Far more than a concrete jungle, New York City boasts miles of coastline, which in late May and early June are the setting of an annual ritual that has taken place for nearly 500 million years, one of the oldest rituals to occur among animal species.
During a recent stroll on Orchard Beach at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, I came across horseshoe crabs pulling up onshore. Intriguing looking, ancient creatures, they remind me of small tanks, able to ambulate while being fully protected by a hard carapace. Japanese legend too identifies the horseshoe crab with military symbolism. It was said that brave warriors who died honorably in battle were reborn as horseshoe crabs, with their shells like samurai helmets, forever traversing the ocean floor.
Why were these creatures migrating onto the sand? Why now? Thanks to the Historical Signs Project of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, answering my questions -- and more -- was a nearby sign, "Horseshoe Crabs in New York City Parks, Orchard Beach - Pelham Bay Park." This is what it said about the fifth oldest species (after cyanobacteria, sponge, jellyfish, and nautilus), which has contributed greatly to medical science:
Every May and June, horseshoe crabs emerge from Pelham Bay and Long Island Sound onto Orchard Beach in Pelham Bay Park. Female horseshoe crabs arrive on the beach to lay their eggs, with their male counterparts literally in tow. Males grasp onto the back of the female's shell using their specially adapted, hooked legs, sometimes two, three, or four onto one female. When they arrive on the beach, female horseshoe crabs dig a hold in the sand and lay up to 20,000 tiny olive-green eggs . The males then rush to be the first to fertilize.
The process is heavily tied to the lunar cycle and its effects on the tides. The mating begins when the moon's force is strongest and the high tide allows the horseshoe crab to venture further onto the beach. As the force weakens, the water is never able to reach the eggs. Two weeks later, when the moon's force peaks again, the eggs are ready to hatch and the water sweeps the newborns into the sea. While this timing has provided protection from the sea, the eggs face other dangers. The thousands of protein-rich eggs provide a feast for hungry migrating birds, which can eat enough to double or even triple their body weight before moving on. Some birds are believed to time their migration to coincide with this mating ritual and its resulting source of nutrition.
The horseshoe crab...has been around since before he dinosaurs.... This prehistoric creature may resemble a crab, but is actually more closely related to the spider and scorpion. While the horseshoe crab has a tough exterior that has helped its survival, it is one of the most harmless creatures on the seashore. Its high tolerance for pollutants has also allowed the horseshoe crab to thrive where other species have failed. When not swarming on the beaches in the spring, the horseshoe crab stays mainly on the ocean floor, feeding on mollusks, worms, and seaweed. In the winter, it burrows into the ocean sediment. While the lifespan of a horseshoe crabs in the wild is not clear, they have been known to live up to 15 years in aquariums.
This "living fossil" plays an important role in modern medical science. Its blood contains Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL), which is used by scientists for the detection of bacterial toxins. Tests using LAL are required by the Federal Drug Administration for medications and vaccines. Blood from the horseshoe crab is also used to make a variety of products, from fertilizers and conch bait to hairspray and contact lenses. These uses have led to the overharvesting of the horseshoe crab and a decline of its population in the Atlantic. However, the ancient horseshoe crab can still be seen crawling onto the shores of the Bronx, at Orchard Beach, every year.
On a friend’s recommendation, I am reading Circe, by Madeline Miller. Miller brings Greek and Latin myths to life, "novelizing" the stories of Homer, Aeschylus, Ovid, and Virgil. She creates an extended narrative that brings to light stories’ coherence with one another and animates the characters’ inner lives.
Circe, the daughter of the sun god Helios and Perse, an Oceanid nymph, was a sorceress, whose magic derives in part from her understanding of the power of herbs and plants. On several occasions, she makes use of a flower, “pharmaka”, which turns creatures into their true selves. Administered to the poor, mortal fisherman, Glaucus, he becomes a sea God who rescues sailors from storms. Added to the bathing area favored by the beautiful yet conniving nymph Scylla, she turns into a tentacle sea monster, much like a giant squid. And through the use of plants, Circe turns Odysseus's ravenous and disrespectful sailors into pigs.
Reading of Circe’s awareness of plants and their potency, their magic, underscores how nature can awaken our true selves. This isn't to suggest that our true selves are gods or raging demons. But time in nature aids the work of our parasympathetic nerves to help us relax and overcome the fight or flight reaction of sympathetic nerves, which read modern-day stimuli as threats. Nature has a way of releasing deeper truths, exhuming our inner state of being, one that can respond to nature's gifts, our home for 99.99% of the time humans and humanoid creatures have existed on our planet.
Think about what true aspects of yourself a connection with nature might reveal.
There has been much discussion lately about colonizing Mars. SpaceX owner Elon Musk expects to initiate Mars spacecraft test flights as early next year and plans to land cargo spaceships on the Red Planet in 2022, with a manned landing targeted for 2024. Mars One aims for a permanent manned landing in 2032. One has to be in awe of the vision, science, and courage it takes to plan and participate in these initiatives.
Perhaps the desire to settle Mars is motivated by core characteristics of human nature, our innate curiosity impelling us to voyage ever onward to faraway reaches. From the time hunter gatherers traversed ice bridges across the Bering Strait and vast bodies of water on wood-carved canoes, humans have used their ingenuity to venture forth to distance lands. Even our origin stories, from the Navajo creation myth Upward Movement and Emergence Way to Old Testament desert wanderings in search of the promised land describe similar outward migrations. Perhaps colonizing Mars is the latest chapter in this narrative.
Yet, some of what is motivating consideration of Mars colonization appears to be an evolving sense of dissatisfaction with the condition of our planet, a sense of unease about political and resource stability and with this concern about the future survival of humankind. Two hundred years ago there were less than 1 billion people on our planet. Today there are more than 7 billion, with the population expected to exceed 10 billion in another 30 years. Population growth combined with the impact of climate change and resource depletion have prompted concerns about a dystopian future in which human life on Earth is at risk. Perhaps this is not dissimilar to what motivated our ancestors to migrate as well.
But the fact is that we have a pretty great planet right here. Colonization of Mars or other potentially habitable reaches of our galaxy requires addressing complex challenges regarding gravitational differences, oxygen and water production, food production, energy production and storage, building habitats, and countless other challenges. While human ingenuity could surmount these challenges let's be clear: Earth, our home, offers plentiful water, oxygen, and natural resources for food, clothing, and shelter, as well as for transportation, energy, and medicine, and if well-tended by us can support us for future generations. At the same time that we look to colonize Mars, how can we tend to our current home in a way that recognizes how much we are part of it and dependent on it, and in a way that secures it for future generations?
Our ancestors understood this, even if they too responded to yearnings to explore faraway reaches. Long ago, people lived in close relation to the Earth, highly attuned to this symbiosis. They understood that being human means being part of the natural world, having a sense of belonging and recognizing that the Earth nurtures. As Robert Wolff writes in Original Wisdom: Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing,
[Aboriginals] lived off the land or the ocean. They did not have to rely on the outside for any of their needs. They could find all the food they needed to sustain themselves, they could find or make material for shelter and clothing. They carved canoes and made blowpipes, they rolled a powerfully strong rope from the fibers of coconut husks. And beyond what they could find and make in their environment, they did not need anything, nor did they want anything more. They lived life. Life did not live them, as it does us.
Most of us have ventured far from this way of life. We no longer live in tightly bound communities. We no longer live directly off the land, nor do we eschew material possessions, regarded by nomadic people as a burden to carry. Yet the truth remains that everything around us, ourselves included, derives from the Earth. We are nearly 70% water, and beyond that a combination of elements with a magical spark of life. Our food, our clothing, our shelter all derive from earth. The concrete underfoot in our cities, the metal comprising our cars, the elements that comprise the computer I am writing on and you are reading on, our sources of energy--all derive from the earth and the systems in which it exists.
On this Earth Day, take a moment to think about the threads that connect us to our ancient lineage, to ways of life closely tied to the Earth and its resources, and think about how the core of that lineage has not changed. While perhaps one day humankind will colonize Mars, appreciate the wonder and beauty of planet Earth and the many ways it nurtures us.
Today at sundown marks the Jewish holiday Yom HaShoah, Holocaust remembrance day, commemorating those who perished and the heroism of rescuers and survivors. It also is a reminder of those who are persecuted today simply because of who they are. How does this day, remembering unfathomable human cruelty and the horrific consequences of science, and industrialized mass planning and coordination directed towards the darkest of purposes, relate to nature? What can we possibly learn about the power of nature in this context?
In Man's Search for Meaning, published in 1946, Victor Frankl described his experiences as a concentration camp prisoner during World War II. Frankl was a psychiatrist, and his agonizing situation provided a vantage point for observing how people reacted to extreme, dire circumstances. In this context, he perceived ways of thinking that facilitated survival, namely identifying a purpose in life that enabled positive thoughts and deeply imagining that outcome.
While reading the book recently, I was struck by Frankl's references to prisoners' observations of nature--how a glimpse of nature could offer a small tonic.
Below are several such excerpts, from Ilse Lasch's translation. I reference these not to suggest that nature somehow negated the unfathomable atrocities experienced by concentration camp prisoners or others in extreme dire situations. Yet, it is noteworthy that during such dark times nature awareness was helpful, if only as a distraction from one's immediate horrific circumstances. If nature awareness can be helpful in the most extreme of circumstances, one wonders how it can assist those of us encountering life's more benign ups and downs:
"As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances. If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor--or maybe because of it--we were carried away by nature's beauty, which we had missed for so long." (p. 39-40)
"One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, 'how beautiful the world could be!'" (p. 40)
"Pointing through the window of the hut, [a young woman] said, 'This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.' Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. 'I often talk to this tree,' she said to me. I was startled and didn't quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. 'Yes' What did it say to her? She answered, 'It said to me, '"I am here--I am here--I am life, eternal life.'"'(p. 69)
Next time you feel the blues coming on, or that sharp sense of worry, see if you can notice nature--perhaps the leaves of a potted office plant, a view of the sky outside a window, or a bird chirping rhythmically in the background as you walk along a busy street. See whether noticing the natural world beyond yourself changes your emotional sense, if only for a little while.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.