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July 29th, 2014

Crabs Ascending

BY Christian Ford

About a year ago, Fred Pearce wrote an essay at Yale Environment 360 that really stuck with me and since I’m still thinking about it this much later, it’s probably time to talk about why.   Pearce wrote about a tiny speck of land in the South Atlantic with the wonderfully mythic name of Ascension Island.

One of only three islands rising in the South Atlantic (its cousins being St Helena and Tristan de Cuhna), Ascension was strategic from the start.  One thousand miles from the coast of Africa, fourteen hundred miles from South America, lying at roughly the halfway point between the easternmost bulge of Brazil and its plate-tectonic puzzle piece in Africa, Ascension is a speck of land right where you need it, in the middle of nowhere.  What’s more, Ascension shoulders the doldrums, so it was doubly important for the two things its sailor/discoverers immediately thought of when they saw its rugged, volcanic shores — food and water.

Water came from springs, and food came in the form of seabirds and sea turtles, both of which nested there.  But — from a hungry sailor’s point of view — things could be improved.  So the Portuguese (the original discoverers) seeded the island with that hardy and edible species, the goat.

No one claimed Ascension.  It was too far away and more of an emergency stop than anything else.  But that changed in 1815 when the British put a garrison of 800 Royal Marines on the island, commissioning it as a “stone frigate,” HMS Ascension.  It was a measure of how much they were worried about the man they’d just imprisoned about a thousand miles to the south on St Helena, Napoleon.

Twenty years later, Darwin had a chance to examine the island when the Beagle put into port and he found it both arid and treeless.  Centuries of accidental and deliberate introduction of various plants and animals — lead by the hungry goats — had trashed the humble original ecosystem of the place, and denuded what was left.  There was a saying on St Helena in Darwin’s time, “We know we live on a rock, but the poor people at Ascension live on a cinder.”

Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be fair to call the island unproductive.  The Royal Marines stationed there had found, at an altitude of 2000 feet, a plateau with thin topsoil, and begun gardening.  Let us pause to imagine these Napoleonic redcoats, still within living memory of those who fought in the American Revolution, up there farming.  They weren’t hobbyists.  Depending on the victual ship to avoid starvation was a charmless plan and within a couple years, the Marines’ garden was a farm, providing fruits and vegetables to the garrison.

Seven years after Darwin, Joseph Hooker — the man who would become Darwin’s best friend and the eventual director of Kew Gardens — visited Ascension and counted all of one tree.  Hooker was an explorer botanist, and also a mover and a shaker.  His advice to the Royal Navy was to make HMS Ascension more self-sufficient by planting steep slopes to protect what soil there was, plant dry-adapted shrubs in the arid lowlands, bring in a wide variety of crops and, crucially, plant trees on Ascension’s 2,817 foot peak in the hopes that the increased vegetation would catch moisture from passing clouds — conjuring more rainfall for the dry island.

So the Royal Navy dutifully began bringing plants to Ascension, guided by Kew Gardens.  In the 1860s and 70s, five thousand trees were planted on the island and by 1865, there were descriptions of honest-to-god “thickets.”  Not everything worked.  It was a try-it-and-see approach that left alive only the plants that were fit to be there, and it drove some of the original life forms of Ascension Island to extinction.

All this was in parallel with the animals arriving willy-nilly, creatures including rabbits, cats, donkeys, even hedgehogs, which searched to find their place besides the original inhabitants, such as Ascension’s original reigning land animal, a kind of land crab.

It was, in the usual way of thinking about these things, nothing short of an ecological holocaust, the almost complete destruction of the native ecosystem and its replacement with something effected by man, but too random to really be called man-made.  And here’s the thing.  It completely works.

In less than 200 years, explorer botanists and inattentive jack tars and green thumb marines and just about everyone else who managed to set foot on this remote island, accidentally created the kind of highly complex and evolved ecosystem — the “climax phase” in ecological terminology — that you’re only supposed to get after millennia of co-evolution.  Ascension’s Green Mountain is now really green; the landscape where Royal Marines once struggled to find a patch of dirt is now totally vegetated with a forest cobbled together from around the world, with banana, Japanese cherry, aloe, coffee and monkey puzzle trees.  Where there were once 25 species, there are now over 300.

There’s a temptation to look at Ascension and think of it as an example of that most useful word for tough times, resilience.  It’s precise meaning is the ability of a system — any system, from ecosystem to human psyche — to withstand change and retain its fundamental character.  But Ascension Island is not an example of a resilient ecosystem, because its fundamental character has been nuked beyond recognition.  The resilience here doesn’t lie in the ecosystem, but rather in the fundamental nature of living things.  Adapt or die, we’re told, but Ascension is a remarkable demonstration  that the way life finds a way to live is by depending on other kinds of life.

The armored poster child for this is Ascension’s land crab.  These smallish crabs, living in holes in the ground, were once incredibly numerous, so numerous that the Royal Navy paid a bounty (sometimes in rum) for every pair of claws turned in.  Fully adapted to life on land, their made their living by working the seabird colonies, picking off eggs and unguarded chicks, scavenging dead birds.  But feral house cats put an end to the seabird colonies, leaving Ascension’s crabs in an ecological niche without a foundation.  Polar Scientist Bernard Stonehouse was witness to the modern lifestyle that the crabs adopted:

They were shy, freezing with pincers erect when alarmed, usually to be found within a short distance of their burrows and ready to scuttle down at the drop of a hat. In rainy weather they promenaded more freely, sometimes appearing at the side of road with arms waving like diminutive but aggressive hitch-hikers. Fringed mandibles … suggest a permanently turned-down mouth, giving them a disgruntled, unhappy expression; they were disagreeable rather than sinister and fell far short of their reputation. The first land crab I met was sitting in a prickly pear bush, sadly munching one of the brilliant red fruits and dribbling juice.

This is worth unpacking:  the ancient carnivore crab of Ascension Island responded to the destruction of its habitat by escaped pets via becoming a vegetarian that specialized in alien fruit-bearing species.  (What’s more, it learned to climb trees, because its diet now centers around the imported guava tree.)  In other words, the Ascension crab is very up to date, Long before Michael Pollan was counseling us to change our diet with“eat food, mostly plants,” the Ascension crab was already doing it.

Ascension Island has been a watering station, a victualling station, a garrison for the wooden navy, and coaling station for the steel navy.  It’s been an electronic surveillance station to monitor the other side in the cold war and I don’t doubt that it’s still in business, monitoring every side today.  In short, Ascension Island has been all things to all people, but through all those decades, one thing has remained constant — Ascension Island has been treated as fundamentally disposable, and in that, it is a microcosm of how we’ve treated everything.

There are moves afoot to restore Ascension. The feral cats have been removed for the sake of the seabird colonies and there’s talk about trying to save some of the other endemic (“only on Ascension Island”) species.  It’s the enlightened response when we discover we’ve been ecologically naughty, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’s an enlightened twentieth century response to a twenty-first century world.

Five hundred years after the Portuguese explorers stumbled across Ascension and mused that this unassuming rock might be useful, the discovery that Ascension Island has transformed itself into something wondrous and strange suggests that it may be time to go exploring again, to rediscover what we thought was known.  By and large, the land that supports most of the rest of us — whether we live on it or get our food from it — is close in spirit to Ascension.  We’ve done what we wanted, more or less randomly, and now it’s so changed that can hardly tell what it was to begin with.

The impulse is to undo the damage, but the undamaged world we dream of had many — many less bipedal tool-using, hairless apes.  So going back isn’t really an option, but the way forward is thoroughly barricaded by the ecological Manichaenism that seems to come naturally to us, our view of the world as either pristine wilderness or our sandbox.

The crabs of Ascension were the lords of all the hot, rocky, barren world they surveyed.  There was an ocean to breed in, and food came on the wing, descending in clouds and depositing immense monoculture fields of poultry.  There were holes to hide in, but not much need for that, because they were the largest creature to stalk the volcanic land.  It was, in short, their golden age and likely was for thousands of years longer than any of ours have endured.

But when the anthropocene collapsed their world — wholesale and in total — the crabs discovered that there were ways of living completely outside of their experience.  Call them adventuresome or call them desperate, but be sure you call the crabs smart.   They took the random pieces they had — not the crab-centric pieces they wished they had, but pieces of good and bad, native and alien, wild and human — and found a way.  Is their sleep disturbed by dreams of that long-ago seabird chick buffet?  Probably — but the point is that they’re still around to dream, side by side with all the other motley species of Ascension Island.

We, of course, aren’t crabs.  We don’t have to adapt.  An American president reminded the whole world of this, declaring that the American Way of Life is “not negotiable.”  But adaptation, as Ascension Island fairly shouts, is what the living do, and not by being a heroic loner defending a lifestyle that belongs to a gone world, but by teaming with the adaptations of the other living things one shares the world with.

I was never a big fan of guava.  But perhaps it’s time to learn to climb the tree.


Ascension Island Crab by Ben Tullis
Ascension in a Nutshell by Kevin O’Mara
Ascension from Space by NASA
Ascension Island Turtle by Drew Avery
Ascension Island Donkey by Drew Avery
Ascension Island Landscape by Dan Logan
Guava Tree by  Taran Rampersad