Inspiration from the Ordovician
It’s after Hurricane Irene. My husband and I take a long walk along one of our favorite stretches on the rocky north shore of Long Island. The beach is strewn with vast amounts of debris and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of horseshoe crabs. All dead, washed up on shore.
I mourn them. I’m used to mourning. Irene took countless old oaks and a freezer full of our preserved summer harvest. It does not pass unnoticed that in another time or place, this could have been devastating. For us, our spirits are tested. I keep walking down the shore. But Dylan, an imaginative child at heart, is fascinated. Raised upstate with lakes and mountains, horseshoe crabs were not a regular part of his early fauna. He also has something I so devotedly admire: an uninhibited sense of wonder.
The next day, I come home from school to find the back deck covered with horseshoe crab remains. Degrees of disarray. A bucket of bleach. A bucket of rotting crab carcass. He had gone back down to the beach to collect the remnants and is busy, toothbrush in hand, carefully cleaning them. Plans to seal them with shellac. Plans for holiday presents. And though the deck harbors an offensive smell that clashes bleach with salty putrification, his fascination is contagious. When Christmas comes, we carefully wrap them in tissue paper and send them to our dear ones around the country.
We keep an assortment of them, including the largest, at fifteen inches across, and the smallest, at two inches across. They’re put to rest on bookshelves, where they silently witness our transitory days.
Years pass. I’m perched here in the trees looking out over the harbor, tucked in a neighborhood adjacent to a small village. I hear a woodpecker and seagulls. The August cicadas and the breeze through the maples. I also hear hammers and a circular saw. Boat engines. The train in the distance. A plane overhead. Leaf-blowers and lawn-mowers. The squeaking swings in the park. A truck in reverse. I try to focus on the cicadas, craving a deeper quiet that is hard to come by. A little shellacked crab sits on my desk. I close my eyes. I imagine the ocean.
I’m working on my environmental literature lesson plans, feeling a familiar heaviness. A passion that demands resilience. The health of the world feels precarious. Sometimes I lose sight, clarity, focus. Sometimes I feel myself drowning in the frenzied trivialities of this suburban existence. The leaf-blowers and lawn-mowers, the ten thousand things to do, the ceaseless stimulation.
I run my fingers along the crab, tracing the smooth half-moon shape of the carapace and then traversing the spikey sides. Over the years, the feeling of the shell under my fingers has become both tactically and intellectually comforting. The armored shell guards a tender underbelly. Whatever crises are in front of me right now, no matter how epic or trivial, I try to remind myself of the horseshoe crab. I whisper to myself, four hundred and fifty million years.
I close my eyes. I breathe. Four hundred and fifty million years.
How to fathom that number? How does a human being wrap her mind around the fervent forces of evolution? As a child, I learned that it would take twenty-three days, at the rate of one number per second, for twelve hours a day, to count to a million. I do the math. Counting to four hundred and fifty million, at the same rate, would take over twenty-eight years. I imagine it would take me much longer.
How startling. How comforting. All the energy of existence kaleidoscoping into an ever-evolving cosmic order. Where do our problems and anxieties fit in? I am learning to let go. To aspire to the horseshoe crab. To mimic her motions. To sense that what I need to know has something to do with her. Inspiration from the Ordovician.
Sustainability, rightly a buzz word these days, etymologizes from sustinere, to hold up from below. It suggests endurance. The horseshoe crab is one of earth’s most sustainable creatures. For them, there has never been an apocalypse. They have lived through mass extinctions and radical climate change. Their ecological membership embodies deep time. Long before the Triassic and Jurassic. Long before the epochs of people. An unimaginably large collection of unimaginably larger numbers. Long before the Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene. And certainly millions of years before the recently named Anthropocene. Horseshoe crabs are of another era. Deep in the Paleozoic. Solace from the Ordovician. Four hundred and fifty million years.
I seek such steadiness. Endurance. Ancient wisdom.
Still, like most of the creatures of this world, horseshoe crabs face contemporary challenges. Habitat destruction. The fallout of industrial capitalism. Over-harvesting. Still so, I can’t help but wonder, will our current environmental crisis also be a crisis for them? Perhaps there’s another four hundred million years in their future. Their endurance humbles me, comforts me.
The lives of modern humans have been profoundly impacted by the humble horseshoe crab. Their ancient blue blood will coagulate and isolate dangerous toxins and infections, protecting the animal from harm. Would modern pharmaceutical science ever have evolved without the exploitations of this wondrous adaptation?
There are other histories to encounter. Native Americans would commonly eat them and use the tale as a weapon. Function and form align. In early America, they were used as fertilizer. They were fed to hogs.
In Japan, they have entered into mythology as reincarnations of samurai. They are an official “Natural Monument,” both protected and revered by the government and the people. Their name translates as “warrior’s helmet crab.” They are a good omen, fortuitous, symbolic.
The spirit of the warrior. The warrior calmly stands in the center of chaos. I once read that in Navajo tradition, the warrior speaks for what is in people’s hearts. The heart of the horseshoe crab takes up half of her body, a long tube that runs down the center of the underbelly. The heart, more than a simple pump, sends and receives perceptions and emotions; many believe the heart to be the center of spiritual existence. Humans, on the other hand, have a heart that makes up a half of one percent of their body weight.
And their eyes. Horseshoe crabs have ten eyes. What are they able to see and sense? I think of my own two eyes, their fading sharpness as I age. My perceptual limitations.
The big-hearted horseshoe crab. The radically perceptive horseshoe crab. The warrior crab. The blue-blooded anti-bacterial wonder. Four hundred and fifty million years. The wisdom in front of me.
I think of dear Rachel Carson. The planet’s health corresponds to our capacity for love, respect, and gratitude for the world’s creatures. Our capacity for awe, our comfort in uncertainty. I pray that I can, in some small way, follow this wisdom, and offer children companionship, instilling wonder, sharing and discovering the mystery. Carson reminds us that if a child is to keep “alive an inborn sense of wonder,” she needs the “companionship of at least one adult.” I am one adult, practicing her wonder. This is my lesson plan.
I’m down at the beach with Emmett, my best friend’s son, a bright and beautiful three year old. He holds himself at a distance while I examine a large horseshoe crab that has washed up on the waterline. Assuring him it is safe, I persuade him to come over and to run his fingers over the barnacles that have grown on top of the shell. I flip it over and show him the five pairs of walking legs, and the book gills, for breathing and swimming. I gently turn it back over. The tail, or telson, is swaying back and forth with the tide. He’s still a bit hesitant, but we have made some progress. He is intrigued.
The next day, Emmett comes over for dinner. I show him some of the shellacked crabs. We count the spikes along the sides. We talk about how horseshoe crabs have ten eyes and can live for twenty years, that they were around before the dinosaurs. He picks up the crab and proudly shows it to our friends. Reminiscent of a myriad of children throughout history, he tries it on his head – warrior helmet crab.
He smiles. I smile.
I whisper to myself, four hundred and fifty million years.
Jesse Curran received her PhD in English from Stony Brook University, where she currently teaches courses in literature, writing, and the environmental humanities. Her poetry and essays have been published in numerous journals, including The Emily Dickinson Journal, The Journal of Sustainability Education, Green Humanities, Blueline, The Fourth River, About Place Journal, The Kudzu Review, and Common Ground Review.