Two by two, and sometimes three, four, or five, they rose up from the ocean floor: horseshoe crabs, Limulus polyphemus, warrior-like in their armored, segmented shells.
We humans, sixty-five strong, huddled around two naturalists as they turned over wriggling specimens (always by the shell, never by the tail) and pointed out compound eyes, bifurcated penises, bright blue eggs, and flukeworms in the gills. We watched, listened, and cracked sex jokes we hoped went over the younger ones’ heads. And we wondered at the internal clockwork that so perfectly coordinates the crabs’emergence with the season’s highest tide, this morning after the first full moon in May.
It’s mating season, and theirs is an uncanny dance. First a female, driven by instinct, climbs to the high water line and emits a certain pheromone. A male, smaller by a third, follows and latches onto the back of her shell, holding on fast with a pair of specialized, grappling-hook legs. From here on, the female leads, laying sesame-seed-sized, aqua-colored eggs, which the male fertilizes with his sperm. Often, other males flock behind, hoping their sperm cells also will locate an egg or two. If a shore bird doesn’t get to these protein-rich, migration-fueling snacks within the next two weeks, tiny horseshoe crabs will emerge, still attached to their yolk sacs, and swim out into the ocean. A single breeding female, aged 10 years or older, can lay more than 80,000 eggs over the course of a two-month, three or four-clutch season.
Mid-May in Jamaica Bay is a lush, fat, delicious time and place. Black cherry trees (and birches, oaks, willows, even milkweed) are dripping with thick, hairy eastern tent caterpillars—food, I am told, for the black and yellow-billed cuckoos, which I’ve seen only on the camera screens of more experienced birders. Horseshoe crabs have come ashore along the breach in the middle of our West Pond Trail. A family of barn owls has re-occupied its box over Big John Pond, and while many of the more eagerly sought migrating birds have already come and gone, we’re still enchanted by the ones that have stayed to nest: parulas, yellow warblers, tree swallows, osprey.
Between guidebooks, birding manuals, Anna Karenina and my own verbacious notes, I’ve been reading David Gessner’s Return of the Osprey, which fuses the author’s personal narrative with the return of a group of osprey families to nesting platforms constructed on Cape Cod in the mid-1990s.
Though the post-DDT recovery of peregrines, bald eagles, osprey and other birds occurred during my own young lifetime, and although I had a natural scientist for an aunt and a forester for an uncle and grew up fairly close to my father’s rural roots, and though I considered myself a fairly outdoorsy kid, I somehow missed out on a personal experience of this avian renaissance.
I have lived in Yellowstone for six summers, in Utah and the Dakotas for a few more; I have visited scads of wide-open natural, national parks, and nomaded through remote wild Georgia for some winters, but it has taken me this long, until now, my 34th summer—an urban one—to develop an intimate connection with the birds.
I’ve got theories as to why: binoculars give me headaches, and I’ve always preferred to hike fast, to reach peaks, to admire sweeping vistas rather than dwelling in particulars. Birding requires patience. I am not a naturally patient person, but I’m working on this. Life encourages patience and compromise. Marriage does the same. Birding helps.
Two weeks ago, Lisa wrote here about her partner’s recent entry into the universal tribe of birding. She noted her surprise and perhaps annoyance that he hadn’t gotten on that boat sooner, while she was working as a park ornithologist. I’ve heard my dad voice similar complaints. He toted us all to the Grand Canyon when we were kids; once we got there, we refused to hike and stayed in the car, glued to our books and Gameboys. All I can say now is, somebody needed to plant that spark. Better late than never.
In Return of the Osprey, Gessner picks the brain of ornithologist and osprey specialist Alan Poole. Poole helps Gessner, throughout Gessner’s season-long observation, to culture the patience required to “properly” observe the act of nesting. For all the drama of the hunt, for all the excitement of that first glimpse of nestlings, the day-to-day of nest-watching and baby-raising can get rather tedious. Poole tells Gessner he needs to slow down, to locate more joy and excitement in the quotidian. To appreciate the small “victories.” To live on osprey time.
All I have wanted to do, as a conscious, intentional adult, is to work for the protection and human appreciation of the more-than-human environment. I’ve struggled to know what this means, to figure out my strengths and gifts and desires within this broader pursuit. So often I’ve run to the woods, to the parks and the mountains, then questioned myself and my contributions, as I do even now.
Am I doing enough? And then, Can I really get away with this? Am I having any effect? Will anyone read this?
I’m a writer, a naturalist, a relatively quiet and non-confrontational, non-theatrical person. But I’m also trained in urgency, in busy-bodiness, in Germanic workaday efficiency. I feel like I should be doing something rather than simply being somewhere and appreciating the hell out of a place. I’m a grad-schooled advocate and activist—I should be more politically involved, I tell myself daily: more cutting on the attack, sharper with a pen, hotter on the trail of things like institutional divestment in fossil fuels.
What I really dig are the horseshoe crabs. The oystercatchers. The little blue heron. The smell of trailside roses, and the intimate challenge of talking with visitors about wildness. I am tickled by the speed and intention of a yellow warbler in flight. I feel most alive and charged as a naturalist, writer, interpreter, appreciator, and deliverer of the personal, transformative experience.
Is it enough? Who knows. I’m doing what I can, what brings me hard-earned joy, in a place that gives back, heartily. Elsewhere—in a courtroom, in a congressional office, at a political rally—my voice might ring false, and my clarity drown in bitterness and frustration.
My work at the refuge—rangering, conjuring, auguring, observing, writing, storytelling—touches few, and is, perhaps, slow-working. But in times as dire as these, I believe we can’t afford to do less. I have faith in the process, in the transformative qualities of this place. That faith requires patience. I’ve got to live, to believe, on osprey time.