Fiddlers by the Sea


I HAD dived deep beneath the waters of Haiti; I had climbed her mountains, horseback and afoot; but I had not stopped halfway and looked with any attention at the shore. I doubt if there is really any more dramatic place in the world than ’tween tides. We usually pass it by with a comment on High or low water, but if we will lie flat on our backs just above high tide (because of our unamphibian infirmity) we may see miracles.

I picked out a clump of trees above a white beach half a mile from the schooner and rowed thither. They were my old friends the mangroves, — the red kind, Avicennia, — whose roots by the thousand forever keep saying ‘thumbs up.’

Behind a sandy strip of beach I found an old boat sinking into the elements of all boats, and, climbing in, I waited. In five seconds a great cuckoo fell into my lap, thrashed out again, leaving two tail feathers, and flopped up into the branches overhead. Over all the world cuckoos are remarkable for two things — the astounding quality and diversity of their food, and the difficulty they have in making their wings and tail behave. This was the great lizard-eating cuckoo of Haiti, and in his pursuit of saurians was as regardless of direction and feathers and ultimate balance as his ebony cousins, the black witch cuckoos, who at this very moment ‘whaleeped’ in an adjoining thicket. While he preened his remaining feathers, I stuck my mementos in my helmet and waited for my next Haitian adventure.

Solitude is impossible in this humanridden land, and I could hear the soft French patois of blacks working in the sugar cane behind, while on the reef before me two men bailed their leaky boats almost all the time, and in brief intervals of safety examined their wicker fish traps and stabbed sea-urchin bait with nails on long poles.

The right of present possession and force of concentrated interest having made this my very own beach, I leaned back with a feeling of contented ownership and watched for all comers. The first was a slender beauty, a shadowthin Louisiana heron which paced slowly past in the shallows, eyeing my boat with suspicion, but paying me the compliment of not distinguishing me from the surrounding rotting boards and lichened roots. Once he stooped and snatched a tiny, flickering fish, and again pecked vainly at a dark spot which I knew was a live conch. Then he spread his wings and left my beach without sound or track. My next visitor was a trespasser, a Haitian, half clad in a garb of filthy rags, unwashed and unpleasant. Shining through these was most beautiful copper-mahogany skin, perfectly tempered to this tropic sun and air, infinitely more modest and sane than his hopeless attempts at conventional dress. Clad as I was only in abbreviated swimming trunks, my fair skin would have been an offense beside his were it not that in two months of constant exposure I had attained the hue of a dark mulatto.

My Haitian also stopped at the conch shell, picked it up, and, disentangling a rusty knife from his shreds of civilization, cut out a section of the mollusk and ate it. It was so natural a use of the beach and so skillfully done that I felt like withdrawing the stigma of trespasser and classing him with the native heron.

A mocking bird began to sing directly behind me, and for many minutes drowned out the sound of human voices in the distance. My cuckoo croaked overhead and spat down berry pits into my landlocked boat. Then magic began in the boat itself. The bottom boards had long since rotted away, and I sat on a mat of dry mangrove leaves. As if at a signal these leaves began to shift and lift and rub noisily against one another like recently crumpled papers in a wastebasket. The morning breeze had not yet sprung up, and I sat waiting for the elves which haunt old boats. In half a minute a dozen fiddler crabs bustled forth and, with one impulse, immediately vanished. I was comfortably frozen and had not frightened them, but the actual cause was as satisfying as the sight of the crabs themselves. A small green cockroach flew into the farther end, and after it, pell-mell, two fellow country folk, a parula warbler and a Maryland yellowthroat. They sensed me and, in spite of our common nationality, fled headlong, with only a single chirp between them.

The tide was going down my sloping sand, and on the uppermost ten feet I could read in the deep ripple marks the record of the strong wind which had whistled around our schooner tents at midnight. When I reached the five o’clock zone of calm, the sand’s surface was smooth as paper. Nothing in the world seemed more certain than that in a few hours the returning tide would wipe out every ripple mark, and yet I recalled many fossilized beaches, some over a mile above the present sea, where the tide had never returned, when by some velvet convulsion of Mother Earth the delicate furrows of shifting grains had become solid stone.

Everywhere on the smooth sand were records, as clear as tracks on snow, of watery beings who were compromising or pioneering in t his ribbon kingdom of dual elements — forever fought for by water and by air. The fiddlers were high upshore, pretending that they were land folk, yet never daring wholly to desert the dampness.

On mid-beach a few fiddlers were working like fury, digging tunnels and throwing up breastworks, piling pellets of sand with as perfect confidence as the foolish man in the Bible. Below them were scores of parallel lines drawn by terrified little black snails, all of whose bravado about the land had evaporated with the water, and they were following their ancestral element with all the speed of their tiny, muscled foot. One giant, a half inch in length, ploughed the distance of his stature in half a minute, and had therefore covered the eight feet of his back trail in an hour and a half, hardly the speed of the retreating t ide. These jet-black handsome beaded turrets speeding over the sand were only a few of their kind — those which had been caught in the blazing sun far from shelter. Wherever a depression promised dampness during low tide, or where the cool, mossy mangrove rootlets raised their spikes, thousands of the ebony spires gathered, spun a moisture-proof varnish across their front vestibule, and slept or dreamed or thought, or perhaps, being merely mollusks, only existed until the returning water awoke them to the joys and sorrows of snail life.


If I had ventured to make a probable list of the sea creatures most likely to be found among the mangrove roots at low tide, I should have completely failed. I should have favored sturdy, strong-housed snails and hermit crabs. But here instead were the flabbiest bits of life — unpleasant, wormy sea cucumbers which, as seen half dried in the sun, not even an enthusiastic holothurologist could call attractive. Their claim upon our interest, as I have shown elsewhere, is quite another matter.

Here in the sandy mangrove zone I was surprised to find sea anemones. I came across a symmetrical impression as if there had rested upon the sand a glass tumbler with base cut into an intricately scalloped pattern. As I stepped closer, the whole circular area sank a little, and a touch identified it.

All around was the evidence of considerable wave action, sand ripples an inch in depth, and it was hard to understand how this bit of flaccid animal jelly could maintain its hold upon the shifting grains. With my penknife I began excavating on one side, going down and down until at last I discovered its foot on a horizontal mangrove root, eight inches below the surface. When I dislodged it, a thick sheet of the red bark came along with it. I was reminded of the mixed character of this zone of life by a cohort of stinging ants, which raced over the sand and occasionally nipped me as I dug. The type of mind which is thrilled by having picked oysters from trees could make an excellent. Haitian yarn from the juxtaposition of anemones and ants. As I labored, a green-and-brown lizard dashed past in pursuit of the tiniest of fiddler infants. This astonishing race resulted in success for the aquatic kingdom, when the crablet dived safely into its hole.

By the time I had freed my anemone it had contracted to two inches and looked like a sandy mushroom. At first glance there was little to choose in point of beauty between it and the near-by stranded sea cucumber, but washing worked wonders, and the cucumber changed to the semblance of a rolling field all aglow with a dense crop of tansy in full bloom, and the moment I planted the anemone in an aquarium of sand, things beautiful began to happen.

Balanced on its contracted base, it gradually commenced to flatten and to grip the bottom with long, bulbous furrows. The summit opened slowly, like the slow-motion picture of an expanding flower. Structure after structure came into view, none showing the brilliancy of those blossoming on the coral reef a hundred yards from shore, but very beautiful with the exquisitely subdued patterning of hen pheasants. First there uncurled a broad Elizabethan ruff of clove brown, revolving outward in an expanse of surface like lace spread over a ploughed field. Then, like rabbits and bouquets from a conjurer’s hat, from no space at all rose up rank after rank of long finger tentacles, until forty-eight were numbered. These were thick at the base, and pale misty olive with whitish scars scattered down the inner side. Within the three circles of the ever-moving tentacles was a flat field of olive, marbled with reddish brown, guarding in its centre the half-opened mouth with still-concealed inner organs showing as four pearly spheres.

The first two anemones which I excavated had columns of pale pink, the exact shade of the bark of the submerged mangrove roots, but even the most violent protective-colorite could derive no support from this pigmental by-product, for in the next two anemones the long stalks were green.

Although t hey move and eat and are animals like ourselves, anemones, as personalities, pall after a time, and my interest was about to shift to other organisms when, in the lee of a small mangrove growing far down the sand, I saw a large individual with a brood of young alongside. There were eleven, and all clustered in a squarish space of about three inches. Their discs were tiny, but the slender tentacles were bravely expanded to their widest extent.

Sea anemones are delightfully diversified in the matter of reproduction. The eggs may be fertilized in t he water or may be retained until they become good-sized embryos. Some actinian mothers have special brood pouches like aquatic kangaroos. Or adventitious infants may suddenly develop like buds on the stalk of the parent; or the anemone herself may have a sudden longing for a double life, and slowly and gently split in twain.

It would almost seem as if the small family I had discovered had dropped off as buds, and instantly sunk their tiny, living shafts to bed rock, or in this case bed shell, for all reached down a full inch to a long-buried wreck of a conch. To this they clung with a persistency resisting the movements of both sand and water — which to them were, on the one hand, avalanches of great boulders and, on the other, terrific pounding of huge breakers. Thus did one family of Haitian sand anemones — or, if you will, Asteractis expansa — start their lives on my beach.


About six o’clock one t ropical winter evening, a disgruntled mother fiddler crab kicked several hundred of her offspring into the sea. Most of them soon died, some being eaten, others tangled up in drifting seaweed or thrown ashore and thoroughly dried. One at least lived, and to-day on my beach, a year later, I watched him come out of his burrow near the bow of my desiccated boat. I state all this with assurance, because it is the manner of birth of all fiddler crabs. For many days the mother crab carries dozens of bunches of eggs around with her. They are so heavy that she fears to leave her burrow except at dusk. She has little or no warmth of affection for them, and only through instinct is moved nightly to wade into the treacherous shallows and flick her growing offspring about — thus aerating them.

One evening, invariably about dusk, the young burst their shells, and at every flick of their mother’s body they are scattered by the thousand through the water. They bear exactly the same amount of resemblance to their parent that a horned toad does to a pussycat. The head and thorax part is enormous, and is made up chiefly of two long spines and a pair of monstrous eyes. A slender string of five beads forms an abdomen of sorts, and two small oars project at the sides, whose blades are tufts of feathery hairs. Twenty-five of these uncomfortable, unreasonable little beings could line up upon a pin’s length.

Our infant crab lives the simple life — in fact, it is the simple life even to its name, Zoea, which in Greek means ‘life.’ The whole object of Zoea for many weeks is to row itself furiously along, onward and upward as near the surface and light as possible, and to clutch at creatures still smaller and devour them. It kicks itself along through a whole world of infantile life — all at the mercy of waves and tides and currents. There are sea worms, sea urchins, snails, jellyfish and starfish, moss animals, sea eggs, larval fish, and lobsters — all youthful, freeswimming, boiling with futile energy, kicking, snapping, wriggling, flapping their way through the water in preparation for the time when age shall force most of them to settle down to a life of crawling, creeping, winding, or even vegetative existence on the bottom of the sea.

With and about and around all these tiny creatures drifts still another world of life—billions upon billions of onecelled animals and plants. And, were we of sufficient lack of stature to observe these adequately, we should be hard put to it often to tell which was plant and which animal; such easy marks of difference as green coloring matter and lack of movement are meaningless here. We are in a strange cosmos where no second glance would be given to a geranium with wings or a puppy with roots. This third world furnishes an abundance of nourishment for the second, which is that of Zoea. And Zoea crumbs fall from the banquet table of the fish fraternity, and so on.

In the matter of privacy, the famous goldfish lives in an opaque seraglio in comparison with Zoea. The latter is absolutely transparent, and nothing is hidden from friend or enemy — the heart, beating sometimes fast, sometimes slow, or stopping, the food going cheerfully on its way through the body, while we can see the muscles move as behind clear glass.

For a few weeks Zoea succeeds in keeping near the surface, but, as it moults again and again, its oars are blunted and it gets heavier, until it gives up and rolls about helplessly on the bottom. The fifth Zoea now moults into a being somewhat awfully like a crab, but one misshapen and gone all wrong. It is as horrible in disposition as in bodily form. Megalops it is called, and claws its way through the water, feeding voraciously. Its own brothers and lesser Zoea nephews are especial titbits. Another month passes, while the crab spirit grows stronger, and for a week or more it clings to floating nuts or weeds or bits of wood, and at last crawls unsteadily out on land. Here it is probably devoured by its father, mother, or relatives, for it is still only a twelfth of an inch in length. If, however, it runs the gauntlet, it digs a tiny burrow, and for the first time in its life has a short, safe breathing space.

When it moults into one-eighth inch of crab, it observes with interest (or should do so) that one of its front pincers is larger than the other. It is easy for us to imagine how exciting it must be to watch one’s figure alter after each moult; to hold up one’s hands and see one growing larger and larger, while the other stays unchanged. It is fortunate that one does remain unaltered, for the great claw is more in the way than it is useful. While the body of the crab is drab gray, exactly the color of damp sand, the enormous claw is of a conspicuous ivory-white.

If a man of average size and weight changed a pair of mittens every week, and developed along the lines of a male fiddler crab, his hand finally would measure ten feet in length and weigh sixty pounds. With such a handicap (no pun intended), he would surely have trouble at a lunch counter.

Day by day now the growing fiddler leaves its burrow and follows the tide up and down the beach, feeding on all the flotsam and the windrows of dead and living creatures, and the algal manna spread twice a day by some benignant god of fiddlers. If the crab is hungry he must envy the lady fiddlers who shovel in the food with both hands, while he must lug the great claw about and ply his single little spoon as best he may.


Our fiddler, whether rightor lefthanded, is now finally started upon his way of life. Up to this time he has been the plaything of wind and wave, tossed and tumbled about, snatching at whatever bits of food fate sent him — with as much conscious will and power of choice as a rolling stone.

Now he builds him a house, and although it is founded upon, or rather in, the sand, yet for him henceforth the stars revolve about the entrance to his little burrow, the sun shines only upon it, the tide rises merely for the purpose periodically of dampening it. Then one day I appear, — a most unimportant shapeless intrusion, — harmless and disregarded if I am quiet, something to be avoided if I move.

I can take no conceit for t his, for all his cosmos is divided into two parts — things harmless and things unknown, and therefore probably harmful. First are the darkness and the sunshine, the wind, the rain, the rising tide, and all quiescent things. A heron — a hungry carcinophagous (look it up, it’s a good forthright-sounding word) heron—who has the patience to imitate the immobility of his likeness on a Japanese screen, such a heron is but a spindling bush or is not at all to the fiddler peering out of his burrow. But if the bulging eyes of the heron so much as wink, if the smallest muscle gives an anticipatory twitch, the spindling bush becomes what it is — a cancrivorous (you may like this one better, if your forbears came from Rome instead of Athens) horror. It may then stand still till doomsday, and the crab will remain in his burrow until a few minutes after that time.

Immediately the morning sun has boomed down the Valley of the Cul-deSac and set fire to Port au Prince and the waters of the great gulf, my fiddler peers out from behind his plug of earth — his barricade against unknown and therefore imminent dangers of the night. He pushes it aside and stands aloft beside his burrow. The new day dawns for him alone, as far as he knows, and three problems await him. He must avoid danger and death, he must seek and find food, and he must detect and secure a mate and ensure future offspring. Not being a self-conscious ‘higher’ animal, these are to him sacred responsibilities, none of which he may avoid.

It was at this moment that I settled down to a comfortable position within my decayed and stranded craft, and watched him over the crumbling sternpost. A small flock of blackbirds dashed past the mangrove tree over my head, and the fiddler dived sideways into his hole. I stretched out my hand, rested the ends of all five fingers on the sand, and waited. Soon the tip of an eyestalk appeared and then all of it, and fiddler was above ground again. He surprised me now, for after only a few seconds he walked on toe-tips to my thumb and gently nibbled it with his small claw, then strolled around and between my fingers. His sense of sight was apparently the dominant one, for the odor of my hand, and, as I subsequently found, even the roar from a shotgun, conveyed nothing. It is difficult to study fiddlers seriously, they are so comical in their appearance and motions and so absurdly like human gnomes, and yet the slightest smile or laugh will send them headlong. Whenever my fiddler came out from his burrow, he cleaned himself carefully, wiping off every fleck of mud from eyes and whatever parts of himself he could reach.

A file of fiddler brethren passed and my crab raised aloft and brandished his great claw — broadsword, battleaxe, mammoth shears — all similes fail. He was answered by every male in sight, and a youngster ran up and made one or two passes at him. The ebbing tide was lapping a yard or two away, and all the host gradually made its way down to the water. With eyes on high the little chaps worked at feeding with might and main. They simply spooned the mud into their mouths and there made selection of edible morsels, or with the tiny forceps of the small claw picked up bits of seaweed. Once full retreat was sounded — a false alarm, for one crab had seen another frightened by some youngster down the beach, who suddenly caught sight of a small hermit crab bumping along peacefully enough and fled headlong, doing whatever crabs do instead of screaming.

My muscles rebelled at last and I sat up to ease them, and by the action sent every crab into its burrow. They even ran toward me in order to reach their holes. All was quiet for the space of two minutes, and then the elves and hobgoblins again appeared. When the procession had fairly begun, I saw a new development. Every male in sight stiffened to attention, and lifted his great claw as high as he could reach. And down the line came a female fiddler. There were others of her sex in sight, some larger, but this particular one worked magic. The frantic gesticulating and waving on all sides would have stirred any blase movie queen to appreciation. Food and danger were forgotten. The only thing in the world was to get one’s ivory-white claw noticed, and then gently to persuade Her to enter one’s burrow. The action was that of a mighty gesticulation, a beckoning in five jerks, the last of which almost threw the crab over on its back. When all the male crabs in the colony were suddenly seized with this frenzy of persuasion, the distant view was exactly that of a mob of cheering human beings, the simile being all the more remarkable because of the desperate and complete silence which clothed the emotional outburst of these crustacean citizens.

The difference between this gesture of the right hand of passionate fellowship and that of shaking the fist in the face of any passing male was hardly to be discerned. In the case of the courtship the fiddler would often freeze into a statuesque pose for three or four minutes at a time. And if any man sneers at fiddler crabs because they are inedible and hence unworthy of notice, let him try to hold a sixtypound weight at arm’s length. The crab’s record is ten minutes.

My Haitian fiddler crabs were christened sixty years ago by a certain Dr. Smith, who called them Uca mordax — from Uça, a native Brazilian name, and a Roman’s appreciation of their pinching and biting ability. Although a crab’s sand burrow is his castle, and the most savory morsel or most charming fiddler wench can tempt him hardly more than a yard or two away, yet his race is widespread. Many times in past centuries his ancestors must have clung fearfully but tenaciously to floating trees and other oceanic jetsam, and drifted far and wide, for his brethren are found to-day from the Bahamas throughout the West Indies, clear around the Gulf of Mexico and on south as far as Rio.

In the course of ten visits I observed a noticeable increase in an acceptance of me as something not wholly inimical. I should dearly love to identify myself in the fiddlers’ notions as a swaying mangrove for harmlessness. I believe I should find more than the three basic problems. The courtship I think would prove to be more complex, and actual uses more apparent and vital for the huge claw, twice as long and nearly half as heavy as all the rest of its owner.