Welcoming the city-withered...
|New England was in the grip of a brutal heat wave for the last few days. Usually I sneer at air conditioning, but this time I welcomed it with open, sweaty arms.
Yesterday, as I stood outside the back door, a small hawk flew in a straight line directly over my head, perhaps 10 feet above me. He may have been a sparrow hawk, as I heard a small bird sound an alarm just before he surfaced.
Last night, I went one town over to my hometown, which is on Buzzard's Bay. We decided to walk to the beach to go for a swim; the tide being less than ideal, I just ended up walking through the water, picking up sea fauna, to the immense amusement of my best friend's little niece ('Elysia! What's that? Pick it up!'). When we arrived at the beach, some other children were gathered around a baby turtle; of what variety, I couldn't be sure, but he had the gentle smile of a sea turtle, and when placed near the water's edge, trundled merrily off to sea. One other time, when I was little, my friend found a baby sea turtle, but I haven't seen one since. Then, as I stalked through the water, I was elated to discover a horseshoe crab. As a child, this was an extremely common occurrence-we had horsehoe crabs of all life stages, including tiny eggs buried at the high tide mark (I'll never forget the time I was digging about in the sand and found a nest full of clear spheres with miniscule crabs in them), vast assortments of navy blue, juvenile crabs whose sharp spikes made a body shriek and leap into the air when inadvertently stepped on, and hordes of adult crabs clinging to one another in pairs at the moon tides, when they mate, and bury their eggs. The wrack was full of molted carapaces, and the moist mud would reveal the unique tracks of the juveniles.
But about ten years ago, fishermen started harvesting the horseshoe crabs to crush and use as bait for eels, and conch. There were no more juveniles, no more molted shells, and dishearteningly few of the adults. I mourned them, and mused surlily over the impact that their loss must surely have on the environment. Horshoe crabs are ancient creatures, like sharks, remaining unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. More closely related to scorpions than crabs (this may explain my love of them, being a crabby Scorpio myself), researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have been studying the properties of their unique blue blood. It takes a horseshoe crab 10 years to reach reproductive maturity, and so, if fisherfolk recklessly harvest them, it is feasible that a severe disruption in the population could negatively impact other wildlife dependent upon them for their nutritious eggs. Sandpipers, endangered plovers, and countless other small creatures have doubtless missed many important meals due to mankind's lust for the dollar. A creature so primeval must be a key foundation stone to the environment. So, I was overjoyed to find my old friend making his sedate way along the bottom, and with a triumphant cry I hoisted him high in the air, shouting 'Oh look, a horseshoe crab!', to which a pack of children came running to see for themselves. My best friend reported that another local who goes swimming in the evening has seen hundreds of them, a testament to Nature's ability to rebound, given the slightest chance. I theorize that the fisherfolk abandoned harvesting after declining numbers made it economically unfeasible.
Horseshoe crabs, unfairly maligned by people (it is not true that their tails are poisonous, or that they stab people in the foot-they can't point their tails straight up) have been overharvested in the past, most notably in the Chesapeake Bay area around the turn of the last century. I have seen photographs of towering piles of horseshoe crabs (imagine the stench!) along the shores of that bay; there, they were ground up for fertilizer. More recently, many states have implemented protective regulations to help preserve this quiet, unassuming creature with his enigmatic stare and fascinating history. I can only pray that our local population continues to rise, and remains unmolested by us. I hope to see again the vast numbers of my childhood, and the great giant females, sometimes over 2 feet across, burrowing patiently into the mud to establish future generations.
I continued my harmless hunt through the shallows, and found a few green crabs, too many conch (any overpopulation, just as underpopulation, indicates a disruption in the environment), a couple of spider crabs, two quahogs (pronounced 'ko-hog', a Native American name, and also the source of the purple and white wampum that they used for trade and decoration), countless tiny hermit crabs, the ever present periwinkles, and, almost as interesting as my horseshoe friend, a live moon snail. In Plymouth, where I lived for about 8 years, I found scores of moon snail shells, but never a live one, whereas in Wareham, I never found an empty shell, but about every 10 years I find a solitary live one. There is a curious contrast to the coastal ecosystems of Plymouth and towns on Buzzard's Bay. Plymouth ocean is icy cold and crystal clear. There have been many 90+ degree days when I have gone to the beach in Plymouth for a much needed swim, only to emerge from the water 2 minutes later chattering with cold-and I'm no aquatic sissy. That, incidentally, is surely one of the tortures of Hell-a body of icy ocean next to the brimstone, so that there really is no relief to be had. Wareham water, a mere half hour away, is warm, and muddy. The Plymouth shore is well-nigh devoid of the myriad of little creatures that thrive in Wareham's silty, nutrient rich shallows; there are a few minnows (little fish), primarily the swift glassfish, but no tiny crabs or periwinkles. The Wareham shallows are jumping with tiny creatures, including minnows that I can kick up onto shore. I'm not sure where we picked this skill up from-we did it all the time as children, but I don't see anyone doing it anymore. It strikes me as being distinctly Native American in flavor. I don't remember if my mother taught the trick to me, or if it was just something we all knew how to do. There are spider crabs, smaller cousins of the king crabs, blue crabs, green crabs, rock crabs, hermit crabs of all sizes, fiddler crabs. There are softshell clams for the digging, quahogs, mussels, bay scallops, oysters, razor clams, conch, lobster in the deeps. Wareham boasts flounder, the hideous sea-robin (another of my cherished childhood memories is finding a baby sea-robin one day while snorkeling, looking for all the world like an underwater moth with his two sets of 'wings' and six little legs), dog sharks, skates, blue fish, scup (or 'pogie'), eel. I'm sure I missed mentioning other denizens of that teeming ecosystem, a bountiful natural resource that provides long hours of observing entertainment followed by a delicious repast.
Walking along the shores of Plymouth, by contrast it almost seems a desert. Granted, there are many tasty creatures to be had farther out-great, thick shelled seaclams, massive rock crabs, and the ubiquitous lobster. (Here's a disgusting though sure to put you off your next lobster dinner-they're closely related to cockroaches, the scavengers of the sea. I've always wondered, if cockroaches grew as large as lobsters, would they be a delicacy instead of a disgusting pest?) Empty shells attest to the presence of moonsnails by the score, and a beautiful, thick white small whelk which I've yet to properly identify. Plymouth's tempestuous, rocky shore also creates beautiful, soft seaglass from man's refuse, while Wareham's relatively mild mud merely graces old glass with a mineral rich rainbow, leaving it as sharp as the day it was recklessly thrown.
To wrap up our entertaining hour at the shore, a pair of swans soared overhead, their broad white wings whistling.
I have always counted myself immensely blessed to have constant access to the ocean, and can only hope that mankind will shift soon from our role as destructive parasite to protective stewards of our natural resources.