Cally Nurse is an MFA student in Dundee.
Encounters with the Velvet Swimming Crab: What do our feelings of disgust towards
animals reveal about our attitude to the living world?
Touch it, he says. There, in his blue,rubber-gloved hand, is a crab. Its antennae flick to
sniff while its rolling red eyes scope its surroundings. Its pinkie-like pincers waver. Its jointed
legs are poised but its zig-zag striped paddles stay flat. It seems dis-orientated and uncertain.
My fingertip hovers over its mottled brown shell. I touch it and feel an unexpected velvety
fuzz. A buzzcut! I stroke its pelt. The tiny, soft, close-knit bristles ebb and flow. Its mechanical
mouthparts move frantically. Is it purring? Its ruby eyes are like harbour warning lights. Our
gazes intersect. What does it see? Is it staring or glaring?
“Horrible creatures,” grins the fisherman, putting the crab into an orange plastic crate on
the quayside. Steve is a third generation Aberdeenshire creel fisherman and has been fishing
for over 30 years. He turns his attention back to his task of sorting through his haul. Both hands
work alternately as he picks up each crab, glances at it to check size, number of limbs and, if
female, whether berried. Rejects are tossed back into the sea. The rest join my crab in the stack
of crates. The heap grows. They are passive, barely a twitch. Next stop will be cold storage
followed by hundreds of miles in a truck and on board a ship to the paella pots of Spain. Who, in
this scenario, are the horrible creatures, I wonder.
Naturally, this question spawns more. What is a horrible creature? And to whom is it
horrible and why? What does calling a creature horrible say about us? Our response to any
creature is rarely simple. It is triggered not only by our sensory perceptions, but is also bound up
with our inner world of instinct and the unconscious and our outer world shaped by social,
cultural and political factors. I intend to explore the particularity of the fisherman’s personal
response to the crab in the wider context of our current relations with the living world in the hope
of demonstrating how a different way of relating to the world around us is not only possible but
might already be happening.
To place my analysis in the philosophical sphere, I will refer primarily to Alfred North
Whitehead, Karen Barad and Donna Haraway. For insights from other fields, I will turn to 19th
century artist, critic and commentator, John Ruskin, and 20th century poet, Ted Hughes.
First, a few facts about the horrible creature in question. It is the Velvet Swimming Crab
(Necora puber), a crustacean which lives for around six years in the shallow coastal waters of
Britain. It scavenges algae and small marine creatures, and, like other shellfish, it is not averse
to cannibalism. Its brain comprises two ganglia which process sensory data. Like many crabs,
its tiny filiae on its antennae enable it to sniff. Unlike many crabs, it is not restricted to living on
the seabed. Thanks to its back paddles, it can swim. The crab’s dark brown colour, red eyes,
thin spider-like legs, sharp claws, complex mouthparts and black and brown patterned paddles
gave rise to its nicknames the Devil Crab and the Fighter Crab. It looks sharp, dirty and
dangerous despite its small size.
This uninviting appearance did not repel the nature-loving artist, John Ruskin. Through
his eye, mind and hand, it becomes an intricate delicate thing of beauty, worthy of as much
attention as any other resident on earth (Figure.1). This painting, from the 1860s, is one of his
many careful and exquisite watercolours of the natural world which evoke his intense sense of
wonder at its variety and mystery.
Already we have a dichotomy stemming from two observers of the same thing. Clearly
the visual aspects alone are not the whole story. In his lecture, Nature Alive, given at the
University of Chicago in 1934, Whitehead (1968, p. 158) said, “The information provided by
mere sight is peculiarly barren – namely external regions disclosed as colour.” This is one of his
fundamental arguments behind his theory that the scientific approach of abstracting in search of
a specific result, although useful, is limited because it is reductionist, leading to a perception of
Nature which is ‘made up of vacuous bits of matter’.
Although Whitehead focuses on colour, our visual sense also provides an idea of shape
and texture which are fully brought to life through touch. Touch is potentially more intimate. By
feeling something, we connect on a visceral level which can lead to an immediate physical
reaction such as a shudder of repulsion or a purr of pleasure.
The fishermen handle every single crab they catch and invariably invite onlookers to
touch the Velvet crab too. This invitation to experience the novelty of a furry-shelled crab adds
another important element to the interaction between human and non-human or what Karen
Barad terms intra-action. She defines it as “agency and not an inherent property of an individual
or human to be exercised, but as a dynamism of forces.” (Barad, 2007, p 141)
In an interview about the importance of touch as an intra-action which reveals the self
within the other and the other within the self, Barad (2012) says: “What if it is only in the
encounter with the inhuman, in its liveliness, in its gifting life and death its conditions of im/
possibility, that we can truly confront “our” inhumanity, that is, “our” actions lacking compassion?
Perhaps it takes facing the inhuman within “us” before com-passion – suffering together with,
participating with, feeling with, being moved by – can be lived. How would we feel if it is by way
of the inhuman that we come to feel, to care, to respond?”
As she suggests, a simple physical connection provides a deep and direct link to our
inner visions including our concept of ourselves, humans in a world of non-humans. Whitehead
(1968, p. 158) links body and mind as one unity: “All sense perception is merely one outcome of
the dependence of our experience upon bodily functionings. The human individual is one fact,
body and mind.” He adds: “For philosophy the one fundamental fact is that the whole complexity
of mental experience is either derived or modified by such [bodily] functioning.” (Whitehead,
1968, p. 160)
So what else might be lurking beneath the surface of the fisherman’s opinion of the
Traditionally, British fishermen considered the Velvet Swimming Crab a pest. It raided
creels for bait and had no commercial value. This changed about 15 years ago when the pesky
creature turned into precious cargo. With no Velvets left in the Mediterranean, the seas of the
UK became a new source of supply to feed the appetites of Southern Europeans. In 2015
around 1500 tonnes with a value of £3.7m were exported from Scotland to Spain, Portugal, Italy
and France (Marine Scotland, 2017).
To these people, the little crab is far from a horrible creature. Any misgivings about its
appearance are swept aside in favour of flavour. The crab is not flesh but meat, not repellent but
tasty. Touch plays a different role here. Being small and fiddly, the crabs are finger food.
Consumers tear them apart, cracking open the shell to access about two tablespoons of meat.
The claws offer tiny morsels which are either sucked out or the claws crunched whole with
shards of shell spat out. This creates a different knowledge of the creature : the way it is put
together. The manner of eating them is physical and visceral, a distinctly involved and embodied
way of engaging with food which is very un-British.
Our reluctance to eat these crabs may be another factor contributing to the fisherman’s
repulsion. It highlights a paradox peculiar to the British. We croon over lambs because they are
woolly, wobbly and harmless. Shortly after they appear in our fields, they re-appear on our
plates as a traditional Easter Sunday lunch. We are eager to eat animals as long as the finished
dish bears no resemblance to the gambolling creature they once were! In contrast, the
Southern Europeans do not shy away from the fact that the Velvet Crab is a creature, albeit
dead. Presented whole, the crabs are instantly recognisable when served (Figure 2).
Living quietly in the shallows and rocks of the sea-bed, crabs are generally out of sight
but this does not mean out of mind. They have featured in our imaginations throughout history
and across different cultures. Our word crab has Germanic roots – Old English crabbe, Dutch
krabbe and proto-Germanic krabbo which means to crawl. Another word association stems from
Greece where the word for crab is karkinos. In Greek mythology the karkinos was a giant crab
which helped Hydra in a battle and was crushed in the struggle. As a reward, it was made into a
constellation of stars called Cancer, symbolised by the crab in astrology.
This brings us to more unpleasant associations. Greek physician, Hippocrates, used the
word karkinos to label ulcerous external growths where “the veins stretch on all sides as the
animal crab has its feet.” (Moss, 2004). Today this is what we call cancer, one of the most
common and feared diseases with over 200 different types, most without a single cause or
absolute cure. In addition, a case of the ‘crabs’ is the common name for pubic lice.These
horrible connections may well provide subconscious reasons behind the notion of the crab a
Crabs in British cultural history tend to be unpleasant too. The word crabby refers to
someone in a bad mood; someone who is crabbed is vicious, spiteful and perverse. Even the
crab-apple is sour and inedible when raw.
In his poem Ghost Crabs, Ted Hughes (1982), wrote of crabs which emerge at night from
the sea to invade the houses of sleeping people. The crabs become “a bristling surge of tall and
staggering spectres…” with “bubbling mouths and eyes, a slow mineral fury.” During their
frenzied raid, they “stalk each other, they fasten onto each other. They mount each other, they
tear each other to pieces. They utterly exhaust each other. They are the powers of this world.
We are their bacteria, Dying their lives and living their deaths.”
Hughes’ nature poetry is filled with the primal power inherent in the natural world. The
creatures appear alien but at the same time there is a feeling of discomfort that we may be
looking at an uglier, truer version of ourselves – our animal side which we constantly struggle to
master. The ghost crabs have a military appearance with shells like “a packed trench of
helmets”. Hughes believed that “poetry is nothing if not that, the record of just how the forces of
the Universe try to redress some balance disturbed by human error.” (Haas, 1972).
For Whitehead, poetry is closely linked to philosophy. He writes: “Philosophy is the
endeavour to find a conventional phraseology for the vivid suggestiveness of the poet.”
(Whitehead, 1968, p. 50). In the Epilogue to Modes of Thought entitled What is Philosophy?, he
states that “Philosophy is akin to poetry, and both of them seek to express that ultimate good
sense, which we term civilization.” (Whitehead, 1968, p. 174).
Today it is easy to believe that Whitehead’s human good sense has lost ground to
Hughes’ human error. So much around us seems to be changing for the worse, shifting at such
a speed it has become threatening. As we try to control the spread of COVID 19, a virus which
is affecting people in virtually every country, our separation from the world around us, from each
other and even from ourselves, our response could be seen as an inevitable outcome of what
Whitehead (1920) called the ‘bifurcation of nature’. He refers to the “detached fragments of
explanation” that characterise our reliance on facts, separating the material from the mental.
This Cartesian dualist approach neglects underlying connections and has led to the scientific
world “suffering from a bad attack of muddle-headed positivism” (Whitehead,1968, p. 149).
Over 80 years later, this bifurcation is even more apparent. We are relying on scientists
to give us the data, find a vaccine and solve the problem. No sooner do they seem to get to
grips with the virus, it mutates. Truly the stuff of horror stories and headlines. Those who are
asking why this is happening and what does it mean do not get the same degree of air-time.
Breaking down into parts at the expense of losing the sense of the whole became a
deep concern of Ruskin. In 1871 in a monthly journal, Fors Clavigera, he wrote an article called
The White-Thorn Blossom. Using the example of a botanist’s lecture on the parts of a plant
where his aim was to suggest that there is no such thing as a flower only parts: leaf, root and
fruit, Ruskin describes two kinds of scientific approach, one is knowing how to live and the other
knowing how to die. Not unlike Whitehead’s 1934 lecture titles, Nature Lifeless and Nature Alive,
Ruskin wrote: “All true science is savoir vivre. But all your modern science is the contrary of that.
It is savoir mourir. This is to disregard the life and passion of the creature which were its
essence.” (Rosenberg, 1963, p. 367). Essential for ‘savoir vivre’ were three immaterial things:
admiration, hope and love. Lose admiration and it will be replaced by contempt and conceit,
lose hope and we become short-termists, lose love and we turn our neighbours into enemies
(Rosenberg, 1963, p. 369).
Contempt certainly seems to colour the attitude of the fishermen to the Velvet Swimming
Crab. The creature that was once worthless has become a commodity and the economic
imperative is forcing them to deal with it despite their revulsion. Underlying the contempt is the
conceit that has arisen from human exceptionalism – our conviction of our importance and
superiority over non-humans and certain other humans. By caring less we have become
careless and our carelessness is tied up with a sense of short-termism.
One symptom is the significant increase in rubbish in the sea over the last 30 years.
Along with his haul of shellfish, Steve catches all kinds of discarded materials such as plastics,
polystyrene, remnants of ribboned helium balloons, cans and carrier bags which get tangled
with his creels and ropes. He brings it all back and disposes of it all properly. Not every
fisherman is like him. Among it all are bits of fishing paraphernalia thrown overboard by
fishermen themselves and jeopardising their own fishing futures.
More pressing than short or long-term thinking for Haraway is what happens now. She
says we need to learn “to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot, between awful or edemic
pasts, and apocalyptic or salvific futures” (Haraway, 2016, p. 1). Now is the time to enter into a
deeper entanglement – something she calls with becoming-with (Haraway, 2016, p. 13). By
adding the conjunction ‘with’ she transforms Heiddegger’s (1996) idea of time as an ‘intuited’
becoming made up of a ‘succession of nows’ experienced by us as isolated individuals into an
experience which is a “shared, overlapping and thick copresence” (Haraway, 2016, p. 4).
Despite the many layers of difference and complexity, her notion of companion species
provides a key to a better relationship and understanding. Her vision that ‘all earthlings are kin
in the deepest sense’ and that ‘all critters share a common flesh’ (Haraway, 2016, p. 103) may,
however, just be too big a leap for the majority. It is far easier for us to consider ourselves kin to
our furry, familiar, communicative and air-breathing friends than to a crab, even if it is kind of
furry. To suggest to the fishermen that the Velvet Swimming Crab should be treated as kin or is
a companion species would probably be considered at best a joke, at worst the preaching of a
vegan or animal rights activist.
What if we can first conceive of living beings as our allies and our relationships as
alliances – words rooted in the Latin ligarete to bind together? Then we may start to comprehend
how being bound together despite our differences entails a mutual interdependence, reciprocity
and respect. It is in all our interests to find ways to co-operate and co-exist with all creatures,
horrible or otherwise. Put simply, we need each other. In most cases, we need them more than
they need us. Our relations with the infinite variety of the natural world and the potential for
harmony and discord form a major theme in the art of Paul Klee, example below entitled They’re
Biting (Figure 3), which makes one wonder who’s biting whom and will the fish bite back?
Changing the perception of the crab from horrible to agreeable would mean disregarding
the many layers causing our aversion and shaking off our entrenched conviction of our own
superiority. We not only have to learn to accept and respect the difference of the ‘other’, we
have to embrace it. The first step towards such a conversion may be simply to show an interest,
pay attention and ask questions. My curiosity certainly seemed to bemuse the fishermen,
especially when I explained that I am not a student of marine biology but art and philosophy!
Change is a big part of everyone’s lives now as the restrictions imposed by lockdown
mean we are having to break habits and abandon assumptions. Forced to stay local means we
spend less time moving and more time in one place. Isolated from our usual social interactions,
screen chats and virtual hugs have become the norm but they do not bridge the gap or meet all
our needs. We are three dimensions (at least!) and need to relate to the world we are within in
ways that involve all those dimensions.
The sharp divide between nature and life imagined by Whitehead (1968, p. 150) is in
danger of turning into a yawning abyss. On one side we howl in isolation while on the far side
life carries on and even flourishes without us. The media showed us pictures of a goose who
made her nest in a railway station flowerbed and a herd of deer roaming in a deserted high
street. The dawn chorus performers turned up the volume to fill the new silence of our cities. A
record one million of us reported over 17 million birds in the annual Big Garden BIrdwatch
Survey (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, 2021).
These reports suggest we have become more aware of our surroundings and our
neighbours, both human and non-human. We have time to stand and stare, to look into the eyes
of the creatures around us and touch living things that are within reach – plants, mosses, tree
bark and even crabs! It is a disorienting and disrupting time. In our search for reassurance and
comfort, sales of books, puppies, vegetable seeds and hot tubs have soared. Does this shift in
our sensibilities help meet our need to belong and to satisfy some deeper spiritual yearning to
connect? Maybe by discovering our kin in the widest sense, we are creating a vital connection
based on Ruskin’’s third essential immaterial quality for savoir vivre: love (Rosenberg, 1963).
Like a crab, we first have to shed our hard outer shell of conceit, self-centredness and
conviction of our superiority, importance and human exceptionalism. The question is whether we
can replace it with a bigger shell and a wider outlook in order to live in a more generous and
expansive way. We may feel vulnerable and exposed during the process but could it open up a
more careful, caring and rewarding way of being and of relating to our allies, who include us and
all those other beings on this shared planet we call earth? Let’s hope so.
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