What we learn from creatures that are different from ourselves, part 1

When I was twenty, my roommate and I purchased a hermit crab from the PetCo in Emeryville. Everything about that is absurd, but we did it, and we dubbed the hermit crab Carl, participating in the common and problematic practice of defaulting an animal’s unknown gender to male. I guess it didn’t matter at the time what it was – there was no way of knowing, according to the sales rep – just that we needed a hermit crab named Carl in our lives. We brought him home to our apartment above the Subway on Telegraph Avenue.

Carl didn’t move much. He burrowed in the sand most of the time, so still and quiet we often thought he was dead, til we poked him and he shifted a claw and then we could go about our day with peace of mind. This went on for pretty much the entire semester he lived in our apartment with us, with the exception of what we called “a finals week miracle,” when he decided to grace us with a performance of climbing up the wall of his terrarium. Our lives sped up – sophomore year came to an end, both my roommate and I with new loves in our lives, changes to come, moving out, plans for the summer. Carl was burrowed in the sand through it all in a drastically different life pace from ours. I was headed home to Maryland and then to the Sierra and my boyfriend had agreed to take care of him for a couple months. The two of them, my boyfriend and Carl, dropped me off at the Oakland airport, and when I went to say goodbye, I was more convinced than ever that Carl was dead – I pushed him around a bit and got no response, and there we were, the three of us, in the rapid airport drop-off shuffle, so I got out of the car, and my boyfriend told me he loved me for the first time, and I just walked away, smiling.  It turns out, Carl was molting. The next day, as told to me from 3000 miles away, his old skin was draped in the sand. We read online we were supposed to leave it there and let him eat it, and sure enough, he did. Apparently it’s full of nutrients like calcium and chitin, essential for rebuilding and hardening a new skin.

Some months later, summer had come and gone, “I love you” had become an exchange, and Carl and I were living in a co-op on the other side of Berkeley. I was aware that Carl had outgrown the shell I had always known him in, so I acquired a new one and placed it in his terrarium. The next day, I saw him investigating it, so I took a seat. I watched for over an hour, which is surely at least twelve hours in hermit crab time, as he brushed the new shell with delicate, probing antennae.  Stuck a foot in, retracted. Stuck a claw in, retracted. A little further, retracted. Each time he gave a little more of himself to the exploration, his courage growing by the minute. I was completely captivated and lucky for me, Carl didn’t notice I was there. Or if he did, he didn’t mind at all. He was so delicate, patient, he was so tiny but experiencing such a large moment, and I was just there, a bystander. After much deliberation I could tell he was committing, and my heart raced as I saw Carl’s full hermit crab body for the first time, pale and fragile and so ugly, as he transferred himself awkwardly to the new shell. For a second, he was as vulnerable as he had ever been, for the sake of growth, of something new.

Carl’s not with us anymore, hasn’t been for a couple years. But I still think about that moment, especially in times when I myself am molting or I have outgrown my shell. Everything I knew of Carl was anthropomorphized, I knew nothing of his true consciousness, never will. But I suspect there is something of him in me, something naked, fragile, ugly, and perfect inside. I wanted to know how he knew it was time to molt, how he knew to eat his old skin, how he knew he had it in him to take the risk and change shells. And did he know how wonderful and whole of a metaphor he was? I needed to watch a creature drastically different from myself to realize, really realize, that there are creatures drastically different from myself being born inside of me everyday.There is something that happened to me from letting him into my life and watching him closely, and that is part of the magic that is ecology and conviviality on this planet. We are meant to watch each other, to learn each other’s evolution-proven lessons of survival and apply them to our own lives in ways both literal and symbolic. I’ve had dozens of molting moments in my life, we all have. Now, for instance – I’m writing this story at this very moment because I am in transition. Moving past a relationship, in between jobs, getting ready to go on a solo traveling adventure – it is a time that makes me think of Carl, of all creatures.  And it forces me to think, when do we ever remember to eat the skin that we shed? It disgusts us, we throw it off the cliff or bury it or simply leave it behind, let it eat our dust. It is so very hard to swallow. But there are nutrients in there, and we need them to grow strong again, Carl certainly knew that. And I’m a little braver because of it.

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