Chantelle Mitchell and Jaxon Waterhouse
The Waltz of the Yabby

A scratching movement, the flat tail like a brushstroke sweeps across paper. Easily mistaken for a watercolour, inscribed here is the waltz of the yabby.

Rarely seen but sometimes felt, knowledge of this marker of motion comes to us through records of past witnessing: encounters at the edges of dams and waterways and then hastily scribbled in field books now yellowing on dusty shelves. There are glimpses of this particular movement in the scuttling of the crab along the shoreline, the waving of the crayfish’s claws and the flutter of the shrimp with the tides. Performance as oration, the waltz reveals to us the life history of the yabby; the marks on the horizontal surface telling of a life amidst a great chain of yabby being.

We might think of this performance as a practical demonstration of what artist and preservation architect Jorge Otero-Pailos deems a monumentary; the theoretical capture of a moment across time—a meeting of monument and contemporary supplement which provides a material and conceptual scaffolding necessary to understand the original monument from the view of the contemporary. The yabby maintains itself through this performance, and through this performance, the yabby illuminates and reasserts the existence of the relational web within which it sits.

This waltz can be shelved amongst foundational texts, with the locatedness of the yabby uniquely positioning it as the orator of this particular narrative of evolution —rippling across time and space, through waters brackish and fresh, connecting the stygofauna dwelling deep within underground aquifers to crablike beings living in distant universes. In a meeting of evolution and population growth, however, the waltz of the yabby is at risk. A well documented trend towards carcinisation will eventually see the yabby’s story relegated to deep history as elongated beings succumb to the evolutionary impulse to become crab. The erasure of this particular dance, and the being which enacts it, quickens with the destruction of habitat, but is linked to the retraction of the tail forever.

Gregory Bateson asked, “what pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me?” The answer to this question lies within the organising principle from which the great yabby chain of being emerges. Rather than the hierarchical model adored by Western science, the great chain of being distinguishes itself from understandings of evolution explained by rippling, lightning-like forks which continue to branch or abruptly end. Ordinarily, the great yabby chain of being is a web emanating from the yabby and spanning the earth, necessitating space to be fully realised. Graciously recreated within the horizontal plane of the page, the dancer has considered space, remaining on the page and layering the narrative to afford the viewer a more concise reading. The patterns of being Bateson seeks lie within, across and amidst this web; convergent and divergent, parallel and perpendicular, predator and prey.

With this grounding, we ask, how might these movements be read? It is difficult — the expressive face of the yabby is not present, and so much of this story relies upon its grins and grimaces, the waving of its antennae. We can glean from these scratched and brushed blue traces only the scantest outline of the story, some of the links in this great chain.

At first glance, the viewer notices the stratification of the waltz, the vertical segmentation of narrative. Beginning at its scarcest, we learn that the shared origin point of all yabby life lies in a pool of clear fresh water amidst a unified and ancient supercontinent. Across altered timescales, plates and continents unstitch themselves, flowing across a connective saltwater vastness. Beneath the surface, currents stream, flow and turn across the earth like connective tissue holding together a carapace. Despite the multitudinous ecosystems of the ocean, the freshwater crayfish is excluded. Its similarities to its briny doppelgangers meant that this class, including the yabby, were read in history as a miraculous creature, an oddity with the power of appearing in freshwater wells, as if some sort of wonder of evolution. However, understandings of plate tectonics collided with the uncovering of fossilised claws, signalling a horizontal link within the great yabby chain of being. The singular pool of freshwater had become a series through continental drift, taking their swimmers to the furthest reaches of the globe. It was in these first pools and fossilised traces that the very first steps and scuttles of the yabby were recorded.

From these locations, the freshwater crayfish became specialists in their ecologies, while their oceanic counterparts flourished. Past the brackishness, the red swamp crayfish learnt to dwell within the mudflats of the American south. Terrified of the Loch Ness Monster, white clawed crayfish are noticeably largely absent from Scotland. The Danube crayfish found itself a late import from the Caspian Sea, living a docile emigre life in Central European waterways. The Tasmanian giant crayfish adapted to velocity as a means of staying alive whilst T. glypticus, the smallest of all, finds safety in the mangrove sedges of the Queensland coast, claws opening vertically.

The blue yabby is a specialist architect. Cherax destructor - the will to destroy built into its name obscures its dual nature and the creative capacity of the yabby. Intervening into human-made structures, the yabby’s burrowing impulse underscores its place as orator in the chain of being. Its responsiveness unsettles the containment of dams, protrudes into manicured lawns, and sows seeds of a far more complex entanglement between co-inhabitants of place.

It is the drive to de/construct, however, that is equated with the yabby’s actions. Seen as a nuisance, many an agriculturalist has decried, and attempted to shorten, their existence.

But the yabby can fend for itself, protected by its anatomy. Offensive, in the form of strong pincers—the yabby moves with these chela raised in the air, points clicking together keeping an off beat rhythm amidst the choreography of the waltz. Tracing the origins of chela sources a Greek etymological route, χηλή, which points to the shared presence of pincers in the evolutionary history of crustaceans and arachnids, linked as they are in the chain. Less linear is the route which links the term to the breakwater at the land’s edge, and the jaw bone at the centre of speech and communication. In this web of clawed connectivity, however, we cannot lose sight of the shimmering thread of protection.

The same etymological connectivity which gives rise to the meeting of claw, speech and waterside structures ripples toward χηλή, related to the chela but meaning instead hole or burrow. Within this root, we see our yabby, excavating, and necessarily, creating. The many horizontal movements of the waltz are misleading; the yabby is a creature of depth. Its burrow is a measure of verticality, protruding just above the surface as the yabby burrows down below, leaving an opening. This burrow is built like an observatory. A little known fact: the favoured pastime of the yabby is stargazing.

Observation is a task that requires patience. Over millennia, the yabby, its freshwater and saltwater siblings have honed this skill. It is difficult to say whether the yabby gazes starwards and dreams of other worlds, its relative the Xenomorph or sees its own distorted reflection glimmering back at it in the Cancer constellation. While the yabby has waited and watched, its ancestors and descendents have survived and extincted beside them. As a spider would a breeze through its web, the yabby feels this keenly. Like an overwhelming sadness shared by close friends, loss ripples through the great chain of yabby being, threatening to sever its interior links.

Despite this, the yabby waltzes on.

A watercolour painting of blue abstract marks against white paper. The marks were drawn with the help of yabbies crawling across the author Chantelle Mitchell's paper.
The Waltz of the Yabby, 2023, a watercolour collaboration between Chantelle Mitchell and yabbies on Wurundjeri Country.

The Waltz of the Yabby expands on Juan Rodriguez Sandoval's West Space Window, Yabby Estate. Download as a digital catalogue here.

Chantelle Mitchell is a researcher, curator and writer leveraging fragmentary and archival approaches to address structure and place in ecological frames.

Jaxon Waterhouse is a writer, publisher and arts worker exploring greening philosophy and seeking new ways to talk about the natural world and our place within it.

Under the auspices of their ongoing research project, Ecological Gyre Theory, Chantelle and Jaxon have presented exhibitions, texts public programs and lectures across academic and visual arts spaces nationally and internationally.