Stitching its way through the fabric of my world, Clear Creek draws together water and sky, grasses and trees into patterns of exquisite beauty. Traversing coastal Texas on an oft-hidden journey toward Clear Lake, its tangled flow provides a miles-long haven for wildlife and birds. Emerging from the lake, it tautens and slows, rising and falling in rhythm with inland-creeping tides until it eases into the open waters of the bay, diluting the ocean’s salty tang with the freshness of earthborn water.
Dredged into a channel at the entrance to Galveston Bay, the creek sometimes seems little more than a prop, a backdrop for tourist snapshots and Chamber of Commerce brochures. Nearly hidden behind a facade of interchangeable restaurants and bars, it no longer tastes of life on the water but feeds a growing appetite for profit. Weekend boat traffic is heavy. The boaters themselves tend to become loud and boisterous, demanding attention as they cruise past envious, land-locked crowds. Tossing popcorn and bread to equally raucous gulls, weekend visitors miss the silent tern, the motionless heron, the patient grebe, watching and waiting for them all to be gone.
During the week, the creek and its inhabitants return to more natural rhythms. On a low tide, exposed rocks provide a perch for black and yellow-crowned night herons, green herons, a variety of egrets. Mallards and pintails float about, accompanied by the occasional coot. In every season, cormorants croak and dive. In winter, mergansers and loons accompany the flight of so-called “snowbirds”, that regular migration of human sun-seekers from northern states. Each summer brings a new flock of children to the water’s edge, confident and wide-eyed, learning to navigate in a larger world.
Always there are the fishermen – trolling, anchoring, casting for trout or walking the walls in hopes of scaring up flounder. Sport fishers top off at the fuel dock while the occasional kayaker passes by. In season, they’re joined by crabbers and shrimpers, working folk with schedules and routines. From my docks, I watch them make their rounds – emptying traps, rebaiting, returning them to the water.
There’s nothing fancy about a crabber. Like shrimpers, they work hard and their profit margin is small. Their boats aren’t pretty and they don’t always have the best formal education, but they’re good people, part of a less-pretentious waterfront world tourists rarely see.
Because they have routines and favorite spots for setting their traps, I’ve come to know a few – one or two by name, most by sight. We share the simple friendliness of neighbors - a wave, a greeting across the water, a question about weather or catch. I think about them a lot, and the similarities of our lives. We spend our days on the water, or at its edge. Our work is repetitive, our dependence on weather absolute, and some of our best friends are birds. Beyond that, we tend to love a good story.
Fishermen are among the world’s best story-tellers. Happen upon a group of them lunching at local cafes or gathered at any of the tiny, barnacle-like watering holes that cling to the water’s edge, and you’ll hear them swapping tales not only about “the one that got away” but also about crimes of passion, washed-up bodies and foundered boats. Some stories take on a life of their own and appear in cultures as widely separated as those of India, Portugal and the Conch Republic. One of my favorites involves a crabber and his catch. I’ve heard it told by Texans and Floridians, but this version was set in Cuba.
Day after day, a foreigner visiting Cuba watched a crab fisherman ply his trade. His routine was ordinary and predictable. Each day he rowed to his pots, emptied them into the boat and then returned them to the water, hoping for another good catch.
However ordinary his routine, his traps were extraordinary. They were missing a top, necessary to contain the crabs. Bemused by this topless crab trap and curious how such a trap could keep crabs from escaping, the visitor finally questioned the fisherman. “You caught many crabs today,” he said. The old man agreed. “I’ve been all over the world,” the visitor said, “but I’ve never seen a fisherman use a trap without a top. How does your trap work? With no top, how do you keep the crabs inside?”
“I need no top on my crab trap,” the old man explained with a smile. ”These are Cuban crabs.” The befuddled visitor seemed not to understand. “Cuban crabs?”, he asked. “Yes,” replied the old man. “Cuban crabs. When one crab tries to climb out of the trap, the rest pull him back in.”
No matter the version, my first response to the tale of the-crab-who-tried-to-escape always is laughter. I can’t help it – the image of those crabs tugging away at the legs of their struggling compatriot is funny. In a Cuban context, political implications temper the humor a bit, and the thought that anyone inside a dictatorship would try to prevent others from escaping is distressing. Still, it happens – no doubt a reason for the popularity of the story.
Recently, however, I’ve been thinking about the story in an even larger context. We live in a world where negativity, pessimism, jealousy and anger are powerful forces. They breed resignation and apathy, not to mention a sense that nothing we do can make a difference in our world. Disappointed by life, we risk bitterness. Criticized unfairly, we begin to judge others unfairly. Stung by ridicule, we diminish those around us in order to inflate our own egos.
Convinced that change is impossible, unconvinced of our own strength and ignorant of the possibilities available to us, we choose to live our lives as though we’ve been trapped in a basket. Boundaries and routines can become comfortable, after all, particularly when we’ve been trained to fear the world outside and simple laziness keeps us from struggling away from those who would pull us back. Whatever the reason, it’s easy enough to assume the wiser course is to accept the trap, rather than risk life or limb in the dash toward a different life.
It’s hardly surprising that life in a trap creates crabby people – folks intent on keeping everyone else in the pot with them. Every crab knows the newly-discovered freedom of even a single escapee would directly challenge easy rationalizations for staying in the trap. Knowing that, some use any means necessary to keep others from making a run for it.
Still, the urge to move beyond the constricted world of the trap can be strong. Surrounded and discouraged by those who prefer entrapment, some still scrabble toward freedom, and some succeed. Amusing as the story of the self-defeating crabs may be, it’s a necessary reminder that there isn’t a top on the crab traps of life. We may lose a leg in the struggle to get out, but we don’t have to stay in the basket.