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I am a small, brown barnacle, Chthamalus montagui, to be precise. I will tell you my earliest memory: it is from my days as a nauplius larva, drifting in an endless expanse of blue water or sky, for all I knew at the time just off a landmass I later came to know as Unalaska Island. I remember the color of the water only, not a sense of movement, because it has been twenty-three years since I last moved, thank the stars.
I suppose I may have drifted a long way in those earlier, loose days. We barnacles are quite the travelers in larval form, of course, though I know a fellow who is a traveler of a different sort and for all I know my mother was attached to a humpback whale off the south coast of Japan. Iıll never know, and it is beyond unlikely I will ever meet one of my ten thousand siblings of that year. Infant mortality amongst barnacle larvae is very high. In any case, since I found my rock on Unalaska Island, I have not dreamed much of the rest of this world, and to speculate makes my cement gland twinge, and I cling ever tighter against the irrational fear of somehow becoming loose once more.
My home grip is on a south facing rock in the littoral zone of a very popular headland. The crowding here beggars belief, not just on my rock, which I share with at least sixty thousand other barnacles, but on all the rocks beyond, presumably all the way around the island and back to my absolute zero. And not just barnacles! This headland is a favorite neighborhood for blue mussels (Mytilus trossulus), shield limpets (Lottia pelta), oysters (Crassostrea gigas), and all imaginable lower animals from chitons and nudibranches all the way down to crabs, shrimp, sea stars, clams, scallops, periwinkles, shrimp, sculpins, seagulls, and, of course, my large, dull witted cousins the white Semibalanus balanoides barnacles. We Chthamalus donıt bunch together into ridiculous honeycombs the way Semibalanus do, but even I feel a little claustrophobic in this crowd. When that happens, the only thing to do is close my operculum and hide from the world. I am perfectly content with my own company.
I am very pleased with the location where I chose to settle down and calcify my plates. At the time I recognized the smell of my own kind from some distance off. As I approached the island it became almost overwhelming, filling me with an overpowering desire for which, as a drifting larva, I had no name and I instinctively chose the southern face of a large slab of basalt because I had already learned to love the sun. The sun is quite dangerous for a barnacle, and it may well be that I placed myself a little too high in the upper tidal zone, because some days in summer, during the low spring tides, I almost desiccate before I am wetted again. What an ordeal that can be, but how satisfying the first spray that drums on my shell at the end of one of those torturous days! I know from twenty three years of tides that I can endure the longest drought inside my limey plates, and the risk of water loss is worth it for the direct exposure to the most beautiful sun. The desire I had as drifting larva I now know was nothing more than a dream of stillness.
Although it is less crowded up here where I live than down in the prime residential area about a foot lower, there is the additional risk of snails. How they terrify me! Not a week goes by without the litany of names passing along the grapevine to my roost those who fell to the snails in the last days. But I am small, and barely noticeable, at least compared to the idiotic Semibalanus.
An acorn barnacle (Balanus glandula) that I know quite well came by today. He is attached to the second rear joint of the seventh leg of a red rock crab, so I can never predict when I will next see him, a decision that is more up to the crab, naturally. The crab is very rude and on the one occasion I directed a polite comment her way as she passed, she scarcely grunted and Balanus and I were barely able to shout out a couple of comments before we were out of hearing range of one another. Today the crab was foraging for dead fish (one of her favorite foods, disgusting though it sounds) in the interstices between my slab and the next slab over, and Balanus and I were able to have a short conversation. I began it by hailing:
"Hello, Balanus! What is new in the wide world?" Balanus understands that this is a joke, for no one cares about the wide world less than I, but he always answers quite earnestly.
"There was a tuna boat offshore yesterday morning. Two of the men came ashore in a skiff and pried some oysters from the rocks in the bay behind your headland. You know the bay I mean, the one North-North-East from your rock?"
Balanus, in his turn, often drops some piece of utterly alien information about my island as though I were already familiar with it, knowing well otherwise. I am certain there are coves on either side of my headland, by definition, but I have never seen them, will never see them, and wonder about them even less than I wonder if there are barnacles on the sun.
"No, I donıt know it. Were there any barnacles hurt?"
"Oh, I imagine so. Many of my kind absolutely insist on settling on oyster shells, though they know well how dangerous it is when men come by. They claim it is the finest bedrock a barnacle could ever have. I suppose both of us knew better."
"To tell the truth, I never even considered settling on an oyster. I knew from the beginning that basalt was the bedrock for me, black, smooth basalt, warmed by the sun. How could an oyster be better than that?" And how unsettling when the oyster unhinges to feed, I thought with an internal shudder of my cirri. Any movement at all would feel precariously loose to me, though I knew better than to voice this thought out loud, seeing as to where my friend is situated.
"Yes, and I knew that travel was the only thing I wanted to do, besides eat phytoplankton, of course. Got a taste wandering as a nauplius larva. Did I ever tell you that my mother was attached to a humpback whale?"
A bare lie, you understand. All barnacles like to claim that their mothers were attached to whales. Balanus is no different, and now I think about it, perhaps he is telling the truth it might go some way to explaining his strange desire for movement.
"A whale!" I said, pretending to be very surprised. "No wonder you like to be loose." I said this to needle him a little.
"Iım no more loose than you are," he said sniffily. "I have the best of all possible worlds a firm foothold, plenty of plankton, and new sights, every day. I have a mobile home. I am a nomad."
"New sights," I said, "come on, now, thatıs an exaggeration. Red rock crabs are territorial. I doubt youıve moved more than twenty feet along this beach since you settled. I can almost see that far from here. Where are your new sights?ı"
"I am afraid you will never understand what it is to change perspective," said Balanus. "You canıt recall being a larva, can you? None of you stationaries can."
"I certainly can. I remember approaching this island from the south, and the sheer relief and happiness when I first saw my rock."
"You are a better barnacle than I," said Balanus. And then the crab, without so much as a warning, scuttled out of earshot after a tiny pea crab. Yes, crabs eat from their own family. It astounds me to think we belong to the same phylum.
Two Semibalanus attached themselves to the rock either side of me three years ago. I am a tolerant sort for a barnacle there is no other way to be, we bear our desiccations and our neighbors without complaint but I have begun to be very annoyed with their dull-witted chatter over my head. They talk long and loud about all kinds of subjects, even when exposed by the tide, when they should be shut up tight to prevent water loss. It goes against the grain to wish any barnacle ill, but sometimes I wish theyıd talk until they dry out completely.
Much of their talk is ridiculous boasting about snails who was closer to that one that came by in June, for example, both of them asserting that they have never once been afraid of a snail, not even that close call six barnacles over, and wishing that they were toxic so that they could give a snail a real stomachache. I donıt want to point out their patheticness starting a fight with a neighbor you can never move away from is hardly the wisest of plans but sometimes I wish a snail would come right by next door, just to see how loudly they shouted their claims then.
What is worse, the Semibalanus are decades younger than me, but they have already started to crowd me. They can grow to vast sizes and live literally shoulder-to-shoulder with their kin, and many are the tragic tales of Semibalanus heedlessly uprooting smaller barnacles as they expand. Now I have one on either side of me, and their plates have already begun to press against mine. Originally this sensation was merely disturbing for a claustrophobe such as myself, who deliberately chose a less populated section of the intertidal to settle down, but recently the pressure has become distinctly uncomfortable.
Now we Chthamalus are hardier than most, and thus occasionally choose rocks that are out of the range of the lower of the two daily high tides, myself included. Iıve had people mock me or offer sympathy for my situation but understanding only from other barnacles who chose this spot too. An ancient old fellow a few inches to my right put it best:
"Those fellows down in the eulittoral zone donıt know what theyıre getting." This quip was passed around with delight for years, and is still introduced to any larvae who join us. The point is just this: with a twice-daily submersion, and thus an excess of food and no serious risk of desiccation, lower barnacles never know what it is to appreciate the common stuff of life. Itıs never been an issue for them. Perhaps I am imagining it, but barnacles lower than I often seem aimless, or indulgent, or even unhappy, without knowing the reason. How can they be happy, when theyıve never been deprived of their basic needs? Contrast the attitude of that old fellow with my two loutish neighbors, who never miss an opportunity to complain that, if only theyıd known about the lower high tide, they would have picked prime spots twelve inches down.
Balanus, and his attendant crab, passed by my purchase this afternoon, returning from a foraging foray in a pile of sargassum stranded on the rock next to mine. He seemed to be in a reflective mood as he said:
"I know you think Iım a fool to be living on a mobile creature, but I really wouldnıt have traded this experience for anything."
"Not at all," I said. "Even I wonder about it sometimes." A lie.
"Only last week," he said, "my crab happened upon a washed-up fishing boot. We even went inside. I canıt think many other barnacles have had that experience."
I whistled, though I couldnıt quite see what was so impressive. Balanus seemed quite glum, and lost in thought. I broke the silence by offering: "there was a seventh wave this morning that felt like it was going to shift my rock."
Most barnacles are greatly enthused by any mention of waves and will spend days discussing such features as celerity and Ekman spirals. The closest to a barnacle level of enthusiasm for waves I have heard came from the mouth of a dolphin who happened to be passing by during a storm, and was proclaiming in ultrasonic that she was surfing down an eight footer and didnıt care if she lived or died. Itıs like the passion periwinkles have for mud. But Balanus didnıt rise to the bait.
"Yes," he said. "No matter what, Iım glad I was a barnacle that was attached to a crab."
The crab was moving out of our speaking range, and as it went, I thought I saw what was bothering Balanus. The crab was missing its eighth right leg, the leg directly opposite Balanus. Maybe a seagull had taken it; maybe it had just got caught by a rock or nipped at by a fish. Balanus saw it happen and knew it could have been him. The perils of a mobile life were weighing on him.
Well, we were none of us safe. For whatever reason, we were all given the same fate to eat one species and to be eaten by another. Even the humpback whales die some day and sink to the bottom of the sea where the crabs get them. Itıs rare to meet a great white shark that isnıt riddled with worms.
As the reckless red rock crab vanished over a rock, I had the strange sensation that I would never speak to Balanus again.
It was quite late that night when the high tide receded and left me wide awake under a quarter moon. Iıd been thinking about the crab with the missing leg, and Iıd realized something that for some reason had never occurred to me in all the time Iıd known Balanus. Barnacles live for decades. Red crabs for less than ten. Sooner or later, even if a bird or other predator didnıt take it, the crab would die from underneath Balanus. And what then? Itıs one thing to be a barnacle rooted on an oyster shell, which, even when the oyster dies, will lie around pretty much forever, but crab shell is thin and not very resistant to the corrosion of salt and sand. When Balanusıs crab dies, what if it dies out of reach of the high tide? Balanus will be dead in a day from water loss. Even if it dies under water, the shell will quickly erode and Balanus will be loose on the ocean floor, no better off than a barnacle uprooted by an encroaching neighbor. Of course he must have known these facts all along, and had bravely refrained from mentioning them. Or was it pride? Did he imagine I would be overly self-satisfied in my correct choice to choose rock as my substrate? I would never do such a thing.
As I lay awake thinking, I heard a terrible sound. A snail was approaching, and not just any snail, but a dire whelk, Lirabuccinum dirum, and I could see its black, elongated shell outlined against the sea. For a hopeless minute I told myself it was a hermit crab, but it moved with that slow deliberation, that drawn out nightmare of a creep that has haunted me all my life.
My neighbors were asleep. Or not I felt the submicroscopic shift of one of them expanding a lateral plate as though growing and I realized they were wide awake as well, and fearful of making any noise that might attract the snailıs attention. I would have drawn some satisfaction from hearing their boasts stifled were it not for the fact that the whelk was indubitably heading directly for me.
How long those few minutes lasted, the slow approach of the dire whelk up my rock! The longest desiccation was never an ordeal like that one. I felt certain I was going to die, and for the first time I regretted being a barnacle, for being a creature on this good earth that could never move, could not run, swim, fly, waddle, burrow, climb or even drift like a jellyfish out of reach of the inexorable approach of the only predator I had. There was one thing Balanus never had to worry about, up there on his crab, and that was the slow attack of a hungry snail. And then the snail was upon me.
Its foot passed directly over my tightly closed operculum, and I believe I fainted for a moment. I was brought around by the scraping, prodding, rasping, of a toothed proboscis slowly levering open the plates of the Semibalanus on my right. He had grown much taller than me, and in passing over me the whelk had not even made contact with my little brown shell. I thought the feeding would never end, and was privy to every sound it made, that proboscis, as it slowly wrenched the plates of the Semibalanus apart, and, when it was done, turned to my neighbor on my left and ate him too. Neither of my neighbors made a single sound during the entire night.
One morning in spring, a nauplius larva drifted up to my rock. It was an acorn barnacle, Balanus glandula, like my friend on the red rock crab, who had visited only yesterday.
"Hello!" it chirped. "Howıs the plankton here?"
"Fine," I said. "Weıre a little high up, though, if you like two tides in a day."
The nauplius thought it over. The choice of location is not a small one for a barnacle.
"If you donıt mind," he said, "I think Iıll join you."
"It would be," I said, "my profoundest pleasure to have your company. And remember, those fellows in the eulittoral zone donıt know what theyıre getting."