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.)
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.
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.)
You’ll need a license ($10/year for state residents) and little else. Just beware that they’re going to be a bit sandy.
Bunker dominate the bay. They’re a big reason why dolphins, stripers, and humpback whales wander just off our beach. My grandchild calls them “skyfish” when she sees one wiggling in the talons of an osprey as it flies overhead.
Chances are you’ve seen pieces of larger bunker along the tide line–stiff, gray, dead.
This little guy was also stiff and dead, but its brilliant colors jumped at me as I ambled along the ferry jetty. A storm tide had left him on the wrong side of the rocks and the gulls had yet to find him.
I tried to toss it back into the canal, but with the stiff breeze, it fell between the jetty rocks, a treat for the crabs.
I know what folks will pay for this. I also know what it’s worth. Two very different things….
I have a chunk of ambergris, found it years ago, and while briefly tempted to sell it, am grateful now I kept it.
It was sitting right on the edge of the bay just north of Lincoln Avenue. It wasn’t much to look at, and I am not sure what possessed me to pick it up. Even then I almost tossed it back into the bay.
I mostly forget about it, but now and again I walk through a cloud of its molecules and get briefly taken to, well, not sure where, some vague place of immeasurable joy.
Not immense. Immeasurable.
In the literal sense.
You cannot measure the pleasure, the joy, the presence of the herenow that lump of aged whale shit brings me. It apparently has the same effect on others, why else would anyone offer thousands of dollars for a slab of shite?
The big data junkies among us might argue that all things are measurable, and I supposed you could take pre- and post-ambergris exposure levels of my serum oxytocin and plot them over time, but that becomes impractical, and it’s not important anyway..
Turns out measuring some pretty important things in education are impractical, too. Brilliant writing. Unorthodox but rational thinking. Sense of public duty. Joy. Ability to observe subtle details. Flexibility when confronted with new ideas. Empathy.
When our ability to measure outcomes trumps our choices of which outcomes matter, we’ve stripped “public” from education.
In a couple of days we will be leaving the darkest six weeks of the year behind us.
A northwest blow is going to remind us that even though the darkest days are behind us, we still have a cold couple of months staring at us.
Words shrink as the sunlight grows. Imbolc is still weeks away.
A few years ago in late January I watched a crow at the ferry jetty caw caw caw at a gull sharing a light post. The gull did not respond.
The crow swooped down to the pavement, picked up a piece of paper, then returned to its perch near the gull.
The crow carefully ripped up the paper, piece by piece, dropping each piece, one by one, watching each piece until it hit the ground, looking at the gull between pieces as if to say Hey!
When done, the crow cawed once more, and this time the gull squawked back. The crow, now seemingly satisfied, nodded, and then flew to a trash can and cawed at a few human folk, one of whom cawed back.
It was just past dusk, a warm September evening welcoming us to the beach. And there it was.
An impossibly blue flash of light at the edge of the bay, just inside the curl of a gentle bay wave.
Then another. And then yet another. Brief flashes of blue from the bay, another surprise from our beach. We had never seen them before.
Comb jellies are not the same as jellyfish, despite their similar names (and similarly gelatinous bodies). They do not sting.
Sometimes in late summer they can overwhelm the bay–you feel them slip through your fingers with each stroke as you swim, at first a bit unnerving, but can be soothing once you get used to them.
Hundreds sometimes wash up on our beach, little glass globules sitting on the wet sand. I sometimes put a few back. We can all use a hand now and again.
If you watch one and the sun catches it just right, you will see a beautiful rippling iridescent wave along its edges, a living kaleidoscope. You can do this easily at high tide when you’re chest deep in water. It’s worth the effort.
And a few, it turns out, will erupt into light when disturbed. Our bay continues to surprise us.
Our edge of the Delaware Bay is much like the edge of any bay, littered with life and its leftovers. High tide smells alive, and low tide carries the pungent sweet smell of decay.
The tide rises, the tide falls, twice a day, every day, as it has for millenia.
And for millenia, horseshoe crabs have ambled up to the edge of the bay in late spring to mate and lay eggs, thousands on our beaches laying millions upon millions upon millions of tiny green eggs.
The youngest are already nine years old, surviving against incredible odd; the eldest have been coming here for 30 years.
Many do not survive the orgy, and a whiff of their stinking carcasses in the afternoon light remind us, should we care to be reminded, of what awaits all of us.
But here, now, the beach seemingly emanating light as the sun settles below the bay’s edge, an early evening high tide coinciding with a rising plump moon, you smell the life churning in the waves as these ancient creatures rise up again, as they have long before the first humans walked along this bay, and likely will long after we have passed on.
Last week we weathered a polar vortex, tucked inside our homes, cussing the anticipated heating bills, keeping the water in the pipes moving, getting a little stir crazy.
Outside near the bay a bald eagle did what it could to survive. The bay was crusting over with ice, and this animal, like most who opted to stick around here for the winter, was in trouble.
Yesterday we decided to take a walk in Beerworld (or Ponderlodge or the Villas WMA–whatever you call it, a wonderful place to walk in the dead of winter). We usually come in from the Delview Avenue entrance, and we took a short detour to peek at the bay.
As we crept up Beach Drive on our way to Beerworld, marveling at the waves pushed by the stiff northwest breeze, a large bird slowly rose up from behind the dune, hanging at our eye level, no more than 10 yards away.
I thought it was the largest black-back gull I’d ever seen. I was wrong.
It was a bald eagle riding the wind as it was deflected upward by the dunes. By the time we got our phones out, well, it did what animals do, and we were left shooting shots of its backside.
Beerworld used to be a golf course owned by Billy Plaumer, a man who made a fortune distributing beer, ultimately owning Schmidt’s. One of his pools had the Schmidt’s logo engraved on the bottom. The last time I saw the pool it had been taken over by large bullfrogs and a few turtles.
Plaumer made a lot of money, but should have made a little less–the Feds caught him, and Beerworld eventually went belly-up.
The greens have gone to cedar, but the ponds are still there. The main pond, the site of a recent rescue, held three swans and multiple ducks. The reeds along its edge wore crystal ice collars, just forming as the sun dropped lower in the sky. A fisherman in full camouflage sat at the edge. A large snapping turtle poked its baseball-sized head out of the water, took a peek at us, then headed back under, an unexpected treat in February.
Winter is lovely–the ticks, the mosquitoes, and (for those among us who mind these kind of things) the black snakes hanging from the trees were all either hibernating or dead.
We went home, gobbled down dinner, then headed back out again, this time to catch the sunset. We do not venture out every time it’s a clear evening, but we’re never disappointed when we do. The sun has been setting on the bay a long, long time, and people on the Jersey side have been watching it a long, long time.
Death dominates the bay’s edge in midwinter. Life needs light, and the sun’s long shadows tell the story.
The gulls, beasts of the beach, are dwindling in number, seemingly mocked by the diving ducks, beasts of the bay, who arrive each winter, exuberant and alive, finding plenty of life beneath the gray-steel surface of the Delaware Bay.
The day’s walk was punctuated with whelk collars and angel wings left by the receding tide. No ice today, but more is coming next week.
As I walked I was startled by a large crow–I had stumbled close enough to hear its wings beat the air as it rose from the beach. Crows are uncommon on the beach–they usually have a reason why they’re here. In a moment I saw why.
In the summer, northern gannets can be seen crashing into the bay–they easily swim to the bottom, then grab bunker as they glide up through the water to resurface. In the summer light the birds look impossibly white.
Here on our beach lies a bird that has traveled thousands of miles in its lifetime. It has been dead for at least a few days, its eyes no longer the bay blue gray of the living.
Its beak looks startlingly lethal, the serrated edges the last thing felt by thousands of writhing fish caught when this gannet still breathed.
Despite the long shadows, the cold air, the slate upon gray where the sky meets the bay, there are splashes of color among the dead, a reminder that the light is returning, and spring will return for those who can hold out through the winter.
Only a few humans walked this particular beach this particular afternoon, and there were as many dog prints as boot prints. But at least one soul bared her soles on this chilly January afternoon, a mortal’s reminder to live.
Went clamming this morning–chilly dawn, quarter moon, and tame tide meant I may have burned as many calories as I raked up for dinner. But that’s not why I clam. After a week under fluorescent lights hearing folks reveal what they know to be true, I need to feel the back bay wash my over my feet to remind me what’s real, to feel my fingers become clumsy as a toddler’s as they grope into the mud to pull out another clam, to feel the human world of words dissolve in the chatter of geese and gulls. If you do not know what’s real, if your feet never (literally) touch the earth, then you will believe anything. And most of us do.
If you grew up in the States anywhere but a farm, chances are pretty good you learned of natural cycles through your church. While our dominant culture thrives on linear growth, most religions honor the cycles of life and death.
Science is the closest thing we have to true religion in public school these days, technology the furthest. Science seeks the mystery, technology exploits it. Very little science happens in schools.
We’re in the dark days now, and will be for some time. The dying sunlight reminds us, if we care to see, that all things fall apart. The sun has shifted, the shadows have lengthened, the cold darkness creeps in.
Delaware Bay in winter, North Cape May
If your child spends most of her waking hours either in school or in front of a screen, she will learn to live in a world without tides, without death, without the slow grace of our sun. She (like so many others) will fail to discern the natural world, the one we’re all tied to, from any of the multiple artificial universes available to her. Of all the Commandments, the wisest may be the first:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.
What we see and smell gets down to molecules, which get down to mass/energy, which gets down to the unknowable. Science requires a basic faith in logic, in math, in entropy, in our senses, and ultimately a humbling recognition of our place in the universe. Science promises death.
School and the economy it now serves requires a disconnect from the natural world and ultimately a basic faith in what somebody else tells you. Our culture promises immortality.
Horseshoe crab spine, North Cape May
I’m going with death.
There are no standards or Commandments on a mudflat.