Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bombay Hook (2): The Crab (And Me)

A month ago, I dropped in at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna, Delaware, because I had a hankering to see the snow geese.

Bombay Hook has more than 16,000 acres, but I wasn’t feeling terribly intrigued by its fields or forests or the vast tidal marsh.

It was the geese I’d come for, and the geese only. (For the rest of this story, check out this post.)

I was resigned to hiking a few side trails before I reached the main attraction, but the effort made me irritable.

I marched glumly to an overlook and stared out at nothing. I began a sullen trek down a second path only because I am a diligent tourist with a firm sense of duty.

I was startled out of my goose fixation by a crab.

I had arrived at a small raised boardwalk that spanned one of the narrow, twisting creeks that meandered through the marsh. To the left of the boardwalk, the creek widened slightly, taking the form of a shallow pool—more like a puddle, really.

As my feet began hitting the planks, I noticed a flash of activity in the murky water below.

Tiny fish were skittering away from the boardwalk and into the pool.

Then I noticed the faint reddish outline of a claw. There was a crab down there! It was just barely visible beneath a branch that lay partially submerged across the opening to the puddle.

I felt the jolt of insight: Tiny fish scattered every time some visitor's foot thundered across the planks. The crab lay in wait, pinching its claws at them as they shot by.

Surely it was catching some of them! The crab was exploiting the humans to procure itself dinner!

Exhilarated by my acuity, I conducted a test. I stomped my sneaker on the boardwalk. Fish scattered. Case closed.

If I’d been feeling rather dull before, I now felt fully alive. I delighted in the calculation of the crab—but even more, I suspect, in own shrewdness and powers of observation.

A man and a woman strolled toward me on the boardwalk. “It’s so cool,” I said with no prompting, waving at the water. I explained to them about the crustacean lying in wait for the small fry.

They seemed unimpressed.

Maybe they don’t really care about nature, I thought. Well, so much for them.

I scuttled around the rest of the marsh trail in an elevated state. The breeze seemed fresher, the sky bluer, the blowing marsh grasses especially lovely. Oh, I just loved the warmth of that sun!

Plants and animals caught my eye. I peered at them intently. Just about anything might prove to be electrifying.

For all the loitering and looking, I was in a hurry, too. Almost as soon as I’d left that crab, I’d decided I wanted to blog about it.

What if it left before I could take its picture?

Whew! The crab was still there. If you look closely near the center of the photograph above, you may be able to detect the faint outline of a claw.

(I’m pretty sure this is a blue crab—and if the pincer is red, it’s a female.)

The crustacean had relocated. It was smack in the middle of its puddle—no longer under the branch, no longer in the path of the startled fish.

In retrospect, I can imagine I felt the faintest shadow of a doubt—if the crab had indeed set up in ambush, why would it move?

I quickly repressed the thought.

Why would I want further input? I had a story to tell, and it was all about the canny crab and clever old me.

You’d probably be reading that story now, except for my fear of looking stupid. When I finally sat down to write, I felt a familiar urge to check my facts.

Um, do crabs really eat speedy little fish?

Well, needless to say, probably not. Crabs are primarily scavengers. They prefer carrion. A Chesapeake Bay field guide specifically says they like “dead fish.”

Not live ones.

In other words, the scenario I'd so brilliantly concocted about the crab's behavior was wrong. I’d put two and two together and come up a number that didn’t exist—a fantasy.

All that happiness over nothing!

Ouch! Remember that couple who didn’t like nature? Undoubtedly they knew all about crabs. They thought I was an idiot, but they decided to be polite.

Guess what? That’s probably not true, either.

The whole episode reminded me, yet again, of how much of my life I make up.

It made me think about Buddhist teachings, which argue that much of what people label reality is simply a bunch of notions they project on the world.

When it comes to the crab, one moment of perception generates a whole chain of thoughts and feelings that bring me joy. Realize that I’ve made an error, and I create a whole new narrative that makes me feel blue.

Now what to do? As we say in therapy, is there yet another story, most likely more complex and ambiguous, that encompasses the inadequate accounts that have come before? If we tell that story—and the next and the next—do we come gradually closer to the truth of life itself?

Ladies and gentlemen, I have presented to you my third tale of the canny crab and the clever observer!

Stay tuned.


ccc said...

Clever you. I'm impressed. Even if it isn't true. If we didn't come up with stories we'd probably never figure anything out.

Gerry Gomez Pearlberg said...

Another great post. I'm just happy that you enjoyed the crab and the crab enjoyed you!

Joan said...

Yep--that's why we baited our crab traps with fish heads and guts. No live bait for them! But as Gerry notes, the crab probably enjoyed you anyway. More panicky fish means a clearer field for carrion hunting.