Protected from the destructive hand of human development, the northern most tip of North Topsail Beach teams with life. I find myself here—beyond the beach driving limit, across the jagged, shell encrusted marsh, through the barricade of sun bleached and sea beaten trees, uprooted and deposited by the inlet’s northbound tide—among an entanglement of life. Bunches of live oaks and pond pines glob together, their trunks rendered nonexistent by American beach grass and seaside goldenrod, while brown pelicans bob on the water, American herring gulls peck at the shore, and bottlenose dolphins make fine substitutes for waves.
What would be considered beach spans only a few feet wide, the rest consumed by a thicket of greenery. I stick to the barren sand, tiptoeing between the ocean’s drop off to my right and bur infested field to my left. The walk is beautiful, if precarious, and made even more so as I come to the realization that, for all the many breeds of plant that rule the north end, beach vitex is not among them. So prevalent is it across the developed portions of Topsail, that I have to wonder if its absence is a fluke; but, it is no coincidence that this single portion of “uninhabited” beach is free from more than one invasive species.
Rounding a corner, my ears prick up. Eerie sounds of scratching and scuttling scrape tenderly against my ear as I bend down to inspect a tufted web of sturdy green. My eyes meet the source of the sound and watch while sand fiddler crabs sift between stalks of salt-meadow cordgrass. They are easily distinguished by their square bodies, as well as the stains of vibrant purple, like accidental tie-dye, that bloom across their backs, mingling with shades of golden brown and placid white. And, as if that weren’t enough, every male lugs about an oversized claw, small if found detached and separated from its owner, but massive when compared to the fiddler crab’s inch long body.
Left behind by one crab among the cast, I pick a lone claw from among the grass. Although typically used only for show when finding a mate, male fiddler crabs will occasionally fight one another for a spouse, willing to lose an arm and a leg in the process (literally). Of course, there could be any number of reasons why this claw in particular sits clasped between my fingers and not joined to its owner; perhaps the crab died, and the gull lucky enough to claim its flesh was full before it could finish the job (unlikely—their hunger is never satiated). If it’s alive, however, it need not worry for long. In the event that a fiddler crab loses its dominant claw, its lesser appendage will grow to the size of its brother, while the missing claw reforms as a new minor claw.
The sound of needle-like legs against grainy sand has faded by the time I restore the claw to its resting place—to be found by bug or bird or sea, and slowly returned to the nothing and everything from which it came.