Ode to the Crab

When people ask me what my favorite animal is, and I say “the blue crab,” they usually respond, “You must be a Cancer.” Some people will even reply “You must be from Maryland.” Both of these assumptions are true. As a Cancer and a Marylander, I’ve long identified with the blue crab; it is a powerful part of my personal mythology and a symbol for me in many ways.

Many astrological descriptions of Cancers compare their typical personality directly to the crab’s physical characteristics. For example, they’ll often note that the crab is a crustacean—hard on the outside and soft on the inside, much in the same way that Cancers must balance their sensitivity and strength. Like the crab, we’re so vulnerable that we have no choice but to protect ourselves with a psychological and emotional shell. Many of us show the seemingly paradoxical traits of being both open and guarded at the same time—we’ll share a lot, but we can also seem intensely private and secretive. We feel deeply and are hurt easily, and many of us have had to learn hard lessons about how to develop and strengthen our shells.

Our sign is associated with water and the moon, which makes sense, since the crab lives in oceans, rivers, estuaries, and wetlands, and its life cycles are governed by tides that shift with the moon. Metaphorically, the water element refers to the emotions and the unconscious depths of our psyche, and Cancers have a reputation for being sensitive, dreamy, and moody.

Sometimes I wonder if these interpretations are anthropomorphizing the crab or taking the analogies a bit too far, such as citing Cancer’s reputation as the most nurturing sign of the zodiac. If you’ve ever been around real crabs, you know that they’re not cute or cuddly. When I’ve seen them, they’re either quietly blowing bubbles in a semi-sleeping state or aggressively waving and snapping their claws. (Of course, I would be angry too if someone were trying to snatch me out of my home and eat me.) I can see why people are called “crabby” when they are cranky and reclusive. I think that’s a fair comparison, and, frankly, when I feel crabby, I know it’s time for me to retreat to an underwater cave and find some solitude.

While many other animals are more beautiful, majestic, or personable, I like the crab because we seem to suit each other. One of the most critical lessons I’ve learned from contemplating the crab is the importance of boundaries. As a teacher and a writer, I must be sensitive and empathetic, especially in navigating layers of interpersonal relationships, but I also need to have a thick defensive layer to keep myself from getting hurt by taking things too personally or being wounded too easily. It’s a crucial balance of trying to be hard and soft at the same time.

I also see the crab as a symbol of growth and transformation—as it matures, it molts, losing its old shell and growing a new one in a transitional process where the old shell peels off and grows back in stages. The crab needs to be in protective seclusion because this is when it is the most vulnerable. There have been times in my life when I was molting; I had to hide alone under the mud while I was sensitive, waiting for my new form to take shape, curious and nervous to see what it would look like.

The blue crab is part of the mythological imagery of my homeland. Californians have their bear; we Marylanders have our crab. We love to put a picture of that blue crab on everything—license plates, bumper stickers, T-shirts, shot glasses, keychains, even wedding cakes. After I moved to New York City it took nearly four years before I could bring myself to trade in my Maryland driver’s license for the sole reason that it had an iridescent blue crab in the corner. It was like carrying a piece of my home with me that was difficult to part with—and I still miss it.

My birthday is in mid-July, which is the middle of crabbing season back home. I remember my stepfather taking my sister and me crabbing when we were kids and spending summer nights picking away at a bushel of steamed crabs dumped onto a newspaper-covered kitchen table. The blue crab and its habitat were a significant part of my local education. In school we learned about our unique wetland environment, the expansiveness of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and its delicate ecosystem, and all the different kinds of life it supports. In fact, we were taught the name Chesapeake comes from an Algonquin word referring to its abundance of shellfish.

Among all the iconography and metaphorical associations, we might forget that a crab is a real animal that people have a real relationship with. That’s why it’s such a strong part of Maryland’s mythology and of our way of life. Or at least it was. Unfortunately, it’s been gradually declining and now is a symbol of a heritage we’re slowly losing, even as we try to preserve and revive it.

The Eastern Shore of Maryland sits on the peninsula between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean and is comprised mostly of farmland and saltwater tidal marsh. Many people on the Shore used to make a living primarily as farmers and watermen, which includes crabbing in the summer and tonging for oysters in the winter. My hometown used to have a thriving commercial waterfront, but now the Bay seems to yield fewer and fewer blue crabs (and other aquatic life), with prices fluctuating every year as the harvest becomes thinner and less reliable than before. Few people can make their living off the water. And it’s not just the watermen and their families who suffer, but the local economy and the entire community are affected as well.

The Bay gives us a lot, but it’s not inexhaustible; an interdependent relationship has become imbalanced. For a long time we depended on this animal, depended on the entire watershed ecosystem, and developed a relationship with it, forgetting that its health depends in part on us. The scarcity of blue crabs has mostly been blamed on different kinds of pollution—industrial waste, run-off from highways, parking lots, and other paved surfaces, along with nutrients from farmland fertilizer flooding the water system.

All my life – and I’m sure since well before – politicians, environmentalists, watermen, and farmers have argued, all pointing fingers at one another. There’s a lot of debate in my hometown about the condition of the Chesapeake Bay and how to improve it. It’s a complex environmental, political, and economic issue with multiple, tangled layers of money, interests, and bureaucracy. I’m not trying to take a side or to praise or condemn anyone in particular; I’m more interested in how we can make things better for everyone involved, including the crab.

For me, it doesn’t seem so much a political issue, but more of a mythological one. And a matter of common sense. If this animal is so important to us that it has become a symbol of our culture and our heritage, we should think of it as more than a cute decal we put on everything. If we’re so proud to be Marylanders, if we are so proud of our crab, if we sincerely love our home and are thankful for what it gives us, then we have take care of it. So I can take my children crabbing one day.

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This crab guards the drain on my street corner in San Francisco, CA.

Hannah Custis is a teacher, writer, and Ph.D. student at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She is also the Blog Coordinator for the Immanence Journal editorial team.

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