Just the other day I went to count clams on the beach at Hulls Cove.
“That’s pretty decadent – to be able to just count clams. The times I’ve counted clams it’s been of the shells after I ate them. We foraged to eat, not to count,” remarked Bill Carpenter when I mentioned my clam counting plans. “But, hey, whatever suits you.”
Chris Petersen, not surprisingly, likes both to count and to consume clams. He’s doing a bay wide vount as part of a larger statewide census and is concerned that ocean acidification might be taking a toll on the soft-shell clam population here in Maine. Sucks to have a relatively soft shell in acidic waters.
I didn’t really think actually counting them would be great fun – one clam, two clam, etc. – but thought mucking around in the mud would be a hoot and I knew my girls Molly and Maggie would like it. Plus, applied math, science, conservation, the fresh outdoors all on a beautiful day in Maine in the middle of mud season: Was I being Dad of the year or what?
Truth be told, there weren’t many clams out there. But the digging was great fun and we did play with bloodworms (that try to grab one’s finger with their evil little sucking proboscis), bamboo worms (that build little saliva tubes to live in, like salt water caddis flies), and all sorts of other bizarre, mildly disgusting invertebrates.
Chris is spectacular in the field and captivated Maggie and Molly despite the clamless outlook.
Wrapping up our last one by two foot clam plot, my youngest daughter Molly came across a HUGE clamshell, still articulated but good and dead, and thought it a good keepsake. Walking back toward the car Chris suggested in the nicest way possible, “Why don’t we leave that guy here on the beach? He’s got all kind of barnacles on him that will be wondering what happened to the incoming tide.”
I agreed with Chris and reaffirmed to Molly that those lifeless looking bumps on the clam were indeed alive and they would not do well without their salty, aqueous home. Molly, who’s a softy for critters in general, put the shell back in the sand and strode off, maybe a bit dejected but understanding our rationale.
So I was somewhat surprised when, arriving home, I turned around with a “Wasn’t that a cool adventure!” smile only to find Molly weeping big crocodile tears.
“Molly, what’s the matter?” I said.
“I want that clam shell!” she yelled. “I really want that clam shell and want to show it to my friends.”
“Well, Molly, remember about those barnacles?” I replied. “They’re alive just like, or at least something like Lucy (our dog). They’re cool little filter feeders and when the tide comes back in they stick out their little tongue thingies and filter out little bits of food in the water. Doesn’t that sound cool?”
Neither guilt nor “science” seemed to work.
“But I wanted to keep the shell and show it to my friends at school,” she wept.
“Well, Chris said we couldn’t take it. And that’s that. I’m sorry buddy.” (Yes, I threw him right under the bus.)
Molly stomped up the stairs, now more vocal about her dislike of the situation.
And as the water filling her tub drowned the sounds of Molly’s sobbing I sat on the steps and reflected a bit: life of barnacles + lesson of respect for life in general … does it or does it not add up to that barnacle-encrusted clam as a talisman of a young child and her fascination with the non-human world?
I drove like a bat out of hell back to Hulls Cove. The tide was coming in. Dinner was on the table. I had an event to go to and I was covered in beach sand. Most importantly … what if Chris was still counting clams??!!
I made a quick pass and saw no sign of Chris or his team of students. I parked, illegally, and started running. I could still follow the team’s footprints across the muddy shoreline and re-lived the stories of bloodworms, of bamboo worms, of the barnacles I was about to annihilate. Barnacles? They are r-selected species, right? – lots of offspring, little to no parental investment.
But it wasn’t about the threat to numbers of individuals; it was the lesson of respect to life in general. It was that lesson I was destroying.
But there it was. Amidst rocks and mussels and seaweed, the whopper of a clamshell sat waiting, its barnacle hitchhikers about to be washed by the glory of an incoming tide. I took it and ran.
Running through the door and onto the porch back home I saw Molly – running and playing wildly with her sister as if nothing had happened. I half expected her to weep again, upon being presented with the clamshell, blaming me for the execution of a barnacle colony.
But she didn’t. She hugged me with everything she had in her, her face buried deep in my belly. It was without a doubt the most meaningful hug she’d given me in her short nine years. And now it was me that was crying. I’m a softy for moments like these.
It will be tough to measure the impact this clamshell will have on young Molly and whether my cost-benefit calculations were correct. In the end, it’s a tough call and I imagine Molly herself will struggle someday with the same questions. For me, I scored HUGE, heroic-level father points and expect she will always remember the day we found the monster clam at Hulls Cove.
Dedicated to Dr. Chris Petersen, source of much inspiration for me and my family. Hope he forgives me for being sneaky. Somehow, I think he’ll understand.