The cheap NCM life

Bottled last summer’s beach plum wine, fruity, a tad astringent, but hey, practically free, as a private jet flew overhead. The beach plums come from two bushes in the backyard.

Made some bread from home ground wheat, cheap and good.

Eating kale from the garden tonight, as cheap as cheap gets. Kale grows like a weed in North Cape May, and requires little more effort than stooping to drop the seeds in the ground.

A good life is cheaper than the jet life.

Lichen and the NCM economy

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A few summers ago I watched a wasp attack a patch of lichen on our Adirondack chair.

Wasps are fascinatingly creepy as they stalk prey among the flowers, but this one got fooled. It stalked the lichen, then made its attack.

After a moment or two of trying to do something with the lichen, it flew a couple of feet away and then cleaned its legs, classic displacement behavior.

(It was embarrassed.)

The chair was made by a local man. We bought two, the price not cheap, but was more than fair, and he was surprised we opted not to oil them. We like to see things age as much as we do, and, in the local way of acceptance that is under-rated, he nodded and went on his way.

Because we chose not to oil our chairs, they have turned grey and are covered by lichen. They are now over a decade old, and will likely last another 5. With oil, they may have outlived us.

Wheat grown in our backyard by my toddler grand-daughter on an aging cedar chair made by a local craftsmen.

When we need new ones, we’ll seek the same man. We do not need chairs to outlive us. That’s what plastic is for.

Because we chose not to oil them a decade ago, I got to see a wasp explore the lichen, which might not seem like much, but I enjoyed seeing that a wasp could be as easily fooled as a human.

We are all easily fooled–life is foolish, in the best sense of the word.

Oysters in North Cape May

I like to clam. A lot.

I am not about to burn my clamming spots, though I did get one ridiculously cheap by tipping the bartender at the Villas Fishing Club $10 on two $1 beers. (Rumor was he loved to clam in his younger years.)

Another mess of local clams, and plenty more if you know where to find them.

The first $5 tip got me this–if you want fresh clams, go to the Lobster House.

The next $5 got me a lovely mudflat I only share with close family.

What’s not nearly as secret though are the oysters hanging off the jetties in North Cape May.

The rainbow is for gold, the jetty is for oysters.

Are they sandy? Yep.

Are they way too close to the discharge pipes? Yep again.

(I cannot vouch for their safety but I can vouch for their tastiness; I’ve eaten a couple raw right off the jetty.)

Avoid the canal, the rest of the bay is fine.

You’ll need a license ($10/year for state residents) and little else. Just beware that they’re going to be a bit sandy.

You can dine at Heather’s On The Bay–just tell them you’re with the band or the kitchen. You cannot beat the view, and its a more intimate setting than Harpoon’s On The Bay.

Winter beach plum

Beach plums were ubiquitous in these parts long before the Europeans arrived, and despite their excellent flavor and ease of growing, beach plums have eluded commercialization.

I suspect it may have to do with their predilection for real estate rich folks like to own for their seasonal beach homes. (It may also have to do with their capricious fruiting–some years branches are laden with fruit, some years barren.)

This particular plum hangs from a bush in our backyard, one we (and other animals) missed, though it looks like a six-legged critter found its way in. The beauty of the decaying fruit on a burgundy branch more than makes up for a few drops of juice.

Tonight we may share some beach plum melomel bottled long before the flower of this plum erupted last spring

In just a few short months, the beach plum flowers will return–hopefully I will have last fall’s fruit bottled by then.

In January, nothing feels certain but decay and death–tonight we’ll toast to the returning sun.

Rosemary by the shore

When we bought our home in North Cape May years ago, we stumbled upon the LCMR plant sale, a work of love by Joanie Dilling and her students. We paid a couple of bucks for a small rosemary plant, planted it next to the house, and pretty much left it alone.

The tiny plant is now a sprawling lovely aromatic mess threatening to take over the driveway, and continues to give and give and give.


Every time I walk by, I stroke a few sprigs then bring my fingers to my nose, remembering again what I thought I could not forget.

The periwinkle flowers. feed the few foolish bees who wander out of the hive on the rare, deliciously warm December days.

The sprawling trunk holds its own beauty, wood arising out of the Earth like a writhing Naga.

Chopped rosemary, a staple in our home

A few sprigs of fresh rosemary will run you $2.49 at the local Acme, about the cost of the seedling I carried home, started by a struggling high school student shepherded by a kind woman from Ocean City.

Or you can swing by here, snip a few sprigs, and thank the universe for living in a land as blessed as our neighborhood.

If you’re local, you can grow one, too. We are blessed by our bay, our skies, our weather, and our sand.

Clamming on New Year’s Eve

Yesterday was warm for late December, warm enough to clam barefoot. So I did.

Mudflats remind me of my mortality, not that anyone needed much reminding this year. Every empty shell had the same ending to share.

The back bay waters were quiet. A reddish-brown sea weed has, for now, taken over the shallows. A few shotgun blasts broke the quiet. Someone enjoys ducks as much as I enjoy clams.

A small blue claw clung to my rake for a few moments, then let go–I saw it scurrying back under the brown blanket of seaweed.

Happy New Year!


A perfect November tomato

November, 2019, while still on the vine.

Plato was wrong about the perfect.

I do not know what the word “perfect” means. I know what we think it means, but its meaning crumbles in my hand when I squeeze it.

So here’s a tomato, an unexpectedly beautiful November tomato I found in the garden last fall.

It’s not perfect in a Platonic sense, but it was perfect for that particular day in this particular life.

I ate it, of course (what else would one do with a tomato), but its image lingers because I took a picture of it when I saw it. A picture is all that is left of this tomato–soon after this photo it became tiny particles breathed and pissed out of my body.

The Greeks have proven troublesome, at least to me. John gets right to the heart of the problem. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.


Western culture picked that up and ran, creating all kinds of masterpieces we ogle (or are supposed to ogle, anyway) while the tomatoes get eaten, breathed and pissed out, then reconstructed again, over and over.

The perfect tomato above no longer exists but still feels real. Photographs and words will do that.

Halloween tomato, picked this morning (October 231, 2020)–it reflects the kind of year we’re having.

A spoken story dies with the storyteller. The parts of the stories that matter or resonate or are crudely funny get passed along to younger mortals, who, after sharing stories and eating tomatoes that they exhale and piss out, also eventually die.

Somewhere along the way, several thousand years ago, written language was invented. When the stories can no longer be changed by the wiser among us, words become our prisons.

We work for words, for the abstract, for the future, for money, for fame, for recognition, for a lot of things, but unless you are directly working with the ground or water or air, you are living in a world that does not exist. Literally.

When we confuse the abstract with the real, and we do–every single day–we are reliving the story of original sin, a story that survives because it’s a story that matters.

And still does.

Pay more attention to the voices of the living. The letters of the past are no longer edited, no longer ours. Let them go.

Clamming in late autumn 2019

They’re alive, just an hour or two after leaving the bay, and will be until they are cooked an hour or two later.

The air is chilly in the shadows, but the water is still warm enough for sandals.

In a generation or two, different clams will fill the same basket, different hands will hold the same rake.

Clamming in late winter

First clams of the year.

The late winter sun glows warmly on the back bay in the late afternoon. My feet are still numbed by the cold March bay, and I stay in too long, lulled by the sun massaging my shoulders.

I stumble a tiny bit–I blame the numb feet, but age may play a role. No matter, time to drag my rake back to shore, warm my feet, empty my pockets of the critters I collected before I stumbled.

I see a small fish scramble at the very edge of the bay, trapped between beach and my numb feet. I hold still long enough for it to figure it out, then step back on the flat.

I put my clams in a basket possibly older than me, a basket I hope is still used someday by the newest child in our clan. Not my decision, but it’s hers if she wants it.

Clamming is not technically difficult, but clammers older than me can collect a lot more than I do with half the work. Reading the flats gets easier with the passing years, even if I don’t see quite as well as I did when I started.

When the tine of the rake hits a live clam, you can feel it. The rake rings in your hand. That doesn’t happen with rocks, or even empty shells. I do not know what the clam feels, but I know it feels something.

Some of the shells bear the streak of my rake–pulling them from the mud is an act of violence. Now and again I find one that has healed from a prior rake, maybe mine, maybe not.

Kale and rosemary both love North Cape May–plant some, you will not regret it.

Back home I have a few leaves of kale from the garden waiting for me; the kale survived a tough winter, and is all the sweeter for it. I have a few sprigs cut from the sprawling rosemary bush that threatens to take over the driveway. The rosemary was started by “special” kids who run a greenhouse at the local high school.

I heat some olive oil, add some onions, then some celery and kale, toss on some butter–each ingredient has its own, untold story. I only know the story of the clams, the kale, and the rosemary.

I drop the clams a few at a time into the boiling water, saying a prayer for each, or maybe just praying for myself. Slaughtering any animal, even a clam, leaves me confused.

Foraging in late winter,feasting on organisms that survived the days of bitter cold and little sun, seems unfair. And it is.

But I do it anyway.

“Literal” is abstract: the bay tells us so

Reading about 30 knot gusts registered by a weather station just a mile away is abstract. Federal funds maintain my local station, and I read it religiously.

CMAN4, at the Cape May ferry dock (photo by NOAA)

Thinking about the wind and clams and life as I drag my rake through the mud is literal.

The real happens when the words fade away, when  “I” (never real) dissolve in the salty mist of the strong breeze coming off the flats.

What is real is as unknowable as the shiver of life felt when a rake’s tine carves a line in a quahog. I find the line later, as I wash the mud off the clams under running water, like blood from a deep cut, reminded (again) of the violence even in clamming.

The strike of tine against clam is real.

The clam knows something at that moment, as I know something, but words serve neither of us as I curl three fingers under its perfect shape, a tinge (literal) that my imperfect state (abstract) requires eating (literal, again).

We take mammals made for running under the sun and the stars, made for climbing and dancing and singing and playing, and (literally) make them human (abstract) at the cost of the real. Show me a child who loves schooling, and I’ll show you another lamb who has lost her way.

1921 classroom, by Lewis Wickes Hine, via Shorpy
Clamming reconnects me to what is real. So does gardening. And stargazing.

You have your ways, too. We all do, or did, anyway, before we let the abstract get in the way.

All the words and pictures I seek, the ones I share, are useless if just reading and looking are the goals. The goals remain wordless but not unknowable.

But sometimes all we can do is point and hope.

And try to assess that on a standardized test, Mr. Coleman.