PROVINCETOWN — Friday morning, Nov. 6, 2020. Under a serene and cloudless wide blue sky, with a temperature in the high 50s, a scene reminiscent of the work of Breughel: scores of people dispersed over the tidal flats, bending, raking, stooping to their baskets; some in clusters, some on their own, various hounds running about them; happy human chatter in the air, along with dog noises and the cries of gulls, black-bellied plovers, and yellowlegs.
The people, if not the birds, show signs of camaraderie and good fellowship. There is a joy of sharing in the harvest, in the day, in the company of each other — even at a distance. There is the unspoken sense that we are all avoiding the elephant all around us: the recent election and the suspended outcome. The tension vaporizes across the sandy flats amidst the joy of hunting and gathering.
Clink. My unwieldy rake plows through the sand until it meets an obstruction. The sound — the sensation — travels up my arm and sends a signal to my brain: clam. There is more information, too basic to describe, that is also received, as to the size and nature of the object just encountered: is it a broken shell or a rock? Is it too small or too large? Is it just one clam or a cluster?
Clink. Now the big blue sky, the marsh grass, and the acres of sand, mud, and tidal channels, the people dispersed around me: all is concentrated on this one activity, to stoop and collect the clam, evaluate it, and perhaps deposit it in my basket. Could anything be simpler, or more profound?
Clink. One clam follows another. Their little shelled bodies are wrested from the warm abodes of their homes in the sand and mud, that confining and nurturing medium that sustains them, and now they are mine. Out of the dark and constancy below they enter the harsh world of light and air above and a metal prison filled with their fellows. What awaits them?
The steaming pot.
How I take their lives, how I collect them, with a necessary objectivity, with a forced insensitivity, like the mariners who collected the beautiful Galapagos tortoises and stored them below decks in the holds of their ships, on their backs, stacked for weeks and weeks and months and months, as living provender. Couldn’t they see them as sentient beings, even as the great beasts shed tears and made noiseless signs of grief?
Oh, we all need to eat. It is nothing personal. It has been going on for millions of years. At least, I am here to pursue them in person, willing to enter their world to bring them to mine. Others can go to the market.
Do these littlenecks begrudge me my obligate violence? Do they accept my violations as they do the gulls hurling them from great heights onto the sand or rocks? Does it matter? I respect them, my little brothers and sisters, as I revere their home, the place not quite land, not quite sea.
And we both, clam and human, must fear the day that the rising ocean takes away their lives, our livelihoods, and the future of us all.