Friday, April 17th, 2009
I’m not a crab and I’m sure you’re not either but I recently got a little insight into what it’s like to be one. Like us, James Michener isn’t a crab but he won the Pulitzer for fiction (Tales of the South Pacific, 1948) and his 1978 historical epic, Chesapeake, is a damn fine thing. And then there’s the crab, but we’ll get to him in a second.
Michener’s book documents the lives of four families over the course of more than 300 years (1583-1978) alongside the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s a big read; nation building and colonial expansion and political upheaval all set to the quiet rhythms of the bay waters. Over the course of 1082 pages (I’m on 832) you get a saga of American life at its most panoramic and real and messy. Economical dynasties rise and fall. Great men and women establish themselves as masters of their space and trade only to succumb to illness or musket balls–or age.
The book is an inspiring thing to get caught up in; all that trying and failure and hope. We see first-hand the Quaker shipbuilders and iron-hot abolitionists; seasonal hunting cycles and pro-slavery sermons. War comes like a big steel-toe boot and stomps flat everything then, like an aside, revitalizes a snuffed-out human spirit. Industry furthers expansion and breaks old ties. Racism spits its poison then slips back under the skin and festers until the infection is too widespread for anything but eruption (and it does, with a wild, pus-sputtering fury.)
It’s a grounding piece of work–and it’s humbling. The center of it, of course, is the main character, the bay. Throughout, it’s a sweeping geographic love poem, from ol’ James M. to Mama Chesapeake’s dirty salt/fresh waters.
And she has crabs. Haha, right, yeah, but no. The Chesapeake Bay is full of them. I’ve lived on her banks twice before and I’ve seen ‘em in action… black mud crabs, hermits, the brave little fiddler with his big ol’ slugger thug arm, even that nasty prehistoric mofo the horseshoe crab (which isn’t actually a crab and is closer related to the tick, spider, and scorpion families.)
But it’s the blue crab I want to talk about here, specifically their moulting period, which blew my mind when I read about in the book.
I grew up in the fishing industry. My father was a commericial fisherman and abalone diver before the California coast abalone morarium was imposed (Senate Bill 463, 1997) so I know all about moulting. But I never really thought about it; never really broke down what exactly it means and the steps by which it happens.
Here’s what Michener had to say about the day “Jimmy” the blue crab shed his shell: “Swimming easily to the bottom of the bay, he found a sandy area, a place he would never have considered for a moult in normal times, and there began his gyrations. First he had to break the seal along the edge of his present shell, and he did this by contracting and expanding his body, forcing water through his system and building up a considerable hydraulic pressure that slowly forced the shell apart, not conspicuously, but far enough for the difficult part of the moult to proceed.
“Now he began the slow and almost agonizing business of withdrawing his boneless legs from their protective coverings and manipulating them so that they protruded from the slight opening. With wrenching movements he dislodged the main portion of his body, thrusting it toward the opening, which now widened under pressure from the legs. He had no skeleton, of course, so that he could contort and compress his body into whatever shape was most effective, but he did continue to generate hydraulic pressures through various parts of his body so that the shell was forced apart.
“Three hours and twenty minutes after he started this bizarre procedure, he swam free of the old shell and was now adrift in the deep waters of the bay, totally without protection. He had no bony structure in any part of his body, no covering thicker than the sheerest tissue paper, no capacity for self-defense… And yet, even at his most defenseless moment his new armor was beginning to form. Eighty minutes after the moult he would have a paper-thin covering. After three hours he would have the beginning of a solid shell. And in five hours he would be a hard-shelled crab once more, and would remain that way until his next moult.”
That’s on page 814 but you should read the whole book. It’s worth your time.BIO: Adam Gnade's (guh nah dee) work is released as a series of books and records that share characters and themes; the fiction writing continuing plot-lines left open by the self-described "talking songs" in an attempt to compile a vast, detailed, interconnected, personal history of contemporary American life. Check out recent writing here and songs here. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org