A Clammy Introduction

by Derek Yoder | Apr 12, 2021 | 0 comments

Clams. Photo © Derek Yoder.

The mud squirted up between my toes, like chocolate frosting squeezed from an icing bag. I only wished it smelled as good. As my feet sank into the sticky ooze, an ugly attitude swelled in my chest about the job ahead. Standing above my ankles in the black mud of a tidal inlet in New England, I examined the gray sky and the silent pine trees standing along the inlet’s rocky shoreline. The tide was out, leaving 50 yards/meters of smelly mudflat between me and the rippling bay. Shattered sea shells, heaps of slimy seaweed, and other rotting leftovers from the ocean littered the mud around me. This was going to get dirty fast.

But I wasn’t here to play in the mud. Somewhere, buried in that barren expanse of black stickiness, hid hundreds and hundreds of soft-shelled clams. Armed with a basket and short clamming rake, I was here to find them and explore their muddy paradise. Soon, I hoped to fill my basket with lots of friendly clams.

As I picked my way between seaweed and driftwood, little water droplets popped from tiny pinholes in the mud around me. These mini fountains were a sure sign that a clam was hiding in the mud below. Whenever I spotted one, I floundered over and shoved my clamming rake into the muddy depths. Grasping the handle, I heaved away almost a gallon of dripping mud. If no clams appeared, I plunged my hands into the slime and explored the darkness beyond my muddy hole. When I found a clam, I lifted the dripping mollusk gently into the sunlight for an introduction.

Clams live their whole lives sandwiched between two shells. These shells are hinged on one side like a round, flat box. All the clam’s important parts—like gills, mouth, and brain—are housed in this box. Strong muscles inside can clamp the shells together to protect these delicate insides from anything that might find them tasty. When the clam relaxes, a springy ligament behind the hinge pulls the shells open slightly.

Clams think the cool mud they live in is a sticky paradise. To burrow in it, they shove their tongue-like foot into the mud and expand the tip to act as an anchor. When the foot is planted firmly, the clam pulls itself after it.

To reach the seawater that covers the mudflat at high tide, the clam pushes a long flabby siphon up through the mud to the seafloor, much like a person extends a snorkel from the ocean into the atmosphere. The siphon contains two separate tubes—one for pumping water in, one for pumping water out. The clam waggles tiny hair-like paddles on its gills to pump water through its siphon. Water trickles down the intake tube, washes over the gills, and bubbles from the exit tube.

Dinner is simply a matter of stickiness. A mucus coating on the gills catches any floating particles of food sucked from the ocean above. More hair-like paddles sweep the captured food to the clam’s mouth for digestion.

Wading to and fro in the mud, my grimness melted into excitement as I explored the muddy flats. When I dragged the mud away from a hole, sometimes a thin squirt of water showered my face or sprinkled my clothing as a clam hastily pulled in its siphon. Often, my digging exposed tiny green crabs that scuttled about seeking a hiding place. Sometimes I found long worm-like creatures with spidery legs that wiggled away into dark tunnels broken by my rake. Friendly snails drew lazy tracks in the mud or explored my clam basket. Once, I stumbled upon a sober sea urchin resting among the driftwood. What was once a barren mudflat, I now found to be a zoo of exciting personalities.

When the tide began to creep inland again, I slogged to shore with a heavy basket, soggy jeans, and a deep respect for the humble clam. When you’re tempted to gripe about a dirty job or a boring life, remember the clam. Just do God’s work; that makes you happy—even if it means living in a New England mudflat.

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