How the Hairy-Chested Yeti Crab Taught Me to Survive Trump’s America
“There’s definitely a ton of colored people here!” a white guy told me. “I mean, people of color. That’s what I said, right?”
The hairy-chested Yeti crab is a queer creature. Its hirsute pincers resemble the shaggy leg warmers you’d see at a rave. The crabs live in staggering numbers around deep-sea hydrothermal vents, with up to 700 animals congregating within one square meter at a time. They must stay within this precarious margin of safety, between the near-freezing temperature of the surrounding waters and the scalding 750-degree miasma of the vents. Straying too near or too far could leave them chilled or boiled to death.
It’s a risky sanctuary but the only one the crabs have ever known. These ghost-white Yetis live piled on top of each other, forever scrambling for breathing room. At a distance, the vents seem to be buried under snow. It’s a cramped communion, but safe havens like these are scarce in the deep sea.
They also withstand unbelievable pressure. At one hundred feet below the sea, the human body begins to fold in on itself as the spongy tissues of the lungs contract. At 400 feet, it nears total collapse. But at 8,000 feet below, yeti crabs do just fine.
Unbeknownst to the crustaceans themselves, Yeti crabs gained internet fame in 2016 when they became the star of a popular meme. In it, a Yeti crab perches on a grimy rock above the subtitle: “This creature has adapted to the crushing pressure and oppressive darkness.” I saw this meme for the first time two days after Donald Trump was elected president, and I couldn’t help but relate.
A few months before Trump was elected, I moved to Fremont, Seattle, a neighborhood that is 87.1 percent white and claims to be “the center of the universe.” The neighborhood abounded with newly legal dispensaries, and Black Lives Matter signs hung in the windows of luxury apartments where black people did not live.
I arrived in September, just as the sun left for good. In the winter, the Pacific Northwest can feel a little like the deep sea—dark, frozen, eternally wet. I had few friends in the city and many of the young people I met worked for some giant tech company that I vaguely understood to be responsible for sucking the soul out of a city I barely knew.
I tried to make queer friends, but they lived far away in more diverse neighborhoods that required two transfers by bus. One of my new friends actually lived in a bus, but I had to take two buses to get to his bus. And in some great logical failing in a city known best for its constant rain, hardly any of the bus stops had overhangs, which left me wet, dripping, and downtrodden like some sad Seattle punchline.
Whenever I told people I was unhappy in Seattle, they seemed taken aback. “There’s definitely a ton of colored people here!” a white guy told me at a party, swaying with a solo cup at a luxury apartment building called The Lyric. “I mean, people of color. That’s what I said, right?”
Lonely and tired of searching, I spent my nights watching Blue Planet, a BBC documentary about the ocean. Each episode left me fixated on the bizarre ways in which some animals survive the unfathomable corners of the earth, from arctic tundras to hydrothermal vents. Why did anything evolve to live there in the first place? And why did they never think to leave?
On the night of the election, I came home to a party that had turned sour. Half-drunk beers littered the floor, and people had stopped talking, except for this one white guy I didn’t know. “It’s just a classic trick by the media,” he repeated, though no one cared to listen. “They want to make it seem like it’s a close call.”
I excused myself and went to my bedroom to distract myself with Blue Planet. In that episode, a gray whale watches while a pod of orcas devour her calf. She sees it coming from a mile away but has no way to stop it. The calf unravels into white and red ribbons in the orcas’ jaws until she vanishes completely in a frothing, burgundy cloud. The mother lingers but cannot stay, and she sets off again into a sea that has never felt emptier.
In the months following, feeling angry and stuck, I marched more than I ever have before. At the women’s march in Seattle, we packed so tight in two soccer fields that it took three hours before the crowds cleared out and I set foot on a street. Many things I saw that gray and overcast day were problematic—the pussy hats, the postracial messages sharpied on signs—but it felt better than watching whales die alone in my room. An hour in, it rained, of course.
Until the late ’70s, scientists thought that all life was dependent on the sun. When submersibles discovered thriving communities of organisms living on hydrothermal vents a mile and a half under the sea, they assumed the creatures must subsist on marine snow. The pretty term refers to the small flecks of poop and decomposing flesh that fall from the surface of the ocean.
But scientists realized that hydrothermal vents, those gushing volcanic cracks in the earth, sustain their own kind of life. The vents exhale hydrogen sulfide, a chemical that is toxic to most living things. But, in a chemical form of photosynthesis, certain kinds of bacteria use these sulfides to produce nutrients. Just as grass and redwoods evolved to convert sunlight into food, these deep-sea bacteria learned to convert the energy in a toxin to a food of their own.
Chemosynthesis is now an accepted scientific fact, but it is unsurprising that scientists assumed that something as strange and iconoclastic as a Yeti crab or a tube worm must live off the scraps of sun-touched society. I prefer to think of it not as a last resort, but as a radical act of choosing what nourishes you. As queer people, we get to choose our families. Tube worms just took it one step further. If we have chosen family, we may as well have chosen energy.
In the three months after Trump’s election, three young people I knew died—one of a years-long battle with brain cancer, one while walking across America barefoot, and one while attending a queer-friendly party in an Oakland warehouse. The warehouse was called Ghost Ship, and though I had never been, I spent weekends in high school dancing in other warehouses in Oakland and weekends in college going to similar parties in Providence. I prefer to dance, drunk and wild, in spaces bursting beyond their given capacity.
My haven in Seattle became a monthly queer party called Night Crush. If no one could come with me, I went alone. It was always too full, with crowds that lifted me up, my body pressed against theirs. Holy spaces in wastelands must expand to accommodate everyone who needs them. Though I feel breathless anxiety when packed between bodies at a concert, I feel something close to euphoria when packed between bodies at a queer club, rank and slimed with sweat. Even when I went there by myself, nestled between the sweet grinding of hairy bodies clothed in glitter, pleather straps, binders, and fishnets, I didn’t feel alone.
Queer people take comfort in the dark. Our nightlife spawns some of the only places that feel wholly ours, a space designed to take in every marginalized person and make them feel at home. Each month the DJ at Night Crush would play a gloriously profane song about our new president, best abbreviated as “FDT.” The crowd would writhe and chant, basking in the intermingling of rage and love and grief. These parties are never wholly dark, illuminated by cheap, pulsing club lights and the silver scales of a disco ball.
Now, I hold the dangers of feeling free in these spaces in the back of my mind, remembering Ghost Ship, remembering Pulse. I check for exit signs and step outside often to breathe. But there is something to be said for spaces that keep us alive. In a world that dictates certain ways to live, we revel in spaces that understand us however we wish to be.
At 8,000 feet below the sea, Yeti crabs have never seen the sun. But they do see light—the LED-flicker of a jellyfish, the glowing red freckles of a squid, or the sinister pendant of an anglerfish. In response to absolute darkness, these animals have learned to make light on their own.
Hydrothermal vents don’t last forever. Some spew sulfides for decades or more, and others last just a few years. These life-giving spumes can vanish at any moment, undone by an errant earthquake or volcanic rumbling. A whole world extinguished by something entirely out of your control.
This is what it is like to live in cities that have been seized from you. The Lexington Club, San Francisco’s friendly neighborhood dyke bar and the first bar that took my fake ID, closed three years ago as rents in the city skyrocketed and the demographic became markedly less queer. In Seattle, people worry that the small and grungy club that holds Night Crush will be turned into luxury apartments in the next five years.
This is what it is like to live in a country that wishes you weren’t here. Before Trump was elected, no one had ever yelled at me to go back to China. Now, even though it’s happened three times, I have yet to think of a quippy way to respond. This will always be the struggle of those of us who live in a place that tries its hardest to spit us out.
But this, too, is our beauty. Even while unwanted, we find ways to carve out new homes. Though tube worms must die, fastened to the sides of a dying vent, Yeti crabs know when to move on. When a smoker’s lush, sulfurous heat begins to cool, the crabs scuttle away toward the warmth of unknown homes, trusting they can find them in the dark.
Scientists still don’t understand how these blind crabs have evolved to thrive in vents so many miles apart, each partitioned by stretches of water so cold it peels away the hair on their shell. Some wonder if there are hidden sulfurous safe-houses scattered like stepping stones between the vents, offering the animals safe passage in the hostile, uneasy deep. But perhaps it is the mystery of these spaces that keeps them sacred, an impossible, glittering way of life that we were never meant to understand.
Sabrina Imbler is a staff writer for Defector Media, a worker-owned site, where they cover creatures and the natural world. Their book, How Far the Light Reaches, is out now with Little, Brown. Their chapbook, Dyke (geology) is out now with Black Lawrence Press.