The Element of Life

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The Element of Life

Did you know that hiding a bag of dead lobsters, jellyfish and horseshoe crabs within a car’s trunk for over two weeks while on summer vacation, creates an odor that has been known to curl your toenails? I did not know this. Well, at least not on this particular occasion.

I was 7 years old and on my first visit to the New Jersey seashore. Prior to my “first date” with the ocean, I had already acquired a great respect for the water. My grandfather owned a house along the Hudson River where I had spent countless days fishing and exploring. But at that time I never truly knew how powerful, huge and intimidating the ocean was.

While my parents stood behind me, I waded into the Atlantic. It was much colder than I had expected. I walked out into the surf until the water was up past my knees, then dug my toes into the packed sand and challenged my first wave.

As my mother warned “Be careful” I watched a dark blue wave roll towards me. As if a rookie matador, I nervously stood my ground as my “bull” charged. I stood only four foot tall and weighed only sixty-five pounds. This “wall of water” looked like a tsunami to me. I started to lose my cool and chicken out when the wave rapidly grew before my eyes. As the very tip of the wave began to reach out towards me like a hand, the undertow pulled on my ankles, sucking the beach from beneath my feet.

My parents forewarned me about the undertow, but I never conceived it was so powerful. The very same force that pulled on my toothpick legs was the same force that is able to grab an entire house and feed it to the sea as quickly as a mother spoon-feeds her baby. The sea is able to split apart the largest ocean liners just as effortlessly as it floats a starfish onto the beach.

Just as I became terrified that the undertow was going to suck me into the Abyss, my over-matched opponent “freight-lined” me smack in the face. It was a liquid punch.

Like a double-teamed tackle, the undertow knocked my feet out from under me while the wave hit from the front. I was thrown to the sand as the wave steamrolled over me.

Being assaulted by water has its own unique and terrifying quality. Raging water prolongs the agony: it just does not pass on by its victim after it hits them. When struck by a fierce wave one is first engulfed, then carried along with it while continuing to be battered. And, worst of all, it steals all breathable oxygen.

I was thrown upon the beach face first like a shipwrecked sailor, and while I gasped for air, the wave gently retreated back to the sea. As I choked and wiped the stinging salt from my eyes, I heard my parents comment in harmony, “We told you so”.

Feeling rather intimidated and physically drained at this point, I decided to explore the shoreline. For me, combing the beach was like discovering an entirely new planet. With every breaking wave, a new creature was pushed on shore. Jellyfish, clams, fiddler crabs but the most intriguing of them all were the horseshoe crabs.

When one holds a horseshoe crab, one is holding a creature whose family tree spans over 250 million years. This living fossil gets its common name from the “U” or horseshoe shape of its shell which is called the carapace. The carapace is the color of sand or mud to help the animal blend in with its environment. Two pairs of eyes are on the rounded, front part of the carapace. These eyes are compound like those of insects. They allow the animal to see in all directions and detect movement.

A long, sharp, lance-like tail that resembles a defense weapon, sticks out from behind the horseshoe crab, but it is simply used to plow the crab through the sand, act as a rudder and right the crab when it has accidentally tipped over.

Horseshoe crabs are not crabs at all; they are related to scorpions, ticks and land spiders. Once killed to be used as fertilizer, horseshoe crabs are now under intense study within the medical profession.

In the early 1950’s, scientist Frederick Bang discovered that a horseshoe crab’s metallic blue-colored blood contains special cells that help kill certain kinds of bacteria. When a crab receives a wound, the cells swarm to the area to form a clot and kill the invading bacteria. Bang was able to separate the chemical in the blood cells that formed clots in the presence of bacteria.

During the summer months, horseshoe crab “Blood Drives” are conducted in the shallow waters off the Mid-Atlantic coast. After collecting blood from the crabs, they are then returned to the water. In one bay off of Cape Cod, over 80,000 crabs are bled over the course of a season.

The blood is then sold for research with a price tag of up to $15,000 a quart! Unfortunately, horseshoe crabs are being killed in record numbers for use as bait in eel and whelk fisheries off of the Atlantic coast. This has been linked to drastic declines in migratory shorebirds that feed on horseshoe crab eggs. As the crabs deposit their eggs, birds rush in and gorge themselves on this unparalleled energy source. This feast will add the fat that is critical to the birds 6,000 mile journey from South America to their Arctic nesting grounds. In the past, the sheer enormity of the crab population ensured new generations of both birds and crabs, but this delicate balance has now been disrupted.

I picked up a frisbee-sized horseshoe crab by its dagger-like tail and placed it in my “Crayola Crayon” duffle bag. All of these new creatures fascinated me so much that I had to have them for my own.

Forewarned about jellyfish, I scooped a few of them up with my plastic sand shovel to avoid being stung, and into the bag they went. I then topped the duffle bag off with a few fiddler crabs. Knowing well that this collection would be against my parents’ wishes, I concealed my treasures by laying various beach toys over them, then stuffed the bag into the spare tire compartment of our car.

As the mid-August week passed by, a “fishy” smell began to follow us everywhere. While overhearing my baffled parents guess what the odor was, I did not realize it was because of my stash.

During the five-hour drive home, the only topic of conversation was based on the awful stench. Still clueless I simply peered out the car window and stared at the passing trees.

Several days after we had returned home, my father was about to give up his search and sell the car “cheap, as is.” Then I heard him yell, “RUSTY!” After hearing the tone of his voice, I paused to relish the last few seconds of not being in trouble. Then before I could respond, my father yelled from the driveway, “What in the hell is in your beach bag?”

Relieved that was all he wanted to know, I ran out to the car and said, “Oh thanks, I forgot I left them in there; I got them from the beach.” As I approached, I could not understand why my father was holding my duffle bag by its drawstring with his fingertips. As he held out the “oozing” bag in front of him, he showed an awful expression on his face as if he was wishing for much longer arms.

Then I realized why he was mad. The stink was at a level above anything I have ever known. If a smell could be a form of energy, this would have been nuclear. Flies would not even approach the bag. Word has it that the flies even picketed for better working conditions. Being forced to clean out the duffle bag was enough for me to lose all interest in its contents, but I never lost my love for the ocean.

Oceans cover about 70% of the Earth’s surface and contain roughly 97% of the Earth’s water supply. The average ocean depth is two and a half miles with a maximum of seven miles. It was in these salty seas that life on earth first originated as a frothy foam collecting on the shores of dry land over three and a half billion years ago.

Sadly, over-exploitation of its resources has scarred our seas. Schools of fish, once assumed to be in endless abundance, are disappearing before our eyes. Every year our 1.2 million large fishing vessels return from the sea yielding smaller and smaller catches.

As marine life struggles to keep a foothold, we continue to pollute their waters. According to a report by the publishers of the Oil Spill Intelligence Report, approximately 32.2 million gallons of oil were spilled worldwide into the marine and inland environments during 1999 alone. The toxic chemical components of the oil can negatively affect marine life as well as physically damage their habitat.

Oceans are earth’s life support system. They are at the earth’s helm, controlling climate, temperature and the weather as well as producing over seventy-five percent of the planets atmospheric oxygen. They are the greatest source of clouds, yielding rain and snow that replenishes the earth’s freshwater supply. Yet we have explored more of outer space than our seas.

Equally as important to the quality of our lives is the condition of all our waters. Because of their smaller size, bays, rivers, streams and lakes react much more rapidly to pollutants than an enormous ocean. Inland waters also have a higher chance of being polluted because waterfront property is considered prime real estate. And wherever we find people, we will find their garbage.

On Sept. 16, 1999, Hurricane Floyd devastated the east coast of the U.S., hitting North Carolina especially hard. Hurricane Floyd dumped 15 to 20 inches of rain and battered the North Carolina coast creating storm surges more than 10 feet high.

The majority of North Carolina’s hog farms are located in the eastern third of the state in ecologically sensitive wetlands and floodplains. On these farms, millions of pounds of waste and manure are flushed out of hog barns into lagoons. Hurricane Floyd’s record amounts of rainfall caused these lagoons to spill over into waterways.

Several of the environmental effects resulting from these spillovers are nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, groundwater drinking well contamination, and air pollution. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution stimulates alga growth which robs the water of oxygen, thus killing fish and other aquatic life. The concentration of nitrates found in the local groundwater is dangerous to humans, particularly pregnant women and babies, and is associated with a number of miscarriages and “blue baby syndrome” (a disease affecting the blood’s ability to absorb oxygen).

Pathogens (disease-causing organisms) such as pfiesteria, a toxic microorganism that kills fish and subsequently feeds off their flesh, has been associated with nitrogen and phosphorus- polluted waters. And recent studies have shown that the odor and associated air pollution from hog factories are now being linked to human health effects. What the entire human population of most cities produce in one year, equals the amount produced by North Carolina’s hogs in one day (approximately 50,000 tons of feces and urine a day).

With the number of chemicals in our inland waterways, communities which use them for drinking water always add chlorine to purify the water. Since, chlorine is a very active chemical, it combines with these other chemicals to form new families of chemicals, most of which are not tested for by the water facilities and are possible carcinogens.

While growing up along the Hudson River, I have sailed its waters watching many changes take place. This 315- mile long river is named after 17th century English Explorer Henry Hudson. Hudson is credited as being the first to discover the Hudson River, but many beg to differ after learning that one of Hudson’s men returned from a scouting mission with an arrow through his neck.

But I suppose there were not enough arrows, because in our white man way, we moved in. Now several hundred years later we are still trying to squeeze out every tiny shred of land her banks surrender.

General Electric, the “Bring good things to life” company, dumped over two million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyl a.k.a., PCB’s, into the Hudson River. The PCB’s contaminated the river along with its inhabitants. PCB’s are suspected to be a human carcinogen associated with liver, kidney and nervous disorders.

Fifty miles south of the GE plant, Exxon International had been caught red-handed discharging fuel into the Hudson River. The Hudson Riverkeepers, a river watch organization, blew the whistle on this illegal activity.

750-foot Exxon oil tankers regularly departed from Aruba loaded with petroleum products such as jet fuel. After off-loading in New Jersey, the tankers would journey 90-miles up the Hudson to West Park, New York, rinse out their oil tanks, and load up on fresh water which they would use in Exxon’s Aruba refinery.

In the 1970.s, the General Motors plant in Tarrytown, New York, some fifty miles to the south of West Park, regularly discharged paint into the river. Fisherman setting nets near the General Motors plant could tell what color the cars were being painted that day simply by looking at the color of the water.

But to my surprise, I learned that pollution is not always an industrial crime. Many times the very people who call the river their home, are the polluters. For example, a funeral home in the city of Newburgh, New York was found discharging human blood from their “office” into the Hudson.

The thought of people desecrating the very place they live baffles me. Even dogs know enough not to soil where they sleep.

Strict regulations, ecological monitoring and, most of all, concern and action from individuals who love the river, have helped the Hudson River come a long way. Considered an open sewer in the 1960’s, the Hudson now produces more fish per acre and biomass per gallon than any other major estuary in the North Atlantic. With the lower 150 miles of the Hudson as tidal estuary (a branch of the ocean), freshwater fishes such as bass, and trout, share the waters with seals, dolphin, sharks and the occasional whale. The Hudson also hosts scores of migratory species such as shad, striped bass, herring and blue-clawed crabs. Every year more and more bald eagles return to feed off the Hudson’s shores. Although they were wiped out of the area from PCB’s as well as other pollutants, I now have peered from my grandfather’s living room window in Port Ewen, New York to see half-dozen bald eagles at once.

All inland waters are as important and sacred as the Hudson River and they all should be appreciated and protected, not only by governments, but also by the individuals living along the shores.

We humans are lucky to exist; mankind would have never graced this planet if it were not for water. No other planet in our solar system has liquid water, and what must never be forgotten is that water is the element of life. Water can exist without life, but life can not exist without water.

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