a little essay about the mud flats
We walk down to the mud flat about an hour later than we planned. Jen and Orange found the best spot on their morning walk, so we all follow their lead. Jules, ever prepared, has one rubber glove for all of us, and we each carry our own bucket for collecting. I set my goal for the day at six clams.
I peel my shoes and socks off and leave them on the shore. Some of us leave their shoes on - crocks or sandals, but I only brought my hiking shoes with me, and I want my toes in the mud. We scramble down the steep rock bank, our giggles bubbling over. Mary Oliver used to dig for clams in Provincetown, but we are in Cobscook Bay, across the sea from Campabello Island, sleeping at a campsite my sister wasn’t able to use.
The mud flat is cradled in a cove, surrounded by a shoreline of thick green trees and clumps of soggy seaweed pushed forward by the high tide. The water is far away from us now, only a thin sliver of the sea trickling into the cove.
We move forward gingerly and with excited shrieks. At first, our feet barely leave a mark in the mud, but a few steps forward and we are sinking calf deep into the chilly goop. We walk in a messy, single file line out into the mudflat. Jen has Orange’s leash clipped around their waste, and doesn’t come out into the deep goo with the rest of us. “This is amazing!” we scream to each other between laughter.
I walk from my core, trying to tread lightly because I do not want to cut my feet. My toes slide through the mud into hidden layers, where sharp rocks and even sharper, precious clams are hidden from sight. I take a long time to find a good, sturdy spot to stand, teaching myself how to stay upright on the slippery ground. Rubber gloves slide onto hands, and we start digging up the first clam holes we find.
Our first tries are hurried and happy and slimy. We dip our hands beneath the milk-chocolate top layer, finding black mud underneath. How could I ever describe the texture? It is thick and heavy, sticky and smooth, and silvery-black. Holding it in your hand is like holding a piece of the night sky. It splits into soggy clumps, and I am surprised by how hard it is to tell whether I am holding mud or a rock. I relish the feeling of the muck between my fingers and happily give Savannah my glove - she is not as excited about the mud as I am. As we work our way through the morning, she holds her arm up from time to time to show the glove’s steady progression down her forearm. She is the first of us to find treasure, holding the precious shellfish up to excited cheers. I am more than a little jealous.
For the first hour we are all screams, and we hang out in a cluster, leaving clumps of footprints and digging holes in the flat. As the morning goes on, we all start to get strategic. Nina stays the furthest out in the sinking sand, while Jen and Orange set up camp closer to the shore. Jules, Savannah and I are somewhere in the middle. One by one we hold up our first find, calling to the rest of the group when there’s a successful extraction.
I don’t remember finding my first clam, or even my second, but I remember my third one because I crush it just as it’s starting to come loose from the earth. I feel it’s shell snap between my fingers and a wash of shame floods my chest. I am embarrassed about my oafish hands and human hubris. The clam comes right out of the sand once it’s wasted. Other people have crushed a clam this morning but I did’t really know how it would feel until I did it. This clam was just having a nice Saturday morning until some jabrony showed up trying to set a quota.
From then on I am more serious. I don’t have less fun - I just don’t want to make the same mistake again. I come closer to the shore, where I can see the clam holes more easily, and park on my knees, officially ruining the athletic leggings I wore to protect my legs from the sun.
“Just follow your finger down the hole,” Jen says at one point. Nina calls to us from the spot she’s found on the other end of the mudflat, joking about the queerness of this whole situation. “What do you guys mean?” Jules asks, lifting her head up from the sand. I give a crude answer and we take another giggle break.
My pace slows as I try to quiet my mind, maintain my patience and focus on my task. I’m surprised by how easy it is to follow the trail of the clam hole, and start to pry top layers away.
Clams are smart. Birds and humans are always trying to get them, so they know how to hide. Sometimes you find a bunch of hollowed shells, or a big rock, and earlier in the day this would be a gesture to us that we’d been digging for nothing. But a little perseverance usually reveals that a few inches beyond the obstacle that you thought was the end of the journey, a little clam is still breathing, still hiding in the soft, cold mud. When I find one, I let out cheerful giggles and hold it up in the air, and Jules and Jen cheer for me. Savannah sits on the rocky bank up ahead, whittling a trinket for her crush.
Clams live nestled in rocky dirt. Sometimes when you find one, you think you’ll be able to wriggle it out like a loose tooth, but their shells are too fragile. What works for me is to swirl my finger around the shell, making sure to move every kissing rock away. You never know how big a clam is going to be just from finding the tip - or at least I don’t, as an amateur. Sometimes I think I must be close to getting it free, and I still have five more minutes of careful excavation left before the clam comes loose from the mud with a thsss-p! Some of the clams we find are too tiny to keep, and we debate the best way to put them back all morning. Will they still be able to breathe if we cover them back up? Research we’ll need to do before our next muddy adventure.
It’s not long before I get the hang of clamming and stop announcing my finds to my friends. Once I find my sixth clam, I set my sights for twenty-five. There are a few different types of digs. Clams hiding in rockier mud are easy to see. You can watch their shells emerge as you dig, and get to know it a little bit before it comes loose. Often there are two or three huddled close together, like Jules and Jen and I, but some are loners like Nina. The muddier sand tells a different story - as the hole you dig gets deeper, it fills with water, and you have to work in the dark. You meet the clam when you free it, and have a little puddle to wash the mud off its shell. Each time I get one free, I thank it for not breaking, and put it in my bucket with the rest of the clams.
“Oh wow,” someone says, “look at the tide.” I look over my shoulder and see that where the sea used to be a suggestion, it’s becoming a procession. I make a point to check over my shoulder to see how much time I have left, every three clam holes or so.
There are twenty-two clams in my bucket and the tide is only about a foot away from me now. The rest of my group are getting tired, eager to eat the fruits of our hunched morning, but I am only three clams from my goal. I look around what little is left of the flat to find a cluster of holes and kneel down. I know that I can’t move fast - I just have to work deliberately. The twenty-fourth clam that I find is too small to harvest, and I move on without ceremony. The tide is at my heels.
Nina has come back over. Everyone is talking about the eating part of the day, but I am mourning the digging as I pull my twenty-fifth clam from the mud. I kiss it and plop it gently in my bucket.
I carry my shoes and socks in my muddy hands, walking barefoot on the dirt road back to camp. On our way home we meet Kelly, who has been coming to this campground with her partner every year, but only went out to the mudflats for the first time this morning, just like us. When we plop our tired behinds in our camp chairs, we tally up our haul and discover a round seventy collected clams. Savannah and I - vegetarians - look at each other with a bit of horror. “We can just put some of them back,” I say to the group, not believing that we could eat them all.
We light the camp stove and rinse the clams in the ocean. Jules, Jen, and Nina rinse the mud off their hands and legs, but I’m not ready to say goodbye yet. Later, I’ll peel caked flakes of mud off my legs, yanking out every fifth leg hair. I chop the garlic and Jen pours the white wine, and we steam our catch in a big silver pot that we brought with us. I try to write about the mud while waiting for the clams to open, but my fingertips are all cut up, my nails broken down to the beds. Hands too uncomfortable holding a pen, I watch the clouds change for the rest of the afternoon.