The Clam Digger

The Clam Digger

Photo by Ed Fletcher

Originally appeared in the May 2016 issue.

Labor and tradition endure on a low-tide landscape that few ever glimpse.

By Jon Keller
The Clam Digger

Illustration by Christine Mitchell Adams

Four in the morning and the sky pitch black, the sea silent and smooth. The moon sinks into the western sky. The ebb tide runs hard. The moon pulls the water from the shoal-water coves, from the inlets and the creek beds.

A hidden landscape is revealed, a broken ground of mud and sand and rock, dotted by worm holes, eel holes, lobster holes. Gravel bars and mussel beds rise from the mud. Freshwater springs erupt into creeks, flow into pools, sculpt the terrain.

Only clam diggers visit this place, this piece of ground that the moon exposes from the sea for three of every 12 hours. Men in cut-off hooded sweatshirts and hip waders and muddy baseball caps. Men with bad knees and hunched backs, swollen hands and sun-scarred skin. Men with cigarettes dangling, beer cans in their fists.

These are lives clocked by the moon. Moon then water then mud then man. That is the order.

A truck backs down the rock beach. Its engine idles.

A digger pushes his boat off the trailer and into shallow water. The air is heavy with the smell of salt and seaweed. A stream of fresh water runs from a bog, over the rocks, and to the sea. An island stands some 50 yards across the channel, and the funneling action between the island and the mainland creates swirling eddies and standing waves.

The clam digger parks the truck at the top of the beach, climbs into the boat, and casts off. He struggles to start the engine, and the boat drifts toward open sea.

In the distance, the lights of lobsterboats blaze across the horizon.

He tugs over and over on the pull cord and finally gets the old Mercury running. Smoke that he can taste but not see billows into the morning air. The boat spins, runs back against the outgoing tide, and shoots through the narrows, across an open bay.

Only clam diggers visit this place, this piece of ground that the moon exposes from the sea for three of every 12 hours.

Lobster buoys appear out of the dark and whiz past the boat. The bow rises and falls.

The clam digger navigates the channel as it winds and curves and becomes nearly impossible to follow. He holds an oar in one hand for depth sounding and takes his sightings on trees, rock outcroppings, and shuttered camps. The outboard chugs hard against the water.

In the distance, other diggers bob in small boats, smoking cigarettes as they await the tide. The digger leaves the channel, maneuvers around reefs and rock piles and shell heaps, tries to follow deep drains that cut the mud like creek beds, but he loses them. When he hits shallows, he shuts off the engine and jumps from the boat, pushes until it is grounded.

He tosses the anchor and pulls on thin, black latex gloves that fit tight as skin. He steps into the muck and searches for the finger-size holes where the clams’ necks have blown out to filter algae. He follows these holes with his middle finger, then pushes his entire hand into the mud and feels the clam. He slides his middle finger down the length of the shell and hooks the bottom edge before pulling it from the mud.

It’s a soft-shell clam: Mya arenaria. The shell is fragile beneath the force of the mud. One wrong move of the finger will crush the shell and destroy the delicate meat. The digger must use a light hand, as they say.

But the digger must also go fast. He drives his hand with his body weight, presses with his shoulder and elbow. Just three low-tide hours to make a day’s pay. He rams his hand into each hole, over and over and over. His back cramps and his hamstrings scream and broken shells slice his fingers and wedge beneath his nails. Rocks and clams and the mud itself peel his fingernails back, break them into shards that leave inflamed nubs. Still he works fast, still uses a light hand. Blood leaks from his black glove and streams red across the smooth mud.

Clamming is about tolerance of pain. But it’s also about skill. The digger learns to read the mud with his eyes and interpret it with his fingertips.

Clamming is about tolerance of pain. But it’s also about skill and precision. The digger learns to read the mud with his eyes and interpret it with his fingertips, envisioning the way each clam is set in the mud, how to manipulate his fingers around it, how to retrieve it without wasting time or breaking the shell — or breaking his fingers to the point that he cannot use them.

He keeps an eye on the tide because when the water comes, it comes fast. Those green rubber hip waders will fill, and they’ll pull a man into the cold, surging water like a pair of anchors strapped to each leg.

He holds a hand on the gunwale to still the boat and support his sore back. He rocks his full wire baskets, called rollers, back and forth in the water, creating a plume of mud that flows away until all that remains are neat piles of white and blue and black shellfish. He stacks the baskets in the bow, climbs aboard, and runs the boat against the coming tide.

Back on land, he leaves the rollers in the boat and loads it onto the trailer. He drives the winding road to the local wharf and backs the truck up to the clam shop. He stands at the top of the hill and watches the harbor, the fleet of lobster boats coming in to sell their catch at the wharf below.

He waits in a line with the other diggers. The buyer stands at a small desk and works a calculator and checkbook. Cigarette butts, broken clams, and globs of mud speckle the wet concrete at their feet.

Beers emerge from vehicles. Wives and girlfriends appear to escort paychecks to the bank before they can evaporate.

The digger steals glances at the others’ hauls. He tries to figure who dug where, compares his clams to theirs, wonders if he should try the mud in another cove. He lies, tells the other diggers the clams in his boat came from anywhere but where they really came from. His clams are weighed. The buyer punches numbers into his calculator. The digger pockets his pay, and the day is over.

At home, he struggles out of the tight, wet waders, then lies flat on the floor. He stares at the ceiling while his back and hands throb. He waits for the moon to shift, for the tide to come and for the tide to go.

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Featured photograph by Ed Fletcher.


Jon Keller

Jon Keller is a sometimes-clammer and frequent lobsterman and the author of the novel Of Sea and Cloud. He lives on his boat in Addison.