Einstein and a Hole in the Ground by George Merrill

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I am sitting on a beach in Puerto Rico. Watching the waves break, my thoughts rise and fall. They can’t seem to be still. I’ve been reading about Einstein’s beliefs concerning religion and spirituality. He doesn’t believe in a personal God. He feels awe and a profound reverence for the mystery of nature and the workings of the universe. He calls this his religious feeling.

I look up briefly from my Kindle. I see a ghost crab digging a hole in the sand nearby.

The hole is perhaps twice the size of a silver dollar. His eyes appear as black dots affixed to the end of two stalks that extend prominently from his head. He emerges half-way out of the hole and then stops.  He’s eyeing me to see what I will do. I wave my kindle to test him. He shoots down the hole in a flash and is gone. A minute or so later he reemerges. I remain still so as, in a manner of speaking, not to spook the ghost crab. He is not but three feet away from where I sit. I am suddenly at a ringside seat, enthralled, watching first-hand what a ghost crab does during the day.

Unlike the Chesapeake’s bluecrab that scampers sideways on a flat surface, the ghost crab stands up on all 10 legs or if speed is required, just two.  He can move laterally at amazing speeds. He’ll turn on a dime while capable of doing 10mph.

I watch. He emerges from the hole again, assumes this same posture – half in, half out – but this time he makes a lightening quick gesture with the claw that had remained half buried in the hole. In a flash and in one swipe, he tosses out deposits of sand with it. The excavated sand looks round and as it land, like small marbles several inches from the hole. He remains still for a moment – not a twitch – as if perhaps to see what my reaction will be. I am amazed not only by the speed with which he tosses the sand up and out, but by the distance he throws it. The sand pile is tidy. This crab is no rooky. He knows how to throw a fastball and aim it just where he wants it to go

The sun shines on him from behind. He looks delicate, almost diaphanous, and as the sunlight shines through him he appears translucent while glowing a faint yellow. He appears otherworldly, as though he was molded of gelatin. Perhaps his transparency is one reason why he is called a ghost crab. The other is that ghost crabs are typically nocturnal.  I enjoy the good fortune to catch his performance in a rare matinee appearance.

He has captured my complete attention. I sit stone still. I don’t want to miss a thing.

Every forty seconds or so, he goes through this same drill: disappear down the hole, emerge, pitch out the sand he’s accumulated, position himself half in and out and then dart again down into the hole. No doubt about it; he is digging a tunnel efficiently and skillfully, the envy of any convict who ever dreamed of a subterranean escape from his confines.

I find that watching other creatures up close is a kind of otherworldly experience for me, like entering an alternative universe. The exotic ways of other critters, in this case the ghost crab, although he addresses the same needs to live as I must, he goes at it in a way I can only describe as mysterious.

I understand he prefers his big meal at night and goes out to eat most of the time. There no candlelight here. He can see in the dark with eyes that are situated above him that see 360 degrees. He gets the big picture in a flash. It would take me longer.

I know this may sound sexist but the females, when digging their tunnels do not perform their tasks in a workman-like fashion. They’re really messy. The male, as he digs his burrow, leaves the excavated sand in a neat pile on one side of the entrance. The female on the other hand doesn’t care a whit about being tidy and flings sand out in all directions like toddlers playing in a sand box.

However, the maneuvers grow more complex.

It’s not just that the male is more disciplined in his work habits, but his actions are informed by a darker purpose.  He is in fact sending a message to two parties. To would be intruders, his tidy little sandy mound tells them to buzz off. It also informs females that they are welcome to drop in at any time.

I note that the issues of personal privacy and availability to females are of the highest priority to the male ghost crab’s life style. The same selective frame of mind dominates the subject of conversation among crabs just as it governs their work habits in tunneling.

Ghost crabs do communicate by sound but are not great on small talk. They never gather to gossip or just shoot the breeze, like geese. They’re painfully single focused, always agenda driven.

On its right claw the ghost crab has what’s called a Stridulating organ. When the ghost crab strokes this against the bottom of its leg, it emits a squeaking sound.  I’m assuming it’s like the violin, able to produce a variety of notes. The repertoire, however, is severely limited.

Even in the aural communication the male ghost crab has the same agenda that’s reflected in his digging habits; leave me alone; females, excepted.

The ghost crab may be a loner but I suspect he’s also a swinger.

I had been watching him dig and tunnel in and out for about twenty minutes. Then he changed the venue and emerged coming all the way out. He stood still just inches from the entrance. I knew he’s was checking out the landscape. I assume he felt safe to wander from home. Then I saw him take off for a short distance down the beach. To think of a crab as graceful or to describe his short excursion as if it were executed with the sylph-like motions of the ballerina, you might think I’m exaggerating. I am not.

He skittered across uneven sand for a short distance with a fluid- like movement as if none of his appendages ever touched the ground. He stopped and stood still and I could see the little black dots of his eyes, unmoving, but taking everything in. He made a kind of pirouette and took off for a short distance at a forty- five- degree angle from his first direction.  He stopped abruptly maybe ten feet from me.

I felt that by having patiently held still and respecting his space I had earned his trust. He felt safe with me. I was enjoying a communion with this creature from a world so close to and yet so far from my own. I felt part of his world as though he were sharing it with me.

Above me four pelicans fly overhead.  They cast shadows between where the ghost crab stands and where I sit. In a sprint, so fast I can barely follow him, he makes for the entrance to his tunnel, darts in and is gone.

I don’t see him reappear.

I go back reading about Einstein. I think I’m getting his point.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

 

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