Clamming …just something we do in the mud, Downeast

I have a deep admiration for clammers. It began when I apprehensively ventured out onto the clamflats to try capturing a few of these mollusks. That experience fostered an appreciation for this ancestral food gathering skill and for those that spend their days moving mud. Trust me, clamming is hard work.

By definition a clammer (or clam digger) is one who gathers clams. Don some rubber boots, step onto a mud flat to soon find yourself calf-deep in oatmeal colored muck. The surface percolates in tiny bubbles of brine, producing gurgled sounds in stereo that are released as air pockets surrender. Sometimes it’s as if you wandered into a bowl of Rice Krispies. Once on the flats, a Downeast clammer bends and does not come up for air until he or she has finished for the day.

Image by Mary Saccone, Lubec, ME

A clam digger at work in the mud is akin to watching a dance of sorts —a rhythmic, almost choreographed performance of intuitive muscle and might. This dance continues non-stop. Their movement on the flats is nothing like what mud and silt does to the novice who decides to give it a go. Quickly finding mud overtop boots, body parts moving frantically, the novice continually tries to gain distance between mud and the surrounding water’s edge, while the seasoned clammer is eloquent in their movement, in a Downeast sort of way, and gives new meaning to endurance.

It takes patience, a keen eye and a sturdy back to go clamming. Pull after pull is made, moving the rake (clam hoe) thru the mud just ahead of the air pocket that the tiniest of bubbles reveals. Below that spot is a briny surprise wrapped in a delicate shell. It is backbreaking, tedious and posture-altering work, if ever one existed.

The bounty they pull from the shoreline is fresh, sweet and, some say, the best in Maine. When demand is high, the prices these mollusks bring to those willing to expend both time and energy to harvest them, in my opinion, is never enough for the amount of work it requires. But a seasoned clammer perseveres anyway. More importantly, they are preserving a way of life here. No machines or technology are tainting this work; it is man and sea working together as one, the same way generations have been doing so. Is that not the way life should be?

Gulls, sea, sky and salt air are all companions to the clammer who ventures out as the tide slowly pulls back the covers of the day, revealing a carpet of continuous wonder that changes minute by minute. It’s a wondrous sight to behold— to sit and watch the line of water move out, a truck or two arrives, boots are pulled high, and the laborious walk to a spot is made. Deliberate lines are left in the mud, edges steeped high; legs straddle spires of mud as each pull is made, passing through A-frame strides again and again, until it looks like someone dragged a body through the mud. In a way, I guess they did— their own. In hours it will all be gone, washed over by the sea, shaken like an Etch A Sketch. Next, is a new day, a new spot and a new potential for pulling a livelihood from the ocean floor— beauty and bounty again at their feet.

Image by Marty Saccone, Lubec,ME

For all of us living life Downeast, especially for those of us never to step foot onto the flats, there is mud season. Mud season sneaks up. It wakes up one morning and decides to roll over, literally, and cover anything in its path. After winter has ceased, mud slinks around in grooves buried under rocks and pools of crusted ice, waiting for those two consecutive days of warm temps. And then it begins to flow, leaving its mark on everything and everyone. I believe this is from where the habit of Downeasters removing their shoes when entering the house came. No matter the time of year, when entering a house, a pile of shoes will be found just inside the door. This has to be a byproduct of mud season.

Photo courtesy, Meghan Taylor

Whether one watches their own mud move from the doorstep into the house or from a comfortable seat on a rock staring out at a blooming mudflat, the mud will move and stories will be made. I always look forward to spending just a little time of the year watching men, women and even some children ply the shiny flat surface of mud inside a cove that was covered by water just a few short hours ago. With muscle and might, they pirouette in silence, digging the mud and giving the causal observer an artistic expression of Downeast dance and hard work all at the same time in a setting that is best described as unbounded beauty. Yes, there is an art to moving mud.


RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.