborus biting its own tail. The point being that such gripping engagement unites its parts into a unitary whole.

Devoted engagement brings its separate elements together into a single event. I am part of horseshoe crab existence in Taunton Bay by tracking their every move; they, in turn, become an integral part of my experience by changing the mind at the core of my being.

No wonder we get possessive of who or what we engage with. Our experience binds us together, and our experience becomes part of our minds, enriching us, making us part of a larger whole. As integral parts of my experience in nature, horseshoe crabs become aspects of my identity. Together, in my mind, we become joined together as an item. We are openly engaged, with all the emotional attachment that implies.

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