The Parable of the Crab Pots


Clear Creek stitches its way through the fabric of my world, drawing together water and sky, grasses and trees into patterns of exquisite beauty.  Pulled through the marshy flood plain toward Clear Lake, its flow is a tangled haven for birds and wildlife. Eventually emerging from the lake to become a channel, it becomes a passage to open water, intertwining with the ocean’s salty tang in Galveston Bay.

Near the Bay, the Creek seems little more than a prop, a backdrop for tourist snapshots and Chamber of Commerce brochures. Nearly forgotten behind the facades 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 can be loud and boisterous, demanding attention as they cruise by the land-locked crowds.  They seem oblivious to the natural marvels that float and swirl before the tide of human progress or fly off, seeking respite from the uproar.

During the week, the channel and its inhabitants are left in relative peace. On a low tide, rocks along the edge serve as perches for some of the world’s most successful fishers: black and yellow crowned night herons, green herons, American and snowy egrets. Mallards and pintails float by, accompanied even in summer by an occasional coot.  Cormorants dive and, in winter, mergansers and loons provide a little excitement for human northerners who also have migrated south to escape the cold.

There always are a few human fishermen about, looking for redfish or trout, walking the walls in hope of scaring up a flounder.  Sport fishers top off at the fuel dock and an occasional trawler fuels for a trip down the coast.  In season, they’re joined by the crabbers and shrimpers, working folk who have schedules and routines.  I watch them make their rounds like clockwork: emptying traps, rebainting, dropping them back in the water.

There’s nothing fancy about a crabber.  Like shrimpers, crabbers 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 that tourists rarely see. 

Because they have routines and their favorite spots for setting out traps, I’ve come to know a few – one or two by name, but most by sight.  We share  the simple friendliness of neighbors – a wave, a greeting shouted across the water, a question about weather or the catch.  I think about them a lot, and about how similar our lives are.  We spend our days on the water or at its edge.  We do repetitive work,  and we have far more time to think than we have money. 

I love to hear and tell stories, and fishermen are great story tellers.  Occasionally you find them lunching at local cafes or gathering at tiny watering holes in San Leon, Dickinson, and Bacliff, where they swap tales about catches,  crimes of passion, bodies found, or boats run up on the rocks.  They not only tell stories, they’re the subject of stories, and  I recently heard a retelling of one of my favorite stories about a crabber.  Sometimes it’s set in Mexico, and sometimes in the Florida Keys, 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 returned them to the water, hoping for another good catch.
However ordinary his routine, his traps were extraordinary.  They had no top.  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 continued,  “but I’ve never seen a fisherman use a trap without a top.   How can it be that your trap works?  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 which version of the story I hear, my first response always is laughter.  The image of all those crab claws tugging away  at the legs of the would-be escapee is funny.   When it’s told as a Cuban story, political implications do temper the humor somewhat.  The thought that anyone inside a dictatorship (other than the authorities) might try to prevent others from escaping the pot seems amazing, but it’s a fact of life.

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, a sense that nothing we do will make a difference in our world.  Disappointed by life, we become bitter.  Criticized for one thing or another, we begin to judge others.  Stung by ridicule, we begin to tear others down in order to build ourselves up.

Trapped by a sense that nothing ever will change, convinced that no one can be trusted and ignorant of the possibilities available to us, we live in a trap as surely as those crabs, comfortable with its boundaries and routines.  Perhaps we fear the world outside, seeing it as dangerous, frightening or evil.  Sometimes, simple laziness keeps us from struggling away from those who would pull us back.  Whatever the reason, it’s easy enough to become  convinced that the wiser course is to stay in the trap, rather than risking our lives in the dash toward a different life.  

The point here is not to psychoanalyze those who prefer to stay in the trap, but to encourage those who want to climb out.  Even when surrounded and nearly beaten down by nastiness, griping, negativity, paranoia or bitterness, the urge to move beyond the constricted world of crab pot can be strong.

The fact is that the world is filled with crabby people – people who would like nothing more than to keep everyone else in the trap with them.  If others escape, their new-found freedom becomes a direct challenge to every rationalization for staying in the trap.  Every crab in the pot knows that. It’s what makes some so determined to use whatever means necessary to keep others from making the run.

But that lone crab, fighting his way up the side with his buddies trying to pull him back down is a reminder to all of us – there isn’t a top on the crab pot. You may lose a leg in the struggle to get out, but you don’t have to stay in the trap. Remaining in the pot is a choice.


Copyright © 2008 Linda L. Leinen.   All rights reserved.

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8 thoughts on “The Parable of the Crab Pots

  1. Love the Cuban story! And yes, what a parable. Negative people almost always try to drag down others; in my experience it’s a rare Debbie Downer who wants to be alone.

    Have you read a book called Beautiful Swimmers? It’s about crabs and crabbers in Chesapeake Bay. I believe (relying on memory only) it was published in 1976. It won a Pulitzer. Thin volume, but memorable.

    Good morning, Ella,

    What’s the old phrase? Misery loves company? It surely does, and it can be terrifically hard to resist the temptation toward negativity.

    The longing to escape apparently is cross-species. Did you happen to catch the July 28 New Yorker cover that showed lobsters clambering down a knotted tablecloth hanging from a kitchen window, while their pot bubbled on the stove and the humans partied on the front porch? Funny stuff.

    Thanks for the tip on the book. I found it and it’s on its way to me. From the reviews, it looks like an excellent read.


  2. I’ve never heard the crab pot anecdote. And I’m taking it’s wisdom with me.
    How lovely it is to live near water. We have, in the past. (I’m an East Coast girl). I miss it. And so I love your waterside tales, and pictures.

    Good day, oh,

    The water IS lovely. In days past, I wasn’t happy unless I was on it. Now, being near it is just fine.
    I still read and re-read Anne Morrow Lindberg’s “Gift from the Sea”. A friend gave it to me as “beach reading” when I stayed at the shore for the first time, decades ago. Now, whenever I read it, I’m back at the water’s edge again, thinking about her lessons.

    Thanks for your kind comment on the little lesson of the crab pot!


  3. I actually heard that story told about the crabs at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. But it is a universal human truth, isn’t it?

    The Cubans, however, are indeed the most self-deprecating people I’ve ever met, and it would be just like them to have invented a story against themselves.

    Morning, raincoaster,

    It may be that the story pops up wherever there are crabs, and people to tell the tale. For all I know, crabs may even tell the story to one another – a little cautionary tale for the kids! Interesting how a different context (political dictatorship, dysfunctional family, social-climbing community, warring blog factions) gives a different flavor to the story, like changing spices in a basic soup.

    Thanks for the visit and comment. Have an enjoyable weeked!


  4. I saved your post for a leisurely Saturday morning read and was not disappointed.

    As for me, sometimes I feel like the crab that’s trying to escape, and sometimes I’m one of the crabs in the trap. I am a realist, and then again, I am an idealist. Cursed enigmatic personality! :)

    I guess, like most things in life, it’s a balancing act. Sometimes realism wins, sometimes idealism wins, but most often, a nice blend between the two works best.

    Morning, tee ~

    Such a nice compliment, to have my little essay “saved” for reading. Thank you!

    And thanks, too, for the interesting comment. I’ve been thinking about it a bit, and I must say that in the case of the crabs and their pot, I’m not settling for the “golden mean”. I’m all on the side of that critter doing his desperate best to get up and out of that pot. There’s no guarantee that what’s on the outside is going to be any better, of course. But the struggle to get out and to see what’s there is probably worth the effort, anyway.

    That’s the way it looks this morning, anyhow! Enjoy your day, and many thanks for stopping by.


  5. Loved reading this quickly…I will be back to enjoy it again, and forward it to the crab fishermen in this area…they will love it!
    THANKS so much for wandering by our blog.
    Looks great around here.

    Good morning, nw,

    Thanks for stopping by. I spent a little more time poking around your site last night, and really enjoyed it. I’ve only been as far north as the lower Oregon Coast, but the Pacific NW and New England are on my “must sees”…. someday!

    I have friends who spent a year sailing the San Juans. To say their reports are glowing is an understatement. What a beautiful country we have – I do enjoy seeing bits of it through sites like yours.


  6. “They not only tell stories, they’re the subject of stories,”
    Well the story that this brings to mind is Native N.A.:
    “The Jumping Mouse”
    One morning up coast I noticed a crab swimming to the surface near the dock. Did you ever see a crab swim? It was inverted and when it surfaced it somehow flipped upright and returned to crab normal bottom feeding stuff. In the picture above it looks like the crab is walking on water.

    1. Ken,

      Actually, I do see crabs around a good bit – at least in certain seasons. We have different varieties, but they’re fun to watch in the water. There’s a good bit of crabbing done in the area, too – I noticed just today that folks have been setting traps again.

      The one up top’s on a beach, at the water’s edge. He’s got plenty of good sand to walk on, but the water gives it a mirror-like effect.
      Handsome thing, he is.


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