Tuesday, June 26, 2012

In Pursuit of Clams; or, the Last Waterman

Clamming in the Marsh

Digging up a Quahog

                Captain Jimmy is an old waterman who gave up the long hot days of clamming and crabbing to shuttle people in search of a "local experience" back and forth along the bay marshes.  A good natured fellow with leathery skin and an obscenely thick southern accent, Jimmy seems to jump right out of the pages of some old Bay novel.  No doubt filled with knowledge of navigating and working the surrounding waters, he seems to reserve a polite contempt for us outsiders.  In regard to clamming, he could fill these pages much more than I, but to quote him would be an exercise in futility.  My group and I are still trying to figure out what the hell he was saying about the anchor.
                He has coasted us close to a barren, muddy flat that rises clear out of the water and after a brief misunderstanding about the best location and method of dropping anchor, we descend from the boat and begin making our way across the mudflat.  As I wander aimlessly across the flat, I am struck by the amount of life surrounding me.  Littered across the entire flat are tiny whelks about the size of marbles.  Upon closer inspection I find that many of them are slowly moving about, dragging themselves along by tiny translucent tubes.  Along the rim of the flat where the water begins to deepen I see schools of tiny fish darting here and there attempting to outmaneuver the seagulls searching for lunch.  More than once I begin digging into a small hole expecting my first clam, only to pull out a black, tubular worm of some kind.
                I eventually did find my first clam, ten altogether, and although I felt proud of my success my greater enjoyment came from exploring all the alien life I found on the mudflat that day.  Curtis Badger reflected in Salt Tide that “Clamming is a good exercise in observing life on a mudflat, because it encourages you to slow down, bend over, and pay attention.”  I’ve spent every summer since I was a young boy all over the Chesapeake, and I must have passed by dozens, if not hundreds, of mudflats like this one.  But I would have never been able to fully appreciate the tiny little ecosystem it supported until I was able to “slow down, bend over, and pay attention.”  
I glance back in the direction of the boat occasionally to see Captain Jimmy casually leaning against the railing of the boat, waiting patiently with hands clasped in front of him.  I wonder if he sees what we see when he looks across the mudflat.  Surely, he knows every inch of the bay and every creature within it, but I wonder if he still views it with the same wonder we have discovered.  Perhaps that is why locals like him often have a slightly patronizing view of tourists and visitors.  Nothing unkind, as I’m sure his strong sense of southern decency and manners would temper his opinions.  But more like the way a parent tolerates a child’s clumsy wonder and excitement at discovering something new.
                A flash of lightening in the distance snaps me out of my reverie, and I see Jimmy moving about the boat.  By the time my group and I make our way back, Captain Jimmy is already prepared to get underway, but not before he makes sure we don’t track the dark mud onto his deck.  He recognizes the impending storm which is about to overtake us, but doesn’t seem to be as apprehensive as we are.  I suppose that is what makes him a waterman.

By Jim Mason

I Was There

Clamming in the Marsh

Egrets wading in the marsh

At night, the water makes no pretense of color. Its ripples are neither blue nor green, but dark and deep. Yet within the liquid darkness, a pale blue light rises up and floats away. It is joined by another that creeps from the shadows of the dock. My girlfriend reaches into the water and allows it to flicker up at her touch. I dip my hands too. I gaze with disbelief at the sparks that fly from my fingertips. Somewhere underwater, a comb jelly drinks in these fragments of light. Then it signals its coming with its own light. I cup my palms, hoping to catch it. The drifting luminescent vessels swim just out of my reach, but the water is warm. The touch of the tide is gentle. We came not just to see, but to listen, to smell, and to feel the wilderness about us. Running our hands through the water in the cool night breeze, these wonders communicate with us in a special way. Not by sight or sound, but by the full experience we build a relationship with the place that we take with us along our way.
Of course, I had seen this dock before. In fact, I could rattle off the names of every body of water we must cross between the Marine Science Consortium on the mainland and Chincoteague Island. I had ridden past these marshes on my bike so many times, and more than once I had stopped to take in the sights. However, not until earlier this afternoon had I truly come out to meet the wetlands.
The much-anticipated clamming trip brought my classmates and I out into the marshes by boat. We snaked through waterways that I had previously identified from the bridges. From Mosquito Creek to Cockle Creek, we floated between islands of cord-grass. Our ride took us from warm sun into the shade of light clouds that leaked delicate drops of rain on us as we anchored near the shallow mud. With socks on our feet, we slid into the muck to begin our search.
Recounting my trip, I boast to my girlfriend about the clams I had caught. However, I find myself speaking so much more passionately about the feel of the mud beneath my feet than the three trophies I had carried home. Indeed, what greater boast could Curtis Badger make of his clamming experience in Salt Tide? “But I enjoy, most of all, the very fact that I am here, wading on a mud flat with my trousers rolled, enjoying the cold of spring tides, the healthy suck of mud.” I myself remember the slurp of the wet ground as I tore out the blackened mud beneath the surface. I recall the sticky puddle that perched on the roof of my sock as I took each step. Try as I might, I can barely convey to Sarah the exhilaration of feeling the hard clamshell against my probing toes. It mattered very little that I actually claimed it. So I caught a few clams, Jim had caught ten! Frankly, I enjoyed, most of all, the very fact that I was there.
We sit awhile longer at the dock, Sarah and I. We continue to watch the comb jellies glow as they come and go. These living bubbles looked so lifeless out in the mud this afternoon, but are now coming to life. Something they have taken in transforms them into these magical lanterns in the sea. Just as they draw in the glowing plankton to set themselves aglitter, we draw in our experiences and we come to life. We draw in not just sights or sounds, but our experiences. We place their brilliance in our own spheres to brighten our way as we sail along.
When we get lost along the way, when we wonder, and when we wander, we can let our journey illumine our spirits. We can search for meaning in the marsh, beneath the woods, or at the edge of the sea. We can respond to the specific invitation that meaning offers each of us. Finally, when like the comb jellies we must follow the tide, we can carry the experience with us, pulsing with our own light. Sarah and I watch these shining orbs and we listen to those lapping waves, but we know we didn’t merely see or hear them. We were there.
By Jarrett Voight

Searching for Clams

On Mosquito Creek

As our group headed out in search of clams, none of us were quite sure what we were looking for. Captain Jimmy, the expert, had to stay back at the boat to ensure we were not going to be stranded out in the marsh; he gave us a few instructions, though I don’t think anybody could completely understand his thick accent. We knew we had to look for tiny holes in the mud, but that not all the holes meant clams. After about an hour we spotted lightning and were able to walk back to the boat, the same length, in maybe five minutes. I wondered how many clams we were missing on our hurried way back. Then I thought to myself: I don’t think I have walked that slow or noticed as much in that short amount of space.
            As I slowly made my way across the mud I could feel my socked feet squish and sink into the soft ground. Frustratingly seeking out the clams and their signs, I searched for holes. It seemed as though I could find anything but the clam I searched for. I found a cute little long claw hermit crab, several types of worms, and a specimen that was related to the jellyfish, one that could not sting, even if it had been alive. Finally, I came upon a hole that looked different than the others. This one was surrounded by black debris, like a miniature composite volcano. I stuck my toes inside, squishing around in the soft black, oxygen deprived, mud. With my toes, I dug a few inches down and struck a hard surface, a clam! I found one! I rejoiced as I pried it out of nesting spot. After staring at the mud for so long I agree with Curtis J. Badger when he states in Salt Tide that “Clamming is a good exercise in observing life on a mud flat, because it encourages you to slow down, bend over, and pay attention” (10).  Badger is correct: if it weren’t for the incentive to find clams, I do not think I would have noticed half of the life forms I did while strolling along in the mud. What is also enjoyable about clamming is that while you certainly use your eyes, your other senses, especially touch, are imperative. When a person is clamming it is required that they are aware of their feet. They need to think about where they are stepping and what they are stepping on. This process is not typical in everyday life because people generally disregard all that their feet walk over unless it makes them to trip, or causes pain.
            Clamming teaches people the importance of slowing down and noticing. People should take the lesson clamming has to teach and learn to slow down and notice the little things on an everyday basis not simply when on the hunt. Who knows what marvelous things people could find if they simply take the time to slow down and look.

By Megan Kelsall

Celebration on the Water

Instantly I am drawn to the water.  It is cool and relieving from the unforgiving sun.  Swimming around, I see crabs scurrying in the shallow water and schools of fish with plan of direction.  In the water I feel in my own element.  It’s been this way for as long as I can remember.  I am able to let go of the world on land and immerse myself in a world undefined. 
In the essay, "Waterman’s World" Tom Horton writes, “What we long ago found unthinkable on land; we continue to celebrate on the water” (188).  The water opens the door for the imagination.    The water helps to celebrate something “unthinkable on land.”  For the land is more defined in nature: if there is sunlight it will brighten an area.  But sunlight in the water projects the surface of the water onto the ocean bottom.  With my friend’s goggles, I can see the rhythm of the sun’s rays on the ocean floor.  After gazing at the floor, I swim as hard as I can through the shallow water.  Catching my breath, I lay on my back floating in the water.  My ears are submerged and I can hear my rapid heartbeat in the water.  Listening to my heartbeat “on land” was “unthinkable,” but out in the water I am able to “celebrate” my life as it pulses in the water. It almost creates a sonar effect, establishing my own personal beat to the ocean. 
I flip over and look out towards the horizon. There are about five World War II ships sunk in the bay.  I did not really take the time to gaze at them before because the excitement of the water consumed me.  Dr. Laurie Cella informs me that those ships are responsible for the beach: without them erosion would eat away at the sandy shoreline, leaving it inadequate for recreation.  This idea of using ships to protect a habitat is “unthinkable on land,” and thanks to these concrete giants, we are able to “celebrate on the water.”  The retired guardians of the beach, schools of fish, the rays of sunshine on the ocean bottom, and my rapid heartbeat are all what allows me to call the water my element.  The free floating, care free, and openness of the sea reflects the way I think of life.  The water is like a childhood friend because regardless of the time spent apart, once reunited it’s like I never left.

By Andy Dixon 

Man vs. Crab

Kiptopeke and Barrier Islands Center

Stalking the Crab, Chesapeake Bay

The Catch

                I stalked silently through the shallow inlet in search of my prey, every shadow on the sea floor a potential victim.  Each of my steps were carefully placed so as not to disturb the sand and allow my quarry a chance to take flight.  Coming across a rather large patch of brine, I leaned in to examine it for signs of the blue crab I sought to capture.  About to move on, the dark patch of growth shifted with the current and betrayed a flicker of movement underneath.  My prize, seeming to sense my scrutiny, scuttled to reposition himself underneath his clever camouflage.  The thrill of the hunt pounded through my veins as I prepared to pounce and claim my elusive prize.  Patiently, I waited for his next move, lulling him into a false sense of security which would be his ultimate undoing.  He moved slightly into the open, peering out to see if the coast was clear.  Adrenaline surged through my veins and I shifted my feet, betraying my position.  A flurry of sand marked his rapid retreat into the deeper water ahead of me as I gave chase. But the water clouded to the point that pursuit would be futile.  “Well played, sir.” I concede to my victorious opponent, “Well played, indeed.”
                My failure forced me to re-examine my methods, and I scrabbled back to my gear on the warm morning sand.  In order to find the blue crab I must meet him on his own terms; I must hunt him down in his back yard.  Quickly I donned my mask and snorkel and returned to the water.  Upon reaching his last known location I gently lowered my body into the cool bay waters and pushed myself forward, deeper into the abyss.  Mild strokes of my arms allowed me to glide along, a leviathan among the lesser species of the aquatic underworld.  The sea floor appeared crystal clear through my goggles, shells and seaweed standing out in stark contrast to the smooth velvet sand.  The fortunate crabs chances of survival were diminishing, his rapid side-scuttling locomotion and hard protective shell no match for my highly evolved cognitive functions and opposable thumbs.  Today I was going to earn my place at the top of the food chain.
                After several minutes my increased perception allowed me to observe my quarry once again.  Half buried in sand and deceptively still, he sat frozen a few yards away.  ‘Clever,’ I thought, ‘he has adapted his methods as well.’  Although he was no match for me, a grudging respect began to emerge within me.  But there is no room for admiration on the hunt, no moment to be lost for sympathy.  He was mine and the time was now.  Coasting almost directly above him he still refused to betray his position, believing his ruse had succeeded.  Gently I allowed my hands to sink to within striking distance, drawing up to the final strike.  But as if to mimic my intentions, the crab slowly raised his to tiny claws towards me.  With amazing speed he attacked, snapping his claws around my exposed fingers.  I jerked my hands away and rolled to my left, attempting to parry his blows.  This caused my snorkel to become submerged and I take on a lungful of the salty water we battled in.  I pulled myself upright and exclaimed with surprise, but it wasn’t over yet.  My adversary boldly seized the initiative and struck at my feet, sending me stumbling back in a panicked retreat.  This retreat quickly turned into a rout as I scrambled to gain the safety of the shore.  Once there within the relative safety of dry land, I glared at the glossy surface of the sea and vowed to return. I would have my vengeance yet.
                As I paced back and forth along the beach I struggled to comprehend the crab’s success during our bouts.  This was no mere crustacean fluttering aimlessly about the bay; it was in fact a finely tuned aquatic survivor.  Regardless of my direction of approach he seemed to be aware of my presence before I was of his.  And his speed, my god his speed!  I could nearly step on him and in the blink of an eye he was more than ten yards away.  William Warner’s Beautiful Swimmers accurately quoted long time crabber Howard of Chrisfield’s Maryland Crabmeat Company, who said, ‘Only thing I know is that they can crawl, swim, and bite like hell.’  Warner’s text is full of impressive facts, such as the blue crab's ability to see ‘almost three hundred-and-sixty-degree vision' and being ‘superbly designed for speed’.  All these apparent facts forced me to admit my hubris and accept that I could not engage this beast again on my own.  This denizen of the deep would only be conquered with the help of an expert.
                With this in mind, I quickly made my way to a park ranger, who had set up a small stand on the beach with a collection of artifacts depicting the broad range of life along the shore.  While I would normally inspect each and every item with care, my attention was focused solely on the long handled net leaning against the equipment behind her.  I quickly explained my plight and she readily agreed to come to my aid.  Armed with my newly acquired net and a unique knowledge of my prey’s preferred nesting area, I confidently waded back into the warm water of the bay.  In a matter of mere minutes I spied another carefully hidden specimen and, careful not to let over-confidence get the better of me once again, I gently lowered the net towards to bottom.  Spooked, the crab began to take flight, but not quick enough.  With a desperate lunge I scooped my net in front of its path and heaved it from the water.  As I brought it back to eye level I inspected my net. 
                Victory!  Nestled in the confines of the green mesh was a beautifully colored Bell Crab, a close cousin to the famed Atlantic Blue.  I pumped my legs in the direction of the shore, calling out to anyone within earshot, heralding my triumph.  Emperors have never felt such glorious pride!  I spent the next several minutes strolling about the shore, sharing my prisoner with all who cared to gaze upon the mottled blues and reds of her spectacular form.  Upon closer inspection I observed a spongy orange mass on its underside, indicating that this was a female bearing millions of tiny eggs nearly ready to be hatched and released into the bosom of the sea.  This caused me to reflect on the tenacious effort of the crab to evade my attempts at capture. With only one out of a million of her tiny eggs predicted to survive and grow to full maturity, it was clear that these hardy little creatures were adapted to propagate under the harshest circumstances.  With a keen sense of respect and admiration, I gently lowered this good mother into the inviting water and released her.  She simply hovered before me, as if in comradely salute, before casually returning to her home at the bottom of the deep. 
                “Farewell, worthy adversary,” I thought to myself, “farewell and Godspeed.”
By Jim Mason

Spirits' Invitation

Without venturing too far out, I dip my body into the water. Testing the buoyancy of my own figure, I wobble for a minute before reaching down and grabbing the floor of the bay. I guess we’re not all meant to swim. Looking up, I see that the others in our group all seem to commune with the water in their own way. Jim has declared war on the small crabs at the floor of the bay, while Andy dips below the surface and pushes forward with a few strong strokes. Behind me, Megan patrols the beach, not really walking out into water any deeper than her ankles. The children chase the fish around the shallows while their father returns with a hermit crab. Each of our relationships with the sea will be as diverse as we are from one another. Do we determine that relationship or does the wilderness? I suppose this is the conversation Tom Horton mentions in Bay Country when he considers us “engaged in an almost constant dialogue with the landscape around us.” Indeed, there is an invitation there that speaks to all of us in different ways, anticipating how we can and will respond with our own nature.
Slipping further into the water, I wonder: where does that invitation take me? Whoops! I wobble a little and then hold myself still. Scuffing my knuckles along the solid underwater sand does not really count as swimming. Then, a shout hurtles through the air back to the shore. I watch as Jim forcefully tangles with the scuttling creatures of the bay floor. They evade his hand and reach for his feet with their claws. Undeterred, he still pushes ahead with his enterprise like the watermen of old. Tom Horton lamented the loss of the ventures of those rough men. They did not just go out into the bay; they struggled with and against it. I should wonder why Tom Horton’s “spirits of place” would invite some to do battle, but the watermen represent a way of life that shaped the region of the Chesapeake Bay. For some length of time, those familiar waters became a frontier. Just as I see in Jim’s battle with the crabs the little bit of fight we all have within us, so also did the watermen’s exploits symbolize something hardy about the spirit of mankind.
I stand up and pace further out, keeping an eye on the clear water for any crabs that may be offended by my trespassing. A splash pulls my attention from my feet as Andy dips into the water again. His face submerges itself as he moves through the ripples on the bay. I lay myself horizontally at the surface of the water again, but I dare not allow my face to sink below water level. Some join their lives to the sea. Rather than contending with one another, the spirits of man and sea are much more at harmony. Now, rather than splashing, I pull my hands in. Then reaching forward, I spread out my arms. My legs struggle to get into position as I just barely stay afloat. I try to emulate the breast stroke I’ve seen performed so many times. Of course, the residents of Hog Island further south did not remain afloat for long before their village had been reclaimed by the sea. Yet, while they still made their life in the barrier islands, they swam! They lived a simpler way of life, fishing and clamming right there between marshy wetlands and the fingertips of the Atlantic. The community lived in harmony with one another. They celebrated their life in a way that very few can nowadays. If only my breast stroke harmonized with the water the way their living had connected with the sea. Perhaps then, I could move forward not by inches but by yards like Andy. I try for a little longer, gliding shakily through the water. I continue to try until feeling in my arms becomes taut, and my body starts to sink.
I suppose it is the fate of any unaccustomed swimmer to grow tired and return shoreward. I go back to comb the shore with Megan and Dr. Matthew. If there are those who fight the sea, and those who swim through the sea, there must also be those that observe it. The plight of the Hog Islanders brought tears to my eyes, but in the end the nature reclaimed its own. This part of the wilderness is now preserved for us to view without interference. Though I have not lived with the water like the islanders, I can still come to view the water like the many tourists on Assateague and like Megan on the shore. From beside the ocean on those protected shores, I can still hear its immense voice whisper to my soul. The spirit of the ocean can invite us to look upon it from afar, and oh! the wonders we can see even from land. How lovely in my eyes are the fringes! How I love to watch the egrets patrol the marshy wetlands between the shore and the mainland. Yet even there, the sun and the bugs drive me out before I can remain there for long.
As I look up, I find myself neither out in the deep, nor left on the shore, but treading somewhere in between. I am neither hunter nor swimmer; nor would I remain on the beach. I listen for the voice of the ocean and I follow it. I wander out and I wander back. My feet might carry me by those salt marshes one moment. The next moment, my heart carries me back into the stories of those people that came before us. The spirit of this place makes of me a transient. I shall not make my living on the frontier as part of the struggle between man and nature. Nor can I take up residence in the sea, living in complete harmony. Yet I also cannot distance myself. I follow the roaring sea, the majestic trees, and the whispering breeze. I follow so that at the end of my journey I may meet the one whose voice roars with the ocean and trickles through the trees. Then I shall be where the invitation has called me.

By Jarrett Voight

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Shell of Existence

Beach at Wallops Island
I stand at the edge of the ocean as the cool water surrounds my feet. The sand slips away beneath them, grain by grain, as the sea reclaims the water. There are only a few people around me, those in with whom I came, but nobody dares to make a sound. Nobody wants to be the person to break the silence. It’s as if the sea is whispering to each of us, and we all have no choice but to listen. Eventually we walk down to see what life forms we can see with a little bit of searching. Although I set out to search for life, it was not until the end of the walk that I realized: it was not the life of others I was searching for; it was my own.
            As I scanned the beach for signs of a creature, all I could see was the remains of the once living. Scattered along the beach were the shells of the simple scallops with their rigid symmetry. Among them were the clamshells with discolored lines, which tell the clams age. Every now and then there was the cute little moon snail with its smooth spiral.  I was surprised to have stumbled upon a spiraling whelk shell, and I held it up to my ear to see if the ocean would speak to me. As if this shell was my private communication line to the sea. As I looked at these shells, I pondered how rugged these shells that seem so fragile must be to survive years in the harsh environment of the ocean. I thought about Rachel Carson, in The Edge of the Sea, when she states, “The animals were mortal but the shells they built have endured.” These shells that were scattered must have tumbled about in the force of the ocean, yet they still stayed in one piece. She compares the animal to its shell stating that the animal was “mortal,” but the shell has endured. She illustrates that the shells the animals make to protect themselves will long outlive the animals that create it.
            As I pick a few shells up for further inspection, sorting through ones I wish to keep and wish to give back to ocean, I wonder what is my shell? What will I create that will endure long after I am deceased? Will I create anything as strong as a shell that can provide protection for its creator and will last years after? Will I be lucky enough to be a whelk shell? Will people hold the reminiscence of my life up to their ear to hear my final words? Will they listen? Or will they simply hear? Or will I be an oyster that people only glance at, identify, and then move on? Only time will tell.
By Megan Kelsall