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Clamming on the far bar in Wellfleet

Liz Lerner

I went out on the tidal flats yesterday about 3 p.m. on a new moon low tide, wearing hip boots and my new red suspenders. It was a bright breezy day in the low fifties. Strong southwest winds had piled up mounds of black-green eelgrass on the beach. When I reached the outgoing tide, the wind, light, and motion of the water gave me a momentary sense of vertigo, so that I had to steady myself with my clam rake. There were a couple of other scratchers raking in the shallows, but I decided to head out toward the outer bar, about a half-mile from shore.

I pushed my way through the shallow water and eventually reached the channel just before the bar. The fast-moving current rolled over virtually bare sand, pressing the rubber waders against my legs. This time of the year the water is clear as glass, and I could see that the bottom was virtually paved with exposed quahogs, as though they had been dumped there. I set my bucket down on the bottom and gathered the clams with my rake, sometimes two or even three at the time, dumping them into the bucket without lifting them above the surface of the water.

In less than ten minutes my bucket was nearly full. But the tide was still going out, and I could see that the outer bar was exposed. I crossed to the far side of the channel, hoping to get a few sea clams to sweeten the quahog chowder with. As I went, the landscape, or tidescape, seemed to simplify, and at the same time became more majestic. There were only scattered tufts of eelgrass dotting the tidal plain, two or three clumps of dead-man’s-fingers attached to the moon snail shells, and a single live conch. The sea took on a pale-pink color in the water, a lovely aquatint, utterly transparent. When I reached the outer bar, I found three large sea clams, their chalk-white shells shouldering hinge-up in the lemon-colored sand. The largest was four inches in length and moved massively in my hand as I carried it back to the bucket.

I turned and looked back toward the shore and saw that all the other clammers had left. The bird life out here was about the same as that further in, mostly gulls and brant. The brant cackled and waddled in groups of fifty or more and seemed undisturbed by my presence. The low, laughing calls of the gulls seemed strangely human in their intonation, as though I were overhearing a foreign language. All at once I had the sensation of being far out, in a space neither terrestrial nor aquatic, as though between dreams. I picked up my bucket, shouldered my rake, and set off for home.

Later that evening, over the kitchen sink, I picked up the largest sea clam, slipped a clam knife into its bowels, and had the sense of killing a large animal.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.