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In This Place

A relic from another time is still very much alive today

horseshoe crabs ack
Mary Bergman

The lilacs have come and gone, the American pillar roses out in ’Sconset, on the island’s eastern end, are just about to bloom. I’ve been canceling plans to go hang out with the horseshoe crabs, who troll Nantucket’s north shore under the early summer’s full and new moons.

I am hypnotized by the horseshoe crabs, how swiftly they move through the shallows, their strange mating rituals in which one female might have two or three or, over in Monomoy Harbor, we saw six, males orbiting around her. I watched two of these satellite males dance around one another in a moonlit waltz. Horseshoe crabs are a relic from another time, older than the dinosaurs and still very much alive today.

The horseshoe crab world is strangely intimate. I did not grow up in farm country, I have never seen another animal’s coupling activities. These creatures are not beautiful, but they have a certain grace. They have changed very little in their hundreds of millions of years on the earth.

The Cape and Islands are largely migratory places, a temporary home for rare birds, sea turtles, and every summer, hundreds of thousands of tourists searching for some piece of the way it was. The economy of these places is tied to yearning — people wishing they were here and then, at long last, finally arriving. For many, time slows when crossing the Sagamore or Bourne bridge (and for those in traffic, time stops). These places are successful vacation destinations, relying on the illusion that nothing changes. Travelers come for the sand dunes, the salty air, and the wistful longing for a simpler time.

Is this what draws me to the horseshoe crabs? A peek into the past — an extremely distant past at that.

In our pandemic world of vaccines, I have been thinking about the interconnectedness of humans and the horseshoe crabs. Their copper-based blue blood contains a compound that coagulates when it encounters bacteria. This has been used to test the sterility of injectable drugs and vaccines. I wonder how long we might have survived in our modern societies without these ancient creatures. They don’t seem to need us any.

At night, when all the brightly colored bathing suits are hanging on clotheslines, and sand toys have been stowed in beach bags, the beach becomes a different place. It belongs to the horseshoe crabs.

Nantucket’s coastline has recently become the subject of national attention because of a citizen petition that passed at our May town meeting that would allow all people — not just men — to be topless at the beach. Many lent their support, pointing out that this was an issue of equality. There were those who spoke out against it, arguing we needed to prioritize decency. We are still waiting on what the Attorney General decides, and so far Nantucket has not become, as feared by some, “the Daytona Beach of the East Coast.” Old sensibilities are hard to shake, and the UV index is high.

But at night on the harbor beaches under the full moon, the horseshoe crabs are already going wild, just as they have for millions of years.