Aberrant Things

Peelers in the Bayford Oyster House

Aberration possesses the noteworthy quality of rendering the unremarked norm visible. So it is with the current state of blue crabs in the lower Chesapeake Bay. Striding past the old concrete oyster shucking tables in the Bayford Oyster House, Jonathan Bunce extends his hand, not in greeting, but to display a three-inch blue crab. The sight is disturbing not because the crab is small but because of what it is and where it stands in regimes of understanding. The tiny crab he holds, its claws folded inward in repose, is a mature egg-bearing sook. “That,” H. M. states, “just isn’t right.”

She crabs go by a variety of names that designate their state of maturation. Sally crabs are immature females, sooks are sexually mature, busted sooks or sponge crabs are egg bearing. A fully adult busted sook carries millions of eggs. The diminutive busted sook in Jonathan’s palm might hold thousands – and not many thousands at that. Those are big numbers to be sure, but in a watery world where everything is on everything else’s menu only a few of those eggs will hatch and grow into crabs. It takes millions of fertilized eggs to hatch out as larvae destined to grow into a handful of adults. The tiny busted sook is bad news for the crab world and the universe of creatures that depend on them –  including the human realm of watermen, fishmongers, crab pickers, and gourmands.

Speculation ensues. Jonathan notes that the crab he holds is the norm this year – and so the aberrant becomes a new commonplace. H. M. wonders at what might be in the water, citing a recent study that found measurable trace amounts of Prozac and other pharmaceuticals in the marine biostream. What about the ag-industrial use of hormones – say, estrogen – we offer. Or, has the population in terms of gender become so imbalanced that a natural accommodation to redress a dearth of females is underway. We own only hypotheses.

The petite busted sook Jonathan displays raises questions about the work that objects perform in our understanding of the world and our place in it. In a “normal” year, the conversation turns to numbers caught, dockside prices, and the range of topics that govern crab economics. This crab-as-object is different from the one at hand and in its difference describes the ways in which the things we understand the least force questions that reveal the unarticulated expectations and ideologies that govern everyday life. The biology of the crab that indicates an imbalance in nature simultaneously reveals a parallel imbalance in culture. Where the physiology of the crab addresses distortions in its reproductive population, interpretive process reconciles the aberrant thing to the world of sense. In essence, the strangeness of the tiny busted sook demands sense making.  The challenge rests not only on the worrisome state of the natural world but also on equally worrisome ecologies of understanding. It’s not just what the crab illuminates about itself but what it reveals about us. What we learn from the busted sook is the ways in which we substitute sense for solution. When we posit believable explanations, we act as if we have resolved the stubborn thing, and at the heart of that action we discover the deepest work of words crafted as narrative into explanations that may not matter.