At no time of the year is oystering more challenging for those who farm them than now, when we’re on the verge of colder weather and the possibility of sea ice. In Wellfleet, town regulations require that all gear used in farming on the flats — warrens of racks, most constructed of rebar — be removed to prevent them from fouling public beds, channels, and neighboring farms. Early winter is also when oysters must be cleared from shallow areas to protect them from being swept off their beds.
Oyster growers typically keep their hibernating oysters in their mesh growing bags and place them in dark, cool places like root cellars for two to three months, returning them to the flats when the ice threat has passed. Some farmers take their oysters to spend the winter in the safety of deep water.
Lifting and lugging makes up most of the work of farming oysters. Talk on the flats commonly includes discussions of aches and pains — and orthopedic surgeries.
For wild pickers, the work is also backbreaking. “Bend over, stand up,” is their mantra. And while farmers know exactly where their oysters are, wild pickers have to roam the flats, often putting long distances between their vehicles and where they’re picking. For them, the better the haul, the harder the work of getting it off the flats.
A few days before Thanksgiving, I got a call from Robert Finch, the great nature writer. Bob and his equally talented poet-wife, Kathy Shorr, invited me to come along on an expedition to Chipman’s Cove to collect oysters for our upcoming feasts.
As a commercial license holder, I most often pick oysters alone, but the flats can be a convivial, almost sporting, place. Everyone out there is looking for the perfect oyster. The timing of this outing, with the importance of finding only the very best for family and friends, added intensity to our quests.
We followed the receding tide, poking at potential candidates, turning over exposed shells to see if they were “empties,” and freeing oysters from the mud to see if they were large enough and shapely enough to take home. Every few minutes one of us would hail the others, waving a particularly fine specimen for them to see.
The oysters we were looking for were deep-bellied and of legal size but not so big as to be awkward to eat. We were also looking for oysters that would sit level on the serving platter. It was a happy competition, and we chatted amicably about all kinds of things as we walked.
“It’s amazing,” Kathy said at one point, “how you can walk through an area you just went through and find a beautiful oyster lying there in full view next to your own tracks. How could I miss this?” She bent down to pick up a fat specimen and dropped it proudly into her basket. Glancing over at my basket she complimented my catch. “Well, aren’t you Mr. Oyster Eyes!”
I have always wondered at people with the mysterious knack to see things in nature.
On a flyfishing trip to New Zealand, our guide stopped me as we walked along a fast-moving trout stream. Pointing to a small submerged boulder 60 feet upstream, he informed me there was a four-pound trout right behind it. “Look downstream of the rock until you come to a small white stone and just keep watching it,” he said. I stared at the little stone beneath the rushing water. It seemed to flicker. “That’s the tail of the trout passing over the stone,” he said. Gradually I made out the shadow, then the body, of the big trout drifting side to side in the current.
On a safari in Africa, our guide suddenly ordered us to stand perfectly still as we walked through the bush. He pointed to a thicket of trees. We waited there, unmoving, for five long minutes, staring into the thicket. Suddenly a full-grown bull elephant emerged soundlessly from the shadows less than a hundred feet away from us.
Wildlife of every kind have an uncanny ability to hide. I don’t mean to put oysters in the same category as trout and African wildlife when it comes to that. But oysters aren’t quite as sedentary as one may think.
In the summer and fall, seaweed will attach itself to oyster shells, giving them a way to travel, driven by wind, tides, and currents, quite far from their previous residences. After a strong summer southwesterly, the flats on Mayo Beach in Wellfleet are sometimes covered with beautiful, fat, deep-water oysters, each one sporting a thick wig of Codium seaweed. Likewise, the vast and usually oysterless flats on the Blackfish Creek side of Lieutenant Island can be covered with spring oysters blown off the shellfish beds of Indian Neck. And shifting sand and silt can, in big tides and storms, easily hide or expose oyster beds.
An oyster’s ability to hide in plain sight is what makes wild oystering challenging. They take on many different shapes and even colors; they are often obscured by silt or sand, by seaweed and algae of various types; and they’re hidden by the shells, stones, and other oysters to which they are attached.
Having oyster eyes means being able to quickly scan and sort out potential keepers. You can always tell a practiced picker: even while they’re excavating a muddy mound, breaking up a clump of shells, scraping off oyster seed, or cleaning a bouquet of seaweed from their most recent acquisition, their eyes keep scanning the flats.
Time is precious for pickers, especially in the short days of winter, when the best tides often take place in darkness.
For all that, when I see a ridge of oyster shell sticking out of the sand or lift a garland of seaweed to find a perfect “box” oyster — that’s how old-timers used to describe the very best ones — I smile. For a few precious seconds, the pain in my back, aching in my arms, and stiffness in my cold hands is magically banished. I know there are a million perfect oysters in the harbor and yet finding one is always a joy.