Clamming in Maine
|Meg Bernhard||Jan 27|
The other day, I visited the deCordova sculpture park in Lincoln, Massachusetts. It was a freezing afternoon, 29 degrees and windy, but cloudless and bright — more than I can ask for in deep New England winter. A few dozen pieces were scattered throughout the sloping grounds: a pink granite torso, a series of glass doors, a small concrete tower. Others were site-specific, designed for the landscape. When it rains, Andy Goldsworthy’s labyrinthine “Watershed” courses with water, like a grotto. In DeWitt Godfrey’s “Lincoln,” eighty steel cylinders appear to tumble down a hill.
On our way out, we drove by a gorgeous piece — dense, straw-colored strands hanging from a dark wooden frame. The strands swayed with the wind. Later, I learned Vermont-based artist Nancy Winship Milliken created the piece, called “Pasture Song.” The strands are actually used cello bow hairs. I can’t write a better description than the museum’s:
“Milliken’s Pasture Song features reclaimed cello bow hairs woven into a net and suspended from a wooden frame. Wind activates the fibers, creating subtle sounds that evoke string instruments and natural tunes from the field, such as the subtle vibrations of tall grasses and crickets. Using horse hair, once used to flick flies on a hot summer day, then fashioned into a bow to make music, Milliken returns this material to the harmony of nature.”
Because we were in the car, I couldn’t hear these lovely summer sounds. I wished I had. I love the sound of wind in the grass, and all the other soft sounds nature produces: rainfall, drifting snow, dry leaves scuttling on the pavement. I’ve been pining to return to deCordova, just to listen to the Pasture Song, but I’ve missed my opportunity this week. Snow and ice are in the forecast; as I type this Tuesday evening, my street is entirely white. Even though I’ve spent more time the past seven years in Massachusetts than I have in southern California, my home maintains a psychic hold over me. I am horrified of driving in even the lightest of winter conditions. Therefore, the Pasture Song, like so much else, will have to wait for warmer weather.
I wasn’t sure what to write this month, which is why I didn’t send an email earlier. I’ve been drawn to stories about death, loss, and grief this year — every year, really, but especially this one — and lately have been feeling tired from the weight of it all. You don’t need to hear from me how grim things are. I expected to feel lighter watching the inauguration last week. I did, briefly, while watching Amanda Gorman and seeing Kamala Harris take the oath of office. But otherwise I felt sad, seeing all the attendees in masks, camo-clad troops gripping rifles. A few days ago, I accidentally pulled up my grandfather’s contact information on my cellphone. Before he died, it had been a while since I’d called him, as his dementia had made it all but impossible to hold a conversation. Seeing his contact reminded me that I can't talk to him, even if I tried.
A bit of brightness: My eighty-five-year-old grandmother received her first Pfizer dose on Monday. A group of us — my mom, aunt, cousin, dad, and brother — assembled online last Saturday to snag her an appointment the moment slots opened up, and my brother got her one before they were all taken (within minutes). I cried when I saw the photos of my grandma pulling her sleeve up for the shot. In two weeks, we can book her an appointment for the second dose. She’s relieved, grateful, and excited to get her hair cut soon.
I’ve been writing bits of things the past few months, including a few stories/essays set to come out sometime soon. Everything else is unpublished. During a warmer time, before the election, I drove to Maine to meet a clammer named Glen. He took me out on his boat — masked, distant as one could be — and showed me how to dig for clams. I’m messing around with the writing, figuring out how it fits into other things I’m working on, but I thought I’d share an unfinished sketch from my (digital) notebook.
As always, I’d love to hear from you. About places you find beautiful, books you find helpful, recipes that have kept you going, indoor exercise routines for someone scared of snow…
You’ll want these, Glen says, and hands me a pair of hip-high boots. I try them on. Too big? I nod. He gives me a pair of wool socks, and I try again. Better. He flashes a smile. Welcome to Waldoboro, girl.
We stand on the asphalt, looking out to the river. Not yet, he says. He watches the sand bars, waiting for the mud and grass to disappear into the water. It will take ten minutes for the Medomak to swell sufficiently for our boat to cross into Flanders Cove, a nook of soft sludge where we’ll spend the morning digging for clams.
Glen is the most famous clammer in Waldoboro. Maybe all of Maine. Not because, with a heap of dirty blonde curls crammed under a pirate-style bandana, he’s hard to miss. It’s because he’s been at it longer than most, ever since high school, when he needed pocket money and tried his hand at digging. Now he’s de-facto spokesperson for Maine’s mid coast shellfish industry. He’s loud. Annoying. Willing to start a fight. Not a lot of guys would do that, Glen says. Clammers are misfits, generally antisocial. That’s why they’re drawn to the work — it’s a solo enterprise. But someone has to speak for them.
I have driven up from Boston because I’ve seen the numbers. There were six thousand clammers in Maine when Glen started in the 1980s. They number 1,400 today. The clam population is down. The prices are down. The future of clamming seems grim.
There are a few theories about the declining clam population. First, the Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest warming bodies of water on the planet. The green crab, one of the steamer clam’s major predators, thrives in this warming water. But Glen, a climate change skeptic, is a proponent of the other theory — that pollution has more to do with the declining clam population. In 2008, the town of Waldoboro shut down all the clam flats along the Medomak for half a year because of heavy rains and runoff, keeping the town’s clammers out of work.
Like everyone who does this work full time, Glen’s days depend on the tides for nine months out of the year, between March and December. There are usually two low tides per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Glen aims to dig two hours before and after each low tide. The timing is precise. Show up late to the launch site and you’ve missed a day’s earnings; the tide will be too low for the boat to pass. Likewise, if you miss the tide coming back in, you’ll be stuck at the cove for hours, boat marooned in the mud. Believe me, I’ve done it, he says. That’s how he knows the river: education by experience. He knows every crag, every rock, every sand bar. I’ve run into them all, Glen grins, gesturing at his small motor boat.
When the sand bars are totally submerged, Glen steps into the water. I stumble into the boat. Glen’s son Zach, a math teacher my age who digs with his father on the weekends, pushes the vessel into the river. Glen starts the motor with a sharp pull of the cord, propelling us forward toward the river’s mouth.
We glide. The river is cool and glassy, reflections of the autumn trees like watercolors on its surface. This part of the Medomak looks less like a river and more like a lake: wide, placid, surrounded by a forest of ash, pine, and oak. The water here, where the river meets the sea, is salty green, home to eels and stripers. Along the riverbed dwell lobsters and crabs. The clam’s domain is deep in the silt.
After fifteen minutes on the water, Glen eases the motor, and we drift into a misty cove. Trees insulate us from the sounds of the river, the few boaters who are out this cold morning. An eagle swoops in the grey sky above us. A crow caws from the shore. Besides its call, the air is still, the silence near total. We float in the shallow water, waiting for the tide to recede. When it does, we anchor in the mud. Underneath us are hundreds of steamer clams, buried deep. We’ll claw them out with our hands.
until next time,