The waves deliver gifts. In the last week, my beachcombing has turned up limpet shells, whelks, pieces of sand dollars (does that make them sand quarters?), a thick shard of striped pottery, a white rock with a clear dark blue center, and a giant sand crab – well, giant for a sand crab, that is. Sand crabs are also known as mole crabs or sand fleas and typically they are insect like in size, but this one was a mounter: a good two inches, about 50 percent as big as their usual top range. Since the females are the larger gender – in some Emerita species, the male is so small he spends his life clinging to his woman’s legs – my find was female. She was at the end of her apparently long life, motionless, on her back – though there was some movement when I touched her gently, maybe a lingering reflex, maybe just the ghost in the carapace. With her one horn, she looked like a crustacean unicorn. I found the Emerita in her natural habitat, what Wikipedia calls “the swash zone.” Coincidentally, the swash zone is also my natural habitat. I take her home to show my son, then we put her back in the zone, where the water slowly rolls her back into its multitude.In her illuminating 2013 book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about growing up with a “view of a world full of gifts scattered at your feet.” The botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation draws upon the ideas of the American philosopher Lewis Hyde in The Gift. This 1979 book was also an influence on the early, utopian thinkers of the internet — the creators of open-source coding, creative commons, shareware, etc., before the concept of sharing turned into just another Silicon Valley profit scheme. The gift economy that Hyde champions offers an alternative to capitalism: “It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people.” This was also how Kimmerer saw the world as a child who instinctively tended the wild strawberry plants that grew in the fields, so she could enjoy their fruit every summer. Braiding Sweetgrass is a remarkable account of how the way we frame our relationship to the earth can change that relationship: “The stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences.”
Of course, the American history of the relationship to the land has been a classic story of colonizing: of conquest and depletion, not “respect and reciprocity,” as Kimmerer and Hyde envision. Even our greatest nature writers – Thoreau, Muir, Olson — have described the land as empty – “virgin” — before European settlers came, when of course we know it was populated by millions of humans. In his climate-change opus The End of Nature, Bill McKibben himself defines nature as “the world apart from man,” a definition he traces back to “the European exploration of the New World.” This separation of human from nature is the epistemological root of our ontological problem and is intimately connected to our entrenchment in industrial capitalism. As Vandana Shiva writes in Ecofeminism, “The reductionist world-view, the industrial revolution and the capitalist economy are the philosophical, technological and economic components of the same process.” If this is what “nature” is – the non-human other to which we have been historically subject, and which we have therefore in turn tried to subject – then good riddance to it. I want Kimmerer’s nature, a gift economy of mutual responsibility and reciprocity. A world of strawberries.
On Saturday, I arrive at the tide pools for a -0.5 tide. But it’s windy and the sun has already slipped around the cliff of Point Fermin, so I seek shelter behind a rock. It’s not a great vantage point but nonetheless, I’m quickly rewarded for finally making the ten-minute walk that took me two weeks. A wave washes up a jetty finger below me and I see something strange in it. It’s clear but solid, a translucent, well, blob. More swash zone swag! The tide pushes the blob up the rocks and it turns purple, blue, and green as it moves through light and water. There’s a slight ripple in its flesh but mostly its blubber is smooth, except for a large, bulbous protuberance at one end. I quickly decide it’s some sort of jellyfish, but fortunately, without the tentacles. Like the sand crab, its time has also passed. Still, well aware of the stinging potential of even a dead jellyfish, I don’t touch it until it has washed up on the rocks. Because it seems to be a partial corpse, I can’t say for sure what it is. Possibly a Velella velella, aka a by-the-wind sailor: I’ve seen these in the ocean before, scores of them, powered by their own personal sails. But this has no sail. It could be the body of a moon jellyfish, or, more scarily, a Portugese man of war. In fact, that’s what it most resembles: the upper polyp of this scarily painful creature, which is not a jellyfish at all but a siphonophore, or a colony of different critters.
I leave whatever it is where I find it. This is the nature of gifts: As Kimmerer says about the strawberries, “they belong to themselves.”