HomeLobstersThe Great American

I used to spend summers in Maine with my family all those long years ago when nobody hated our country and banks were small and neighborly.  Yet, I never saw her, a juvenile clambering between rocks along the bottom of the coves and inlets in the cold waters off the coast.  Strutting on her curved tail, claws extended, her antennae waving ominously upon the currents, she must have presented herself as imposing and heroic and I am sorry I missed her.

Out of 10,000 eggs no larger than the head of a pin and glued to the inside of her mother’s tail like tiny black berries, this great American female was one of only ten to survive into adulthood.  She was set adrift in the sea, a little late in the hatchling season, by a flick of her mother’s tail.  Looking like a miniscule shrimp bobbing up and down almost invisible under the white-capped waves, she slid along, skimming the surface with the breeze.

A month later, her feathery fins, claws and tail flippers had already evolved.  Though she could not swim yet, she followed the ocean currents until eventually, after molting five or six times, her two front claws were heavy enough to drag her to the bottom of the Gulf of Maine near Mount Desert Island where she found a hiding place between pebbles and glacial debris.  Slowly, she emerged as a little solitary citizen who wandered furtively about in the sea grass tracking down tiny crabs, snails, clams and small fish.  Her immediate goal was to be safe.  But she always knew she was destined for greater things than this ceaseless hiding.

On the ocean floor, she could faintly make out starlight floating down from the surface but of course not the roaring fires of galaxies hissing and swirling beyond the atmosphere.  Those glittering mysteries were ours to discover, but since even we don’t know what to do with such vastness, perhaps she is not missing much.

Years passed since those early childhood vacations.  My grandmother died, my mother changed her job and I lost track of the Webfoot Inn near Old Orchard Beach.  Somehow the innocent lobster stayed safe and saw little change, for the sea bottom was still a new experience and she had no way of knowing that there were less cod, warmer currents and more lobster traps than when her mother was young.  Even now, over fifty years later, she cannot grasp the significance of one day to the next, one year to the next, focused as she is on her own day to day survival.

Who indeed is aware of the changes that occur on the earth and in the immense solitude above the earth from one season to the next?  While she was slowly growing into an adult, tearing off the claws of tiny crabs running sideways past her, people we had never met or had a conversation with, were in the early stages of planning to destroy our two tallest buildings, strangers who breathed the same air and enjoyed the same sun as ourselves but who possessed a cold disdain for our distraught civilization and its troubles.

Years vanished and the great bell towers rang out their warnings of time passing.  The plucky citizen of Maine was now a complete and formidable personality, having molted twenty-five more times, always a severely difficult ordeal as she had to wriggle her small legs and antennae as well as her claws and even her eyes out of an inflexible shell.  She surpassed ten pounds, a lumbering and fearsome adversary confidently prowling around the waterbed off the Atlantic coast, an oddly intimidating creature hiding under seaweed and rocks, catching food that drifted down from the turmoil above and avoiding the remaining giant codfish, haddock, flounder, and other lobsters who roamed the dark alleys of the neighborhood looking for trouble.  Though the overhead skies were often cloudy and dark and the sea floor murky, she knew instantly where the closest hiding places were, using the grid of mirrored boxes in her eyes to cast x-ray images of great swaths of ocean floor.

As the seasons continue to change, so many things happen at once.  Mountains crumble, rivers dry up, forests change, rabbits fold their hind feet under them and crouch down ready for anything, and ancient red starlight hurtles toward us.  Eventually, the last ashes of incinerated memos, payroll checks, file cabinets and broken girders are sent to the Staten Island landfill.  And the huge female from Maine, under the cover of night, shadowboxes in the dark corners and alleys of the sea floor, and runs full tilt, claws held high and wide, toward any sea urchin or starfish or crab that dares to move.  After each victory, she dances a little pirouette on her toes.

Over 150 million years in the making, lobsters have not evolved the capacity to laugh or smile or sing, and until now we did not think they knew how to dance.  Unlike kittens or mockingbirds, they have been construed to be all business, (rather like our bankers of today who reprimand judges displaying compassion to homeowners confronting foreclosure).  Benevolence and gaiety are not in their nature, not real to them.

Beneath the wings of seagulls and gannets, beneath the frothy spray of sun-drenched foam, the dark world of the lobster is dangerous, full of bloodshed and death, not to mention the temerity of L.L. Bean’s daughter who wants to corner the market on Maine Lobsters for all time.  There is no room for negotiation and debate.  Somebody is always out to get them.  That’s why they live in neighborhoods filled with stones and boulders so they can scurry off to protective cover and hide in an instant.

At night, tip-toeing out of her hiding place, this Amazon processes chemical signals gathered during the day from her acute sense of smell; then on to the necessity of bullying and tearing apart her neighbors.  She must eat.  But, even though she still hunts prey, seventy percent of her food supply comes from stealing bait from lobster traps as well as finding unused bait lobstermen throw over the side on the way home.  It is because these lobster traps are notoriously inefficient that this species has not yet become extinct.

As a crustacean, my lobster is not the wisest creature around, nor the most intelligent.  These are the qualities the universe, with its endlessly slow method of distribution, has saved for us.  But in the waters of the Gulf and the coastal Atlantic, she is the most athletic and most skillful fighter.  Winning a battle with her neighbors means she has been given more time to grow bigger and stronger.  Losing often means immediate death and no chance to realize her destiny.  For in the few strands of neurons loosely strung together comprising her one ounce brain, she possesses a dream.

She begins to frequent the shelter entrances of large males, both out of curiosity and initially to be superior and controlling.  She evicts many residents from their shelters, some who are larger than she is, and quickly establishes herself as the individual who owns the most real estate.  For a time, even substantial males grovel before her pugnacity and quickly retreat, although many put up a fight.  Thus, on this particular sea floor between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia where there are more lobsters than anywhere else on earth, legions of her defeated opponents crawl away sometimes with no legs at all, stumping along using only their mouth parts to hide under soft mud.

But sooner or later of course, she meets her match, rather like Katherine Hepburn meeting Spencer Tracy.  And they take the time to mate in a tender ritual common to their kind, beginning when she gently places her huge claws on top of her hero’s head in an invitation to proceed further, their raw violence and cantankerous incivility momentarily subdued for a day or two until their usual distaste for each other compels them to scoot in opposite directions, the belligerent mother-to-be carrying a precious sperm package that she can lug around for three years and use to fertilize multiple batches of eggs whenever she chooses.

For such great warriors, being boiled alive is a humiliating end: crying soundlessly for life, frantically banging their hard shells against a steaming stainless steel pot in their last dim voiceless longing for luscious cold seawater.  Even a cast-off peeling McDonalds in a certain northern town by the seashore feels entitled to serve up a McLobster sandwich to tourists, while under the piers and wharves a block away, lobster society endures its usual life of gorging upon anything that moves; going at each other with aggressive posturing, whipping antenna, body shoving, all the usual displays of strength.

It must be said here, however reluctantly, that early on we discovered that boiled lobsters go well mixed with mayonnaise and served on a soft toasted bun. Of course many are put off by their insect-resembling carapaces.  Their dying and death, their bellicose aspirations, their reproductive rituals usually hold no interest to the common diner.

At any rate, this venerable American lobster, her claws over two feet long by now, her shell rough and battle-scarred, has finally jogged off the continental shelf away from the 2.8 million lobster traps into deeper and safer water, succumbing to an irresistible migrating impulse.  Restless, exploratory, anticipating, she has traveled 500 miles over uneven mountainous terrain in six months.  The underside of her dark green and orange tail is loaded with one hundred thousand glistening eggs and not for the first time either, as she and the virile Mr. Tracy have encountered each other behind quite a few boulders over the years.  Thousands of their babies have been cast into the breezy waters to eventually be carried by the Eastern Maine Coastal Current to the shallow nurseries inland where the survivors start their adventurous life as a wild animal.

That dreamy speck of light twinkling in her strand of neurons has been fulfilled.  She has become an indomitable egg producer of one of the most valuable foods in North America, her efforts contributing mightily to a billion dollar business, keeping hordes of lobstermen and women and their families afloat as well as thousands, even hundreds of thousands of restaurants.  Who knows?  Her efforts alone may have produced more money for the American economy than ten banks and a hedge fund.  Why, lobster embryos may prove to be more valuable than the US dollar someday.

It is true that most of her children, even with their genetic advantage, will become those boiled, buttered indignant corpses dismembered and piled high on a plate in front of casual diners who toss their remains in a bowl without ceremony, consciousness, or respect for their remarkable lineage.  Their glazed stalk-like eyes, so like their mothers’, gaze at the ceiling with 10,000 brilliantly conceived and complicated lenses that are no longer able to see their enemies.

Once I took Joanie back to the Webfoot to show her where I had stayed all those long summers ago and we drove over to Ogunquit to eat at the Lobster House.  I always found the wild Maine lobsters served up in this fine restaurant on the eastern seaboard most unsettling.  So much exposed pink flesh, groped awkwardly by cheerful strangers, comes across as unseemly.  And at the end of the meal, the boiled red shells, all that is left of their once raucous aspirations, look so inappropriate sprawled untidily over the white plates.  The little ramekins of butter next to the vestigial ferocity of their crusher claws seem so ridiculous and dainty as if such heroic savage lives were just meant to be slathered with butter at the end, as if there was no virile spirit or uplift or sense to such a creature, as if there was no profound reason for the armor intended to protect it.

Certainly, the insensitive and threatening personalities of these ancient crustaceans are not endearing or winning.  There will never be a book called The Charm of Lobsters.  Not one of their endless hostilities involves duty, honor, country, service, sacrifice, or heroism.  After all, it was only quite recently that our own species developed the use of hands to grasp things, relieving the jaws of this task so that the throat, tongue, teeth, and lips could eventually become refined enough for speech, so that we could begin to think up all these “words of weight” to finesse our own lobster instincts.

Lobster land is a spiritual desert full of struggle, selfishness, and death.  But its inhabitants don’t care.  They endure. Their zest for dominance and superiority is inspired.  Born that way, they have no choice.  Every night, beneath the stars, they emerge from their hiding places among the rocks and prowl around the neighborhood.

Why, even our Admirals have developed an interest in the unique qualities of lobsters.  They imagine robotic fleets of them made out of nickel-titanium alloy scurrying across the sea floor ready for a beachhead assault.  Dropped offshore in the Indian Ocean by low-flying aircraft, these robotic forces could search out mines and IEDs and other threats and blow themselves up on command.  Then they could clamber ashore, thousands and thousands of them, even more barbaric and menacing than my dear solitary female, and head into the mountainous region of South Waziristan, their metal crusher claws outstretched and ready, scrambling up and down the rugged hills toward enemy cities in Afghanistan.

But what of this iconic female?  Tired of wandering around the sea grass tracking down another Mr. Tracy, she has headed into Canadian waters through the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, where the highest tides in the world rise and fall twice each day.  Still filled with a passion for the future, she encounters hundreds of other huge egg-bearing females squatting on a murky plain of mud, some nearly one hundred years old.  Recognizing that she is one of them, except for her strange little innovative pirouette after facing down persecutors, they leave her alone and she stays awhile with her ancient sisters six hundred feet down on the sea floor by the Georges Bank.

Approaching sixty pounds, burdened regularly with the most eggs of all her sisters, the most prolific breeder of all time, her economic value to the country is incomparable.  Weighing so much, she has crushed the most adversaries, and molted more often than all the others of her generation.  (Any lobster over seven pounds, by the way is considered by most chefs as being too stringy.  So don’t even consider it.)

I am so glad that the Navy has never heard of this battle-hardened egoist.  If it ever found out that in the simple circuits of her strand of neurons there is no place for sadness of heart or doubt or weariness or skepticism, that she is never someone who can be called poor in spirit, well, who knows what demands they might place upon her.  But for now, she is unaware of their clumsy robotic imitations, so lacking in her glimmer of evolutionary joy, so incapable of her spontaneous little pirouette and her unusual zest for flirtation.

This lifeless metallic army that could snap off the toes of dour forbidding patriarchs who stride along the beaches off the coast of Pakistan, is so much better than having our own lonely and homesick soldiers (who the officials nevertheless always describe as “upbeat”) attempt their raids in such rough unfriendly terrain, all those  promising young men and women stationed in desolate outposts who miss their pets and their surfboards, their Facebook page, their favorite teams, who can smile and laugh and sing and who in their heart of hearts have left ancient truculent lobster culture far behind as their planet plunges on, as suns streak by, as age follows age, as the great bell towers of our civilization ring their warnings of time passing, as the descendants of Mr. Tracy and his extraordinary mistress watch us sleepily from thirty-gallon Plexiglas tanks in restaurants and supermarkets, as their aged mother spins and turns and swirls on her toes on the muddy sea floor near the Georges Bank, just because she wants to.

© 2009 Linda Clarke     Volume  8    Issue  4


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