It's a windy, Wednesday morning and I am standing up to my middle in summer-warm water, a heavy clam rake in my hands. I'm one of the few clammers out now, for the tide has been coming in for an hour and the pros have already headed home, their rusty, wire baskets filled with quahogs, the hard-shelled clams that populate this bay.
I got a late start clamming because I'd been in combat with my computer over a formatting issue for my new novel, but the tide listens to no one. Now, a quarter of a mile out in Wellfleet Harbor, I find that the aggravations of technology don't matter to me at all. I am far from my laptop, far from my wireless tether to the internet, and although there may be reception out here, I was wise enough to leave my cell phone back home. The idle pace of clamming, the waterscape around me, the sweet simplicity of the task, have lulled me, set me straight.
Clamming is, in so many respects, a ridiculous pursuit. To begin with: it's terribly inefficient. The water is cloudy, the bottom invisible. I drag the tines of an instrument that has resisted modernization for a century, blindly through the sand, and pull to the surface anything that "feels" as if it might be a clam. Most often it is a rock. For a couple of dollars I could buy as many clams as it would take me hours to unearth here.
For another thing, most of the clams here have been seeded by the shellfish warden for me to harvest, when he could just as easily have simply handed them straight to me.
There are no markers in these beds: I can't be sure where I dug and where I didn't. Sometimes I hit a lucky spot. Sometimes I work my way out as far as the boat channel, with nothing more to show for my labors than a not-quite-perfect whelk shell.
Wellfleet Harbor has been a concern of environmentalists even before the controversial outfall pipe began discharging Boston's treated sewage into Cape Cod Bay, just one of a myriad of assaults against this once-pure sea. I worry that when my daughter is my age, these clamming beds may be closed off. In fact, I wonder if decades from now any one will be eating clams harvested from the wild at all. But this morning I manage to set my environmental concerns to the side. It's easy, I know, to lose the peace of this moment in this beautiful place through my fear for its mortality.
The bay is a sanctuary for more than the marine creatures that inhabit it, it's a place of refuge for all of us--writers, and everyone who toils on laptops, a setting where our high-tech toys are, happily, out of place. When I'm clamming out here I can easily imagine a 19th century version of myself, under this same boundless sky, holding this same clamrake in my hands.
I know that for me, though, as for most of us, there's no real turning back. I'm not going to write my new novel with a quill pen any more than I'll trade in my indoor plumbing for an outhouse. I embrace all the accoutrements of the 21st century, but my shellfish license gives me license to take a much-needed vacation from them.
For now, I treat myself to what I have: my hold on the clam rake as the tines scout the sandy bottom surface, the smell of the seaweed, the sound of a clamshell hitting the rocks, dropped by a gull overhead, trying to crack it open, the feel of the water slowly rising up around me as the tide comes up, as it always does, as it always will.