Shelled Things

Written By: Julie  Penny




Julie Penny


Knee-high in water, the soles of my feet are all-sensing inching over the bay bottom.  When my toes recognize their mark just under the sand, they curl and dig down in a race to bring the clam up before it digs deeper.  Seasoned clammers recognize in an instant when foot connects with a hard bivalve hidden below.  Whatever your method—fancy footwork, or quick handwork—in this contest, where it’s the clam that occasionally wins, it’s always a thrill to dig up the prize.  And dig for hard clams we did over the years when the kids were young, filling our bucket from Shinnecock Bay or North Sea Harbor.

The tidal life of bay and estuary has always pulled me, even as the moon pulls the waters of the earth in predictable rhythms.  I grew up in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx and there I honed my foraging skills in and by its waters.  Even back then, in the early 1950s you would not eat what you had dredged up because of coliform pollution, though the beaches of Throg’s Neck were tantalizingly littered with heaps of gleaming blue mussels at low-tide and the sand’s surface  pocked with the tell-tale round holes of soft-shelled steamers.  My cousins called the inhabitants of these holes, “piss-clams.”   A rock thrown with force upon the beach caused an eruption of jets of water into the air betraying their hiding places under the sand. We’d yelp with delight for causing such eruptions.   Peering closely at prospective holes to dig into, we sometimes got squirted in the face; the clam’s revenge for our deviltry.  In tidal flats and marshes across the East End kids are still having these amusing encounters.

We started coming out to Shelter Island in 1953.  We stayed at a Boarding House in the Heights run by a Lithuanian couple for two dollars a night.  Its communal kitchen had cold-running water; an outhouse by the raspberry patch.  There we kids enjoyed two weeks of bliss each summer with our parents, family friends and the lively mix of polyglot boarders.  We didn’t have a car and walked everywhere, even at night.  There was hardly a car on the road.  The black vault of night set with bright jewels and the giant creamy streak of the Milky Way cradled us as we walked down the steep hill to Lewis Beach where we’d skinny dip.  Happy as otters, we partook in more of night’s magic, for every quick movement of our hands or arms through the water left phosphorescent streaks.  Afterwards, we’d pick up white quartz rocks from the shore to bang together. Striking the stones against each other created sparks and the smell of sulfur.  After nature’s light show, we’d march back up the hill singing and picking out the constellations.

Today, with the relentless march of development, the reflected light of cities and sprawl, the stars seem small, sparse, and dim.  The dimness makes the night sky seem far away.  The blackness of Shelter Island’s night sky crowded with huge glittering stars made it feel immediate; so close as to touch it.

Day or night, all roads led to the water.  Its transparency was a revelation compared to the murkier waters of Pelham Bay.  No matter how far out you went you could still see your feet.  It’s there I became an adept clammer and keen observer of shore life.  I spent hours watching lowly hermit crabs and pugnacious fiddler crabs.  Horseshoe crabs always seemed to be around; gentle round dark shadows gliding along the bottom. They paid no mind to us humans horsing about in the water.

From my summers on Shelter Island and extending to 1985 when the brown tide decimated our shellfish, I took the abundance of our sea life and its particular joys for granted.  We’d scallop in Cold Spring Pond from my husband’s brother’s boat.  A few hours later, I’d shuck them then pop them into a pan to sauté.

I look at shellfish as delicious morsels though feel guilty dispatching them to the dinner plate. I feel this way about lobsters, crabs and mollusks that I shuck or steam when live; especially the scallops as they gave me my first great sense of wonder of the natural world.  I was five. A passel of us kids sat in a rowboat while my mother and her girlfriend rowed us to a little secluded place where the clamming was good.  The sun, the salt air, the wooden sound of the oars rubbing in their oarlocks, and the rhythmic splash of the paddles dipping in and out of the water created an aura of contentment in me.  As the waters enroute grew deeper, columns of baby blue-eyed scallops (bugs) began appearing, fluttering up and down in the water. They seemed to be everywhere. I was mesmerized by their blue eyes, (sensors which encircle their periphery) which glinted enchantingly in the sun as they bobbed to the surface.  Before, I’d only seen them as prettily bleached shells on the beach.  That they could be alive, capable of moving buoyantly, joyously, seemed astounding to me. Their motion, playful as any wind-up toy, was an appeal and when I went to scoop one up in my hand it propelled away with sudden, deft,  swiftness.  I was disappointed when it danced away, not because I couldn’t capture one but because it wouldn’t allow me to know it better.