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A sook's agenda: molt and mate



CRABS SHED their shells to grow and, in the female's case, also to mate, which she does only once as she becomes a mature "sook" on her final molt.

The male, or "jimmy" crab, can be distinguished from the female by his abdominal-genital covering, shaped like the Washington Monument; hers most resembles the dome of the U.S. Capitol.

Preferred mating habitat for crabs is the bay's beds of submerged aquatic vegetation.


The bay seethes with sooks-to-be that have only two things on their agenda -- to molt and to mate. This leads to a courtship and consummation both sensuous and, well, loving.

Accompanied by tender gesturing of his big, hard claws, the male raises high on his swimmer fins in an animated prenuptial dance. The sook signals her readiness by backing gently beneath him; and for hours, even days, jimmy swims with her, cradled contentedly in his fierce-clawed embrace.

As the hour of her terminal molt nears, the couple seeks a grassy bower, where jimmy stands guard as sook performs the exhausting ordeal of leaving her maiden's shell, literally shedding her virginity, emerging helpless, glistening and silken.

And now, ever so gently, he helps her turn on her back.

She opens the Capitol dome and he unhinges the Washington Monument; and face to face, pleopods to genital pores, hard body pressed against soft, they embrace amid the corridors of emerald eelgrass, waving to and fro with the tide's caress.

They may remain thus for hours. In the words of William Warner, commenting on the phenomenon in his book, "Beautiful Swimmers": "You cannot possibly mistake these actions for anything other than lovemaking."

Fact and passion -- we will never save the bay without fully marshaling both to the cause.

Recently, I was reminded of that on a Chamber of Commerce boat cruise. Would I particularly emphasize the economic worth of the bay when speaking to the business leaders, one of the group's leaders asked.

Of course, it is vast, I told them. It ranges into the billions per year, depending on how one messes with "multiplier effects" and tangential enhancements like how water quality ups the assessed value of waterfront real estate.

Additionally, they should recognize the valuable "free work" that wetlands, forests, even oysters and underwater grasses all do in filtering and buffering the bay against pollutants. Replacing this with technology -- if we could -- would require more billions.

But I thought it even more important to remind the business leaders that this is a state whose official symbols draw from the bay -- its state fish, state dog, state boat -- even a state fossil and the most unlikely mascot ever a state university had (GO TERPS!).

(The symbols are the striped bass or rockfish, Chesapeake Bay retriever, oyster skipjack, and the four-ribbed snail.)

These are all facts; but they also betoken a love affair.

I have heard some environmentalists say they downplay the passion they feel when talking to business groups, for fear their feelings won't resonate with such an audience.

I think that is a mistake, and demeaning to their audience. Passion and fact are reinforcing values, not competing ones.

One example is my first book of essays on the bay. Those who like it tend to characterize its style as "lyrical," yet its whole basis was a five-year scientific study of the bay that ran from 1978 to 1983.

There was nothing lyrical about the study, which nonetheless profoundly changed the way we thought about the Chesapeake, and articulated it as part of an ecosystem stretching from New York and West Virginia, nearly to North Carolina.

What I did, as essayist, was to synthesize the scientists' mountains of fact into digestible chunks, and say, in effect, "People care deeply about this place."

Another example that includes Chesapeake Bay, but ranges well beyond it, is the strong protection extended to tidal wetlands after a 1962 study found they were more productive biologically than even the most intensively managed human agricultural systems.

This was solid fact; but subsequent study has shown that many marshes are not nearly as productive as the Georgia coastal ecosystems reported on in 1962.

Additionally, a thorough attempt to develop an ecological rating system for wetlands in Rhode Island concluded this: "There is little if any correlation between the visual aesthetic perception of a marsh and its ecological [values]."

And that begins to explain why there remains today a strong national consensus for preserving all our tidal wetlands.

It has at least as much to do with beauty, and with wanting not to uglify the remainder of our shorelines as it has to do with pounds of organic matter and fish flesh produced per acre, per year (though these are important).

Without passion, facts often end up gathering dust on shelves in bloodless tomes; without facts, passion hasn't the muscle and bone to endure.

Similarly, attention only to economic values and technology may produce a moderately healthy bay; but without a deeper feeling for the place, too many of those Maryland state symbols will end up mocking us.

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