A Letter from the Beach
From the Scrapbook
Jul 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 43 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
Scrapbook correspondent James W. Ceaser, the distinguished University of Virginia professor of politics, emails a charming note from the beach, which we excerpt here:
In a mid-June ritual equivalent to a New Year’s resolution, I annually peruse The Weekly Standard’s Summer Reading issue, listing the alluring books I promise to read while tucked away on some remote beach. There is only one rule I impose on this exercise: No book may have anything to do with my own field of politics. In obedience to an earnest but now fading aspiration of becoming a Renaissance man, the selections must be historical, or literary, or artistic—the sorts of works reviewed by Joseph Bottum or Algis Valiunas. Of course, all this being part of a resolution, it is rare that a book order ever gets placed or, if it does, a box opened. And oh yes, I never get to the beach.
Until this summer. With a few days having carefully been blocked out, I arrive at North Carolina’s Outer Banks with my stack of “books,” hastily downloaded at the last minute on a Kindle. At the appointed hour, I make my way over the dune, and take in the azure sky and undulating surf. Leaving my cell phone at the lifeguard chair—no interruptions, please!—I station myself equidistant between two pairs of responsible-looking adults and begin to remove the Kindle from its case.
But to my great surprise, I discover that I am being watched. On the cusp of a small hole a few feet in front of me, a mid-sized crab, his two black eyes like jewels of onyx mounted on little posts, has me directly in his sights. Intent on holding my ground, I stare him down. After a few seconds, he raises his body like a platform on hydraulic stilts, executes a full pirouette, and slides into his underground fortress. Relieved, I return to unpacking my apparatus.
Only that’s not the end of it. A half a minute or so later he reappears. Now he is at work, oblivious to me, excavating from his hole a full scoop of sand, which he carries in his larger claw and deposits, with the action of a back hoe, on a little mound that he is forming at the edges. Nor is he alone. My eye spots a yard or so down to my left another redoubt, with another crab at work, and likewise in the opposite direction.
The Kindle back in its zipped case, I am by now fully absorbed in another world, privy to all of its operations. Continued observation reveals new details. These fellows are not exactly the same. And why should they be? One, closer to the moms who have been discussing their kids’ college preferences, is more energetic than the others, disappearing and reappearing more frequently. But his mound hardly seems to grow. Another, nearer to the stockbrokers, is more deliberate, but his wall gets higher and higher.
If ever there was a time for what one German philosopher called Gelassenheit (or letting things be), this should be it. Yet unable to control my scientific impulse to master and control, I wait until Mr. Efficiency is down under, and with a small piece of paper shave off a tiny portion of his mound, what he has built in the last hour, which I estimate to weigh two ounces. I scurry back to the lifeguard chair and pick up my cell for some calculations. In my little area of 27 square feet, there are three crabs moving (roughly) 6 ounces of sand in a single hour. With the Outer Banks being 200 miles in length, and if we assume the same density of crab populations, then in a single month . . . the number begins to approach the national debt.
And just when you think nature is in harmony and these creatures content with their lot—each crab in his hole, all’s right with the world—you find you are in for some further surprises. After some time, one of the crabs abruptly ceases his labor and goes on the move. I am distressed, the old complaint of Carole King—doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?—coming to mind. But oh how they move, up on tipclaws, sliding with equal ease, without breaking stride, from right to left and then left to right. Whither? There are empty holes, tough times, no doubt—say I from my perch on the beach—of foreclosures and abandonments.
And then the drama. OMG, one goes down the same hole as another. I wait for what seems like an eternity. Suddenly, they are both above ground, staring menacingly at one another from opposite sides of the hole. A few seconds, and one—the intruder—goes sliding off, past the stockbrokers.
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