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!


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.

Losing our religion

Somewhere on a back bay in Jersey

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.