Posted on January 4th, 2011
I will get to the point where the clouds parted, and I uttered perhaps the only prophetic words of my entire existence, and there will be a sentence with a rainbow in it presently. There will be low tide and salt, and the wind and the rain, and a mollusk fetched up in a spiny shell that was not, in fact, what I was looking for. But not yet. First, there’s a death, an idea, and a slim book with a deceptively simple cover by Curtis J. Badger.
My grandpa was a fisherman. I am not. Yet.
When I first had the idea to clam in both Portlands, or, at the very least, near both of them, it appealed to me mostly for its magazine-ready tidiness. I’d love to be able to say, the way that any formerly physically active person who has gone soft indoors would, that I had already laid claim to my genetic fishing inheritance, and that fat trout danced willingly to the tune of my skilled casts. The truth, however, is that until I was roughly an adult, I didn’t even care for the creatures of the deep as a comestible. The clambakes that my family threw when I was young, that any modern self-anointed foodie would give their left nut to attend, were the scene of a younger version of myself wrinkling my nose at mollusks, scorning bountiful bivalves, and turning to the safe comforts of many an Oscar Meyer wiener. I was foolish. I see that now. But, I am honest. This is not a tale told by an expert. I have spent the first half of my life looking down my nose at Mercenaria mercenaria and asking them to please, for the love of Pete, put some clothes on. Preferably of the crisp batter variety.
Clams, thankfully, will not judge you for having spent the better part of your life willing them to bury their briny tang in an ocean of sea-concealing tartar sauce. They don’t have the bandwidth for grudges—they’re too busy, according to Mr. Badger, trying to get laid.
“…the clam wants a comfortable home, a ready supply of food tastefully presented, and unlimited opportunity to have sex.”
These are some of the first words that will greet you when you open the mildly titled Clams: How to Find, Catch and Cook Them. It was the first book that I’d opened from the pile that had arrived from various parts of the Multnomah County library system, and I felt my already overheated forehead begin to sweat anew. I had been carrying this book around in my bag for the better part of a week, had ferried it to coffee shops, and then, across the country on an airplane, without ever having cracked it open. And now, here I was, in my best friend’s bed after a long day of travel, face-to-text with libidinous quahogs. The truth had been a long time coming, to be sure, but, here it was at last: like most teenagers, I had busily rejected yet another animal that might’ve understood my adolescent storm of hormones and emotion, little knowing that there was a staunch ally at the family picnic, steaming away in the fire pit. Clams! I hardly knew ye! Forgive me my hot dogs!
I was encamped in Holyoke, MA, watching my plans fall apart, the way that all plans do. My tidy notion of clamming from Portland to Portland was, in a fit of irony, being undone by rain. The beaches of Maine were closed to clamming, and I had arrived in Massachusetts during the one spell of wet weather that they’d had in weeks. My original plan had been to camp in Vermont, and then truck over to Scarborough, Maine, to farm the flats for my Bacchanalian little buddies. The first, and perhaps most important lesson to learn about fishing is this: nature doesn’t give a rat’s fart for your plans.
So, as I sat there looking at the list of closings, with visions of lobster rolls expiring around me, I had a thought. And that thought was that I had been going about this whole thing the wrong way. Why was I clamming in Maine? Clams might be getting it on just as fervently there as they did on other shores, but, I had no ties to that geographic location. This entire article was being shaped around the notion of tradition, and there I was, hastily abandoning mine for the sake of a potentially slick sounding title involving the letter P. No wonder the weather was behaving accordingly—I should be clamming in Cape Cod. (later, I was also to catch onto similarly obvious things like ‘The Ocean is Big’ and ‘Water is Wet’, but those are tales for other times.)
A quick flurry of messages back and forth between myself and my Aunt Rachel on Facebook yielded a new plan: my best friend, myself, my aunt, my grandpa’s clamming equipment, and the waters he had known best, Wednesday. My other aunt, the one who held the familial clamming license, was naturally out of town, but, a one-week temporary non-resident permit could be obtained from the harbor master for fifteen bucks, and all of this seemed like a small price to pay for my previous stupidity in planning a trip that hadn’t even revolved around my own family history. When Wednesday dawned gray and rainy, I accepted this too as part of my guilt package, and eagerly drove off down the pike towards the armpit of the Cape.
Calling someone a fisherman is a way to describe an activity that the person in question does, but, it doesn’t even really begin to encompass what that appellation really means. It isn’t until you are standing in front of a map of the bays and backwaters surrounding your grandpa’s hometown, that you begin to understand that ‘fisherman’ is just a placeholder for ‘repository of specific nautical and estuarine knowledge that would take you a neat lifetime to acquire’. That ‘fisherman’ also means ‘ability to stand for hours at a time in bone-sharp cold water scooping heavy bottom sand into a rake’ along with ‘knowing where to perform this activity so that this back-straining labor is actually fruitful’. I hadn’t discovered these additional hidden definitions yet, but, the one about the knowledge was rapidly becoming clear during the course of my conversation with the harbor master’s secretary.
I had been giving her my starry-eyed spiel about my family, this article, and the reason why I was buying a one-week pass for a single day, when she interrupted me.
“Well, first of all, you’re not going clamming.”
“No. You’re goin’ quahogging.”
I couldn’t even manage to get the name of my activity right.
We had walked out of the basement office and into the hallway, where a large map of the local waters hung on the wall behind glass. The coastline was a hodgepodge of highlighted sections, purple, yellow, red, and cross-hatched black. The actual conversation between my aunt and the secretary eventually yielded information about where we could quahog that day, but, a rough interpretation would sound something like this:
“What about here? Is this open?”
“Only with a boat, a unicorn horn, and a pair of suspenders no shorter than twelve inches in length, purchased on a Thursday from Bob down at Hobart Home Notions and Boat Repair.”
“We don’t have a boat….what about this Other Possible Bay?”
“Only on the third Thursday of a month with an R in it, after tax season has concluded, but, before the Running of the Badgers.”
“And this one?”
“Don’t even try. They’ll shoot you on sight.”
‘Fisherman’ also means ‘knowing all of these rules and regulations and then, over the course of many years, neatly ignoring every single one of them because the ocean and its inhabitants don’t give a brass teat about property rights.’
At long last, though, just as my friend’s eyes were glazing over and I had pointed out for the third time that the clamming beach we kept looking at longingly was only open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, we figured out where we could go, gathered up the necessary equipment, and headed down to the water. A light mist had started up again as I stood next to the car in my underwear, pulling on the rubbery weight of my grandpa’s hip waders. Dark brown, covered in patches, definitely not designed for anyone with boobs. My feet swam around in the boots. The bay was waiting.
My aunt tried to give me an idea of the arm motion that I should be performing, as I waded on in, towing the floating basket behind me, hefting my quahog rake in one hand. It was an hour before the lowest point of the tide. A young man whose family was swimming nearby asked, as I walked out into the harbor, “So, what, you scrape the bottom with that thing, and just dump them in the basket?”
“Yeah”, I replied, “hopefully”.
‘Fisherman’ can also mean ‘repeatedly performing a physical act of faith’.
I am not, by any means, presently in the best shape of my life, and there was no faster way to find this out than to go quahogging. Whereas soft shell clamming is ideally performed on a tidal flat, and can easily be accomplished with one’s bare hands, quahogging is a different beast altogether. It is not for dilettantes. It was not, it was feeling at that moment, for the likes of me, as I hauled up another load of dark muck and broken shells with my loudly protesting arms and back.
My friend was poking about in the persistent misting rain, gamely photographing my efforts, and I was surreptitiously scanning the beach for my aunt, to see if she had returned with the car. When I paused to stare out across the water, I was met with a sideways spray that spangled my glasses, and a sharp ache in my lower back that reminded me that thirty is rapidly approaching. Grandpa, I thought, you were one tough old goat, to do this for hours on end. I am probably embarrassing you. (moments later, when my floating bucket came unmoored from the loop on my waders, and make a break for the open sea, I could’ve sworn that I heard him laughing) My efforts had yielded nary a clam, though I had found a whelk, whose ruffled foot poked beyond the edge of its finely-haired shell. In clam lore, where there are whelks, there are clams, but, I had yet to find one, and returned to the shore when my aunt motioned me in, empty-basketed.
“I have another beach we can try, if I can remember where it is. One of grampy’s favorites.”
I, and my dampened décolletage, were more than game for a change of venue.
One false start, a rutted road, several ‘residents only’ signs and one baleful glance from one of the said locals later, I was wading out into the shell-littered waters of a postcard cove. Unoccupied clam dwellings crunched underfoot. The rain had stopped, and a fresh wind picked up along the shore, rustling the grasses, whose roots were encrusted, jewel-like, with mussels. This had been one of my grandpa’s favorite places, among favorite places, and I could see why. The quiet of it filled my lungs, and my slow walk through the water became as much dictated by the demands of its pressure against my legs, as the geography of the bay itself, whose hallmark phrase seemed to be two words: easy, now.
The muscles in my back let go. And I began to dig.
There is beauty, and satisfaction, to be found in physical labor. When you give yourself over fully to a task, and accept its hardships and its stings, there comes a moment when you are rewarded by the sweet feeling of yourself as a well-oiled animal machine. Fishermen, athletes, chefs, builders, butchers, all, know this small music of muscle and sweat, and the sudden certainty of an action performed with one goal in mind. It suddenly ceased to matter, there in the grassy, briny air, whether or not I found a clam, because I had finally figured out the raking motion my aunt had been trying to describe all afternoon. First, there is the long drag across the bottom, with firm, constant pressure. Your hands are waiting for the small, telltale scritch of tine across shell, which is hard to tell, at times, from tine across rock. When this comes, you muscle in and dig, in short, quick bursts, scooping bottom mud and sand into the basket end of your rake, hauling it to the surface to inspect its contents. The digging takes on a rocking, back and forth rhythm, to make a hole in the muck, to quickly gather whatever it is that you’ve glanced across in your surface raking.
I was sweating, I was damp to my neck with seawater, but, I was wordlessly happy. The possible beginnings for this article, as I hauled up still-fruitless scoops of heavy muck, flitted back and forth in my brain, while I watched the bob of the moored sailboats across the bay. Another hour had passed, and I turned to my friend, still gamely making record of my efforts, saying “You know, while I’m doing this, I keep thinking about what I’m going to write, what I want to say. And right now I feel like Inigo, from the Princess Bride. You know, all ‘please, grandpa. Please guide my clam rake.’
And then. Saying this, I had hauled up another load of briny bottom, and there, oh reader, there it was, black and smooth, as impossible as a pearl: my first clam.
And then. The sun came out.
And then. There was a rainbow, softly arching across the sky, behind me.
I would say ‘you can’t make this stuff up’, but, you can. Only—I didn’t.
All of this happened, and I stood, dumbstruck in the softly moving water, looking down at the inky blue blackness of the creature that had landed, at last, in my basket, and though there would be, in quick succession, other clams to follow, nothing could match the terrible sweetness of this first one, whose heavy weight in my palm filled it neatly and was, despite being motionless, alive.
I am not a fisherman, yet. But, that afternoon, in a small cove, in the breaking sunlight, in the waters off of Wareham, I became a quahogger. I like to think that I had some help. And, I like to think, as any granddaughter would, that I had made that help proud.