Friday, June 09, 2006

The Horseshoe Crabs

"All those years have really passed, moment by moment, one by one. They encompass an actual, already lived reality, encompassing all the lives of all the organisms that have come and gone in that time. That expanse of time defines the realm of biological possibility in which life in its extraordinary diversity has evolved. It is time that has allowed the making of us."
Verlyn Klinkenborg

"Religion approaches mystery with metaphor."
Gail Ramshaw, Under the Tree of Life

I used to go to Cliffwood Beach on Raritan Bay week after week during the late 90's, even on mild winter afternoons, often driving there directly from work, & just walking at water's edge or sitting in my small orange beach chair, in what I supposed was a semi-meditative state of mind. The location was convenient, about a mile off a main highway & not a well-known spot. The place was nearly deserted even on summer weekdays but for a few fishermen & local sunbathers. Then, one warm day in late May, the Horseshoe Crabs came ashore. They were not strangers, I'd seen many live & dead ones over the years, & their ubiquitous shells. I'd held them & turned them right side up when I found them on their backs. I knew they were an ancient species, & harmless, & buried their eggs on the beach in late spring. I associated them mostly with Delaware Bay & migrating birds. But I was not really prepared for this annual event: thousands of Horseshoe Crabs, large females & smaller males, so many that I could hardly step from dry sand to the water, & hundreds more swimming in the shallow water. Thousands of birds - mostly Laughing Gulls, but others also - hovering over the choppy water against a stiff breeze, diving for the little round crab eggs floating there. Hundreds of sandpipers ran on tiny legs around the clusters of beached crabs, gobbling eggs as fast as they could. Dozens of Red Wing black birds were also present, taking care not to get wet. I found several different small animal tracks that definitely included cats & raccoons. Millions of tiny, transluscent green eggs smaller than bb's blew along the beach. They were getting into my hair & sticking to my clothes. I went to Cliffwood six days in a row until the orgy ebbed. I flipped over dozens of crabs that became stranded on their backs on dry sand & which would have been pecked to death by gulls or baked in the sun. Even so, uncounted Horseshoe Crabs died that week. It was awesome, & beautiful, & troubling to my spirit in the same way deep dark starry skies have bothered me on the few occasions I've been outside the bubble of light pollution.

Was all this copulation, feasting, waste, & carnage "intelligent design" or the remarkable adaptation of species & their life rhythms to geological forces that occurred over the course of 350 million years? Any "intelligence" at work in those processes was utterly alien to me, because from a human viewpoint it was filled with a cruelty more terrible than the worst despot could imagine. Cruelty - & the perception of beauty - are so far as we know traits of human consciousness. The birds were not dining at Captain Joe's Raw Bar, or the Horseshoes shacking up in a Jersey shore motel. If this is entirely the work of God's careful deliberation, then the world, the whole universe, is truly a fallen place, dependent upon death to sustain life. No such "system" would be created in the wink of an eye 10,000 years ago as a few small gears in an infinitely large cosmic machine. I could not believe in such a deity. It would be like worshipping a tyrant king of the ancient near-east, one who executes the soldiers of a vanquished army & impales their severed heads on poles leading to the capital city. I could only step back from what I experienced at Cliffwood Beach, thinking that the details of how this week of the Horseshoe Crabs & their tiny eggs & the birds came about is for science to explain, not the myths of neolithic desert tribes emerging from the stone age. Just as science finally explained why the jigsaw puzzle pieces of eastern South America & Western Africa were not the fanciful suggestions of grammar school children examining a classroom globe but rather the result of great sections of crust floating on the molten rock of a changing planet. Plate Tectonics also showed how the worn mountains of New England & Scotland were one ancient range, & it made sense of the of presence of Horseshoe Crabs on opposite sides of the planet. Calling these processes part of a cosmic dance is a metaphor. But if there is an "intelligence" behind it all, it is the eternal mind (also a metaphor) that awed & frightened poet William Blake in The Tiger.

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The weirdest place I've ever seen in New Jersey is Moore's Beach, a virtually abandoned town on Delaware Bay, not far from Cape May. You literally could not get out of town at high tide because the main road through the swamp was flooded. There were more horsehoe crabs than people -- a lot more.
When the sand / land speculators & developers run out of space in Wildwood, they'll come for Moore's Beach.
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