"Home ground is the place where, since before you had words for such knowledge, you have known the smells, the seasons, the birds and beasts, the human voices, the houses, the ways of working, the lay of the land and the quality of the light. It is the landscape you learn before you retreat inside the illusion of your skin. You may love the place if you flourished there, or hate the place if you suffered there. But love it or hate it, you cannot shake free. Even if you move to the antipodes, even if you become intimate with new landscapes, you still bear the impression of that first ground."Like so many other Americans, I traveled home for Thanksgiving. Or rather, I headed to my childhood home, the Eastern Shore of Virginia. My parents still live in the small, seaside village where they raised me and, although the large farm I knew in my youth was sold some years past, my father continues to steward Heron's Foot, 35 acres of marsh, field and forest that fall away into a tidal branch of Floyd's Bay, a large salt water estuary separated from the Atlantic by impermanent barrier islands.
-Scott Russell Sanders, Townships
My bond to this land is renewed of late. Heron's Foot is once again an active presence in my life, and I am glad for it.
It's a sorry admission for a Shore boy to make: before last week, just one month shy of my 30th birthday, I'd never been clamming. I'd found clams by chance, wading with rolled-up pant legs in the Chesapeake Bay, but I'd never gone about it legitimately or gathered enough for a proper meal.
When my father suggested that we try to collect some littlenecks(1) the afternoon before Thanksgiving, I was eager to do so. I attribute my enthusiasm to natural inquisitiveness and a relish for sea foods. My dietary restrictions - I eat no meat or fish unless I catch and kill it myself - have kept fish and shellfish safe from these jaws for over three years. (I usually eat a duck following a Christmastime hunt, and I ate halibut and salmon I caught in Alaska in 2004, but my diet has been strictly vegetarian otherwise. You'll understand, then, why my father's mention of clams caused me to salivate.)
The water was cool, but the afternoon unseasonably warm. The mercury climbed to 75 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-afternoon. My father and I waded into Floyd's Bay at low tide, carrying a woven wire bucket and two clam rakes. Clam rakes come in a variety of shapes and sizes; some have a built-in "clam catcher" behind the tines, while a clam hoe resembles a bent pitchfork. The rakes my father and I used that afternoon were primitive - just two pug-nosed tines set on a sturdy, weathered pole - but perfectly designed for the task at hand.
The seasoned veteran, my father turned up a dozen clams in the first ten minutes. I raked, prodded, shuffled my feet, and pushed my hand deep into the clay-like, black marl or bay mud, but failed to produce anything other than oyster shell shards and dense, slag-like mud chunks. The mud, at least, was compelling. I am curious about its sculptural potential, and might try to work with it over the Christmas holidays. Composed of decaying organic matter, it is rich with life and energy, yet this full-bodied mud is the same stuff that provokes complaints of "stink" from tourists to tidal areas. Having grown up with the smell, however, I find it nourishing.
As the tide began to move back in, my fortune changed. In the space of fifteen minutes, I turned up twenty clams, some of these good-sized. With each subsequent clam, I became more attuned to the practice. Drawing the rake toward me, I felt a bump distinct from the grab of oyster shell or other buried obstruction. The rake's action creates swirls of opaque silt and mud so that, once a clam is detected, you are unable to see the bottom. You must gauge where the rake struck the clam, then sink your arm into the mud to retrieve the startled mollusc.
My father told me that where one clam is found, there is sure to be another nearby. His assertion proved accurate in every instance. Why, I wonder, do these clams bury themselves as a pair, within inches of one another? Is one clam male and the other female, thereby increasing the probability of successful reproduction? If this is the case, why wouldn't the clams congregate in large beds, as do oysters? (If you have an answer to these questions, please let me know.)
That evening my mother, father and I shared a meal of clams, yams and salad. Thanks in part to the writing of Michael Pollan, literate urbanites and country folk alike know about the rewards of a meal comprised of food not purchased in a supermarket, especially foods that you bring to the table yourself. Indeed, it was a treat.
(1) The clam species my father and I harvested has many common names, including little-neck, quahog and hard clam. To clear up any confusion, one can opt to use the scientific name, Mercenaria mercenaria.
Riotous Colors and the Cabin at Heron's Foot:
Generally speaking, low-lying, humid areas offer less in the way of dramatic seasonal change than do more elevated regions. This is a principal reason that New England and the Northwest are renowned for their autumnal explosion of yellows, oranges and reds whereas the deciduous trees of the southeastern United States often bypass the colorful phase.
As a child on the Eastern Shore, I was accustomed to snowless winters, muggy summers and drab autumns. This fall, however, the peninsula was ablaze with color. Locals thank the unusually dry summer months for the leaves' display but, understandably, few area farmers are grateful. A summer drought, I'm told, results in superior fall color, but I am unable to adequately explain the biological rationale for this cause-and-effect. One could argue that the air is less humid during a drought, and the Shore's climate therefore more comparable to elevated regions, but I have also read that summer drought should dull autumnal color. Whatever the reason, the peninsula was beautifully ornamented.
At Heron's Foot, in front of one such vibrant backdrop at the western edge of a clover patch, a newly constructed cabin sits on old railroad ties. Roughly twelve by ten feet and with windows on three sides, it makes an ideal wildlife blind. Along with an aluminum table and two wooden-backed chairs, the cabin's only furniture is a low-backed armchair, in which my father spent several fall evenings watching groups of white-tailed deer feed in the clover. Although he keeps two deer decoys stored inside the cabin, he has not hunted Heron's Foot this season and, as far as I know, has no intention to.
I will not return to the Shore to live, but my parents know that I will keep Heron's Foot. I plan to visit the property regularly, until I am no longer able and, then, legal restrictions willing, I will be buried there, naked in the bay mud. Until it is time for that final sleep, the cabin is a place I can lay my head at night.
This morning on Chincoteague IslandThe poem above, entitled "Snow Geese," was written by a high school classmate of mine who, in the summer between our sophomore and junior years, was killed in a car crash. She was my first "almost girlfriend." I remember the awkward exchange all too well, and better still what followed. I trotted haltingly away until I was out of sight, then broke into a run, flush with the rage and shame of rejection.
as hundreds of white snow geese
lifted themselves all in one, swift motion.
It made me think of death.
The white bodies were like souls -
And I know the hunters pay no attention to this,
this purity and this unity,
but what about my soul?
When I slowly begin to rise
and think of freedom
is there one that can separate me
from my state
and my being?"
I also recall with clarity the evening, nearly two years later, that I received a phone call from another classmate. "Reiger, you'll never guess what happened!," he said, giggling oddly. I didn't understand why the caller was giggling or why he proceeded to describe Amanda's death as "fucked up." "Fucked up," in our parlance, was a bad grade on a term paper or a malicious prank played on a friend; a tragic death was not equivalent. But we were fifteen and sixteen years old; what seemed to me an unacceptably cavalier reaction to the death of a peer was displacement behavior, a way for my friend to cope with the awful news.
And I was guilty of no less. Several months later, during Amanda's memorial service, "Snow Geese" was read by one of her parents. I stood in a chapel filled with mourning friends, family, teachers and other students, yet I obsessed over Amanda's assertion that "hunters pay no attention to" the symbolic and aesthetic significance of snow geese. What did Amanda know about hunters?, I thought bitterly. This is a bad poem. Why are all these people treating it as something profound? Looking at the mourners' faces, I felt contemptuous and disconnected. We were assembled in a church, yet an interventionist God, the deity all those good Episcopalians claimed to believe in, would have granted Amanda a long life, time for her poetry to flourish and for me to tell her, in person, that some hunters do understand.
I thought of that service this Saturday morning past, just before sunrise. My father and I walked down a path bracketed by pine groves, the grass underfoot blue-white under the startling Beaver Moon. As we approached the Heron's Foot impoundment pond we heard the quiet mutter and chatter of snows, but we were unprepared for the sight that confronted us when we emerged from the trees.
Several hundred snow geese stood in the shallow, partially frozen pond, feeding and conversing. Their white bodies glowed electric, reflecting so much moonlight that my father and I stopped short. The birds were a pearl mass surrounded by an orchid darkness.
After our pupils contracted and we resumed walking, the geese nearest us showed signs of alarm. They craned their long necks and their voices rose in volume and pitch. At fifteen yards, a quarter of the flock took wing, clamoring into the crisp morning sky.
"Jesus, that's beautiful," my father whispered.
I think of Amanda when I watch snows take flight, and what better circumstance than under a full November moon, minutes before the sun cracks purple over the marsh cedars?
Armed only with a camera, I was not hunting that morning, but I lay my father's side-by-side and shells on the roof of the blind and passed him the burlap decoy sacks. We waded into the impoundment to set the rig. Snow goose down floated on the surface like cotton.
Photo credits: All photographs, Hungry Hyaena, 2007
For more pictures visit the Flickr set.