RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.
I have a deep admiration for clammers. It began when I apprehensively ventured out onto the clam flats to try collecting a few of these mollusks.
That experience fostered an appreciation for this ancestral food gathering skill and for those that spend their days moving mud. Trust me, clamming is hard work.
By definition a clammer (or clam digger) is one who gathers clams. Don some rubber boots and step onto a mud flat to soon find yourself calf-deep in oatmeal colored muck. The surface percolates in tiny bubbles of brine, producing gurgled sounds in stereo that are released as air pockets surrender. Sometimes it’s as if you wandered into a bowl of Rice Krispies. Once on the flats, a Down East clammer bends and does not come up for air until he or she has finished for the day.
A clam digger at work in the mud is akin to watching a dance of sorts — a rhythmic, almost choreographed performance of intuitive muscle and might. This dance continues non-stop. Their movement on the flats is nothing like what mud and silt does to the novice who decides to give it a go.
Quickly finding mud overtop boots with their body parts moving frantically, the novice continually tries to gain distance between mud and the surrounding water’s edge, while the seasoned clammer is eloquent in their movement in a Down East sort of way, giving new meaning to endurance.
It takes patience, a keen eye and a sturdy back to go clamming. Pull after pull is made, moving the rake, or the clam hoe, through the mud just ahead of the air pocket that the tiniest of bubbles reveals. Below that spot is a briny surprise wrapped in a delicate shell.
It is backbreaking, tedious and posture-altering work, if ever one existed.
The bounty they pull from the shoreline is fresh and sweet and, some say, the best in Maine. When demand is high, the prices these mollusks bring to those willing to expend both time and energy to harvest them is, in my opinion, never enough for the amount of work it requires. But a seasoned clammer perseveres anyway.
More importantly, they are preserving a way of life here. No machines or technology are tainting this work; it is man and sea working together as one, the same way generations have been doing so. Is that not the way life should be?
Gulls, sea, sky and salt air are all companions to the clammer who ventures out as the tide slowly pulls back the covers of the day, revealing a carpet of continuous wonder that changes minute by minute.
It’s a wondrous sight to behold — to sit and watch the line of water move out, a truck or two arrives, boots are pulled high, and the laborious walk to a spot is made. Deliberate lines are left in the mud and edges are steeped high. Legs straddle spires of mud as each pull is made, passing through A-frame strides again and again, until it looks like someone dragged a body through the mud.
In a way, I guess they did — their own. In hours it will all be gone, washed over by the sea, erased like a shaken Etch A Sketch. Next is a new day, a new spot and a new potential for pulling a livelihood from the ocean floor and seeing beauty and bounty again at their feet.
For all of us living in Down East Maine, especially for those of us who have never stepped foot onto the flats, there is mud season. Mud season sneaks up. It wakes up one morning and decides to roll over, literally, and cover anything in its path. After winter has ceased, mud slinks around in grooves buried under rocks and pools of crusted ice, waiting for those two consecutive days of warm temps.
And then it begins to flow, leaving its mark on everything and everyone. I believe this is where the habit of Down Easters removing their shoes when entering the house came from. No matter the time of year, when entering a house, a pile of shoes will be found just inside the door. This has to be a byproduct of mud season.
Whether one watches their own mud move from the doorstep into the house or from a comfortable seat on a rock staring out at a blooming mudflat, the mud will move and stories will be made. I always look forward to spending just a little time of the year watching men, women and even some children ply the shiny flat surface of mud inside a cove that was covered by water just a few short hours ago.
With muscle and might, they pirouette in silence, digging the mud and giving the casual observer an artistic expression of Down East dance and hard work all at the same time in a setting that is best described as unbounded beauty.
Yes, there is an art to moving mud.