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Essay by

Crabs as Ancestors, Cardboard as Collaborator

Essay by

I’m proposing a new holiday: Bloodtide. Everyone’s invited. It’s in homage to horseshoe crabs but can be celebrated in any habitat by any species.

For more than twenty years, I’ve been into cardboard construction, world-building, and destabilizing anthropocentrism by (sort of) becoming other animals and life forms. Animating myself and collaborators in corrugated costumes, parading through alleys as armadillos, basking in sloth-inspired symbiosis, loitering as lobsters—I feel us/myself getting freer in these more-than-human forms. So I am proposing a holiday to share this transformative experience. It sprouts out of my own need for new cultural practices that gather us, to remind me of the possibility of an “us.”

This holiday proposal started as a play about horseshoe crabs and red knot birds that rely on horseshoe crab eggs to fuel their epic migration. But language—at least as I know how to speak it—felt forced on the beasts in a way that made me sweat, like a human. I stopped writing and started wearing my cardboard carapace and fringe sleeves around my house, to protest polluters at the port, and on Halloween. The play got rejected from 450 million grants. I talked with choreographers and clowns and animal whisperers about wordlessness. The play got bigger. I let it get bigger. Maybe the play was a pageant. I was working to build rooms of musicians and dancers to find what it would be when COVID arrived and shut down my (and everybody’s) theatre projects and in-person teaching gigs.

Human horseshoe crab drawing.

All images by Eli Nixon.

But at that crushing moment, I got a book offer (based on the abandoned playscript) from the 3rd Thing Press. So I plunged into the play as a pageant as a book. I started drawing. It was like puppetry, but more alone and contained to a page. Drawing had its own gifts and tensions in speech bubbles and representation. I wore a cardboard carapace while I basked and struggled in residencies at Millay Arts and Subcircle, where the book took shape as a holiday proposal and illustrated manual for activation. And now this essay! And next, who knows what? Maybe you’ll help reveal a piece? My hunch is that the liberatory potential of this holiday will expand as potential future celebrants (you?) molt new versions of it and our collective tentacles unfurl beyond the shelves of the Hallmark holiday aisle.

Drawn coyote and human having a conversation.

This holiday, and the puppetry that I’m proposing as part of it, employ tactics of anthropomorphism in service of unsettling anthropocentrism. In the introduction to The Stage Lives of Animals: Zooësis and Performance, Una Chaudhuri notes: “...no matter how quickly the animal presence is deflected by anthropocentric allegorizations, the passage from animal to human to animal and back again is always thrilling, complicated, full of possibility… a frightening recognition that is at the same time a delicious bafflement.”

I’ve felt this “delicious bafflement” through opportunities to sing, dance, move, strut, rut, stomp, and twitch as (and as if) a beast. Puppetry has enabled and employed me to use cardboard to transform humans of all ages into creatures and objects, with their consent and often pleasure. Fourth grade lizards, librarian manatees, grandpa refrigerators, and queer abolitionist lemurs have helped me realize this “delicious bafflement” is what I am l looking for in a holiday.

Bloodtide holiday activations coagulate healing resources around sites of historical, cultural, and environmental wounding to work towards soothing and fortifying our collective body.

I propose this holiday in homage to horseshoe crabs as I myself am just beginning to practice it. I invite anybody who needs a new/primordial holiday to join me. By holiday, I mean a different kind of time. The kind of time that closes the post office and the bank. The kind of time that is vacation—a vacating of business as usual, a slowing of pace. The kind of time that opens up room for next and before and meanwhile.

A drawn horseshoe crab providing the definition of the word "homage".

Horseshoe Crabs as Collaborators

Meanwhile, a coagulating compound extracted from horseshoe crab blood is used to test all vaccines and surgical equipment for sterility. Meanwhile, I’m grateful to be vaccinated. Meanwhile, horseshoe crabs have lived longer than 99 percent of the world’s species and are currently classified as vulnerable to extinction. Meanwhile, there has never been a material better suited to molting a carapace out of than cardboard. It’s appropriately mind-bending to build a beast that was here before the creation of land plants out of a material made from land plants.

A chaotically drawn timeline of life on Earth, featuring horseshoe crabs.

Bloodtide works to expand modern (human-centric, colonized) notions of time, nature, debt, and ancestry by paying homage to horseshoe crabs. Our lead collaborators on this holiday effort are horseshoe crabs and the ecosystems that sustain them and us. Many of us are, in a way, already “collaborating” with horseshoe crabs by sharing a habitat and climate and by using the compound found in their blood to test vaccines, intravenous medicines, and surgical equipment. (This same compound is key to sustaining their epic existence.) Bloodtide calls us to recognize our current reliance on the primordial blood of horseshoe crabs to safeguard our future. It points to and resists patterns of extraction and invites celebrants to practice horizontalism and reparative relation.

When wounded, horseshoe crabs’ immune systems prevent infection from spreading by entrapping invading microbes in jelly, sealing off the rest of the body from contaminants. Inspired by this, Bloodtide holiday activations coagulate healing resources around sites of historical, cultural, and environmental wounding to work towards soothing and fortifying our collective body.

I recognize and grapple with the ethical complications of collaborating with entities that can’t consent to partnership. Expanding modern, colonized understandings of the organisms with whom we are enmeshed is part of the work of this holiday.

Bloodtide posits that shared homage and attention to horseshoe crabs might further all repair efforts and other necessities for our collective and individual healing and transformation. Homage is a way of acknowledging those who have come before us, often through a public act of honor, blessing, or gratitude. It reminds us of our context and on whose lives we depend. Through Bloodtide, homage reminds us of our responsibility to the collective welfare of horseshoe crabs, each other, future life forms, and ancestors of all kinds.

A drawn diagram showing how brief human existence has been, featuring a horseshoe crab.

Cardboard Transformation and Other Activations

Bloodtide commemorations and festivities take a multitude of forms that are still proliferating, including cardboard transformation, parade, pageant, feast, reparative returns (through Blood drives and resource redistribution to BIPOC-led land projects), time capsule building, habitat restoration, tick checks, crabaoke (altered lyrics!) and impossible dances.

Why tick checks? Because ticks are one of horseshoe crabs’ closest living relatives, creeping around on us and complicating the circle of who takes whose blood.

And what are impossible dances? These are numbskull activities that remind us we are, or can be, simply a stiff fleshy five-pointed star with four limbs and a head and only so many ways to move them. They are impossible because of our body plan. They are impossible dances because we are human, not ten-legged or feathered. Occupying new postures, taking on exoskeletons, attempting to “see” with lunar receptors—these are ways of unsettling. It’s unsettling to specieism to realize all the ways we humans don’t know how to see or feel or move—to realize we don’t even know how to know what they “know.” Impossible dances provide a fresh opening through which Bloodtide practitioners can fall into themself, other creatures, and this moment in our impossible time.

Through naturedrag, Bloodtide also emboldens an investigation into a different kind of drag, a third form—not drag king or queen but more-than-human, a royalty of sorts but accessible to anyone with a body: drag kin!

What about cardboard transformation? Cardboard has transformative power, and here is where I lean into twenty years of holiday-esque crafting with communities. Cardboard acts as a corrugated corollary to Lucille Clifton’s statement that “we cannot create what we can’t imagine.” Through creation, what we imagine can be revealed. I follow the lead of cardboard in my own performance work and when facilitating the creation of large puppet parades and pageants; the local waste stream shapes what we make. This stiff and floppy collaborator is, like us, made of its ancestors and able to become anything at all—except space. Cardboard is reversible and informative. It comes with the grace of endless redos. Cut it too big? Trim it down. Make it too tight? Add a piece. It learns the shape it needs to be alongside our hands. We can learn from cardboard how to be free and shape shift.

A drawn cardboard box asking to be recycled.

Cardboard’s transformative potential is connected to my pleasure in cardboard costumes as part of what I’ve been calling “naturedrag.” Through naturedrag, Bloodtide also emboldens an investigation into a different kind of drag, a third form—not drag king or queen but more-than-human, a royalty of sorts but accessible to anyone with a body: drag kin! Through my efforts to propose this holiday I am further invigorated that the liberation I experience—my transqueer revelry in my human body as animated by horseshoe crabs, red knots, the moon and ocean—is in the process of freeing me. I have never felt both more free and more myself/human when inside a (different) animal

A drawn character dressed in drag that is made up of things from nature.

Notes Towards the Celebration of Bloodtide

Bloodtide is a holiday that gathers around these three questions:

Drawn characters musing about their own existence, using quotes.
A drawn raft with a flag that reads "Bloodtide" in the ocean surrounded by sea critters, and a human attempting to get aboard.

Bloodtide is a multitool or floating holiday, which means the date, duration, and frequency are up to its commemorators. Celebrate Bloodtide in place of existing holidays that reinscribe harm and valorize violence (Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Presidents’ Day, etc.), or use it to make Earth Day more specific. Celebrate it to place birthdays in conversation with deep time. Bloodtide interrupts state- or Hallmark-sanctioned declarations of whose lives and what values are worth memorializing. Use Bloodtide any time individuals and publics need reminding that we decide when and how we mark meaning and what new, primordial civic culture we can lift up from the silt.

This holiday, like many organic things, comes to life when it hits the air. When we start to practice Bloodtide, or even talk about it, we are thrown into all the complications and possibilities that arise from engaging a concept in context. As a settler-descended, “American,” well-fed, housed human proposing this new holiday, I am shaped by all the gaps, falsehoods, proclivities, and habits of my own form and influences. I continue to grapple with the challenge of proposing a holiday that unequivocally welcomes everyone to it while recognizing that I can’t imagine all the ways all potential celebrants need to celebrate or mourn.

A drawn character wishing you Happy Holidays while standing over a horseshoe crab.

This is not a proposal for a holiday instead of action on other fronts. It’s an addition. We are in progress, dismantling and creating culture(s).Bloodtide is an in-progress offering while some old holidays are abolished and transformed. Bloodtide looks to the stability and stamina of horseshoe crabs, as we painfully, curiously evolve alongside them. Bloodtide calls us to fortify a future informed by the actions of recent ancestors (both nefarious and noteworthy) by pointing at more-than-human patterns much older than most of us who are still here. It’s a way to build relationships, connection, and momentum. May we find awe, relief, pleasure, and fortitude in gathering around this 450-million-year-old beast by holiday-ifying one day or many. A holiday puts attention on a thing and builds energy around it. I would rather put my attention on horseshoe crabs and cardboard than on presidents and nationalism. Wouldn’t you?

Drawn horseshoe crab that reads "We are all Invited" on its back.

Bloodtide holiday practices offer Individual or collective opportunities to build humility in our amateurism in the face of 450 million years of fortitude and movement. Cardboard is our generous collaborator in all its corrugated glory—able to be done and undone, born anew in layers and rips, manifested by slices, tucks, and folds into primordial ancestors inside of which to hatch forth a fresh tomorrow. Call it “embodied recycling” or “arts & crafts” or finding your family in the trash. Who knew detritus could unfold what’s next? (Hint: Horseshoe crabs!)

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Thoughts from the curator

Puppetry is an ongoing negotiation between human and nonhuman. Puppets play out the way things are, but also the way things can be; and in that regard, they allow us to see our positionality and imagine worlds beyond ourselves. This series showcases myriad shapes and styles and the ways in which these puppets, whether representational or abstract, can form solidarities among humans.

Creating Puppet Solidarities


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