One of my son’s friends celebrated her sixth birthday this past weekend. The party took place at an isolated beach on Monterey Bay, accessible only by several miles of county road that twist through shallow canyons and over little domed hills topped with eucalyptus groves and strawberry fields. It was a cool, windy day and so the barbeque and birthday cake were enjoyed on the bluff in a shelter of cypresses, a hundred feet above the shore. The children already knew one another and got right to the business playing hide-and-seek and tag. We adults could only borrow on their familiarity to strike up cautious conversations about nothing in particular and stall into embarrassed silence after every few sentences.
The beach was less picked over than most. At the tide-line were necklaces of seaweed from which broken sand dollars and brilliantly colored bits of abalone hung like charms. Scallops of clam shell and the discarded moltings of sand crabs (Emerita analoga) bleached in the sun. In fact, the beach is home to a populous colony of these little creatures—also known as mole crabs—, few of which were bigger than the tip of my thumb. One scoop of a plastic toy shovel turns up dozens, flailing their phalanges to right themselves and burrow under the sand again. Standing calf-deep in the water, my daughter screamed with glee when the retreating waves momentarily uncovered thousands at once, all around us, paddling seaward together like the reflected image of a great flock of birds.
I’m curious about their genus name: Emerita, which puts me in mind of a retired lady professor. I wonder if that’s something like the intent. I can only speculate, since I don’t own an etymological scientific dictionary, but they do seem of a more retiring nature than some of their predatory, claw-flashing cousins. Sand crabs only ever move backwards, for instance, and from their shallow nests they hunt passively by straining plankton through furry antennae. Their shells are precisely the color of the sand in which they live and so they usually escape detection by the shore birds that might like to eat them.
I feel a strange shudder whenever pelicans fly overhead. I don’t know if this is a common experience. They always seem impossibly large to me. The eye marks them and the mind calculates distance and perspective to arrive at an estimate of their size, but it freezes up, it panics like Gregory Syme when he first sees the supernaturally large Sunday in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. California Brown Pelicans regularly attain wingspans greater than eight feet. There’s something weirdly primeval in their movement and shape; something perverse and dimly threatening in the way they glide so solidly through the air, like shaggy pterodactyls, and explode into the sea from a height to stun and swallow unsuspecting fishes.
I wonder what the ocean looks like to a sand crab. Probably she never sees it at all, just as we never really see the air. It’s only the universal, invisible medium of her life. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever properly seen the ocean either. I can look at it; I can’t see it. Scale is the challenge, like it was with the pelican. The surface area of the Pacific is substantially greater than that of the entire planet Mars, but smaller seas must present the same difficulty. One stands on the beach and looks in the direction of the ocean. One tries to swallow it with the eye as a discrete object. The shoreline is no trouble. The first fifty yards recede sensically. Any farther than that, however, and it collapses into two-dimensionality. The mind abandons any attempt to comprehend volume or distance. The infinite ocean is reduced to a roaring cardboard mural.