Friday, June 29, 2012

Adventure in the Underground Economy: When We Shelled it Out

After constant fishing from ages 14 through 18, more than 250 days' outings each of those years fishing after school, sometimes before school in the morning, weekends: a life of incessant activity and little conflict between interests outdoors, social, and school besides the gripes of some grouchy Black Dog mornings and the usual sorts of uncertainties teenagers work out in the privacy of their minds, until I began, aged 19, 13 years of commercial shellfishing. Getting published on fishing at 16 in various magazines, I finished my last article for The New Jersey Fisherman at 19 before a long hiatus, having begun at 17 the private journals I keep, and shoved off the mainland for my long pursuit of a literary career.

Away at sea--Long Beach Island's Atlantic shore--working the bays for clams, I never really abandoned fishing. I kept rods and reels and used them less but unfailingly. Clamming was hard core outdoors activity and shellfish are shellfish. No, not in the same taxonomic class as finned denizens anglers pursue, but of the water, of the brine, and absolutely a means for a young man who set out on adventure away from the status quo.

The following is from a piece I wrote for The Sandpaper's Memorial Day edition, 2010. I use the description "Underground Economy" in the post title and think of the spirit of the perennial American economic pursuit beyond the bounds of regularly defined employment, much as 18th and 19th century Rocky Mountain fur trappers are remembered as rugged individualists, and yet with much more spiritual abandon than such basic economic pursuits, writers such Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey, Jack London and others too numerous to mention have fulfilled free lives outside conventions to emerge in the universities as reading material. We hope that others will read the words to inspire bold possibilities transforming our dark age so light and love may come to us all. Jack London committed suicide, but I do not judge his life a loss. Many would contest the notion that Kerouac fulfilled his life, since he drank himself to death. But no doubt exists in my mind that these men lived much fuller lives than conformists afraid to get up and go. Every clammer I knew held a state license, which made us legit above any illegal underground economy operation, but to have embraced this way of life recalls what one of the band members (forget the name) of The Outlaws said, that each of us has some outlaw in him, and more than one of us clammers loves "Green Grass and High Tides," the signature performance of The Outlaws.

One of us parodied philosopher Rene DeCartes. "I clam, therefore I am," which struck me instantly as having nothing to do with DeCartes, but certainly existentialism and the ambition to achieve a genuine life. To have turned our backs and walked out of the formal economy required of us no small measure of daring and apprehension. We all knew that to be an Outsider is to embrace difficulty, and for me the difficulty has indeed been grave; while each of us in any walk of life may have some "outlaw" in him, perhaps virtually no one admits this because it is not a comfortable fact. Nevertheless, if we are to overcome the shadows, we cannot do this only by old established patterns, but by the brilliance of sunlight itself.

When We Shelled it Out

The temperature, I remember, held at 22 F. Wind drove 20 to 30 knots out of the northwest, and three layers of neoprene wetsuit covered our bodies to protect us. A quarter-inch thick hood covered each of our heads; a diver's facemask, our faces; and quarter-inch neoprene neoprene Brute boots with heavy nylon treads, our feet. Leaping in, at first a rush of cold water struck the skin. But the insulation kept us warm thereafter.

"We know the spot's here when the ice melts," Barry said.

"Hope that's not too long," John said.

The bay would soon freeze solid. John had a mortgage to pay, a young family to support. It didn't matter to me how long the bay would be frozen. I was 23 and supposed to be at college. My freedom mattered more. Good money made it possible. But neither this nor the ubiquitous beach bum image held me to Long Beach Island. I wrote. For someone who loved to pore through books and spend trackless hours exploring ideas by writing in notebook after notebook, clamming seemed the perfect life.

I owned my own boats (nine total, and some totaled, over 13 years), equipment, license, and was paid daily for the catch I sold to local seafood wholesalers after a low tide's treading. As with all clammers, I was in business for myself. Treading is the method of getting clams by stepping on them. A treader jogs backward in water anywhere from knee deep to as deep as the nose, depending on tidal stage and spot. Stepped on, a clam feels like a golf ball. A treader dips or dunks, grabs a clam, and tosses it in a bushel basket. Overall, this was in fact an aerobic workout--even though some of us smoked Marlboros. When we smoked, we lifted clams by toes instead of by hand until only the butt remained, although some of us preferred this method in general to dunking. When I paid off necessities, I sometimes worked no more than two hours a day for weeks running, but generally a day's work was four or five hours of low tide. Often I worked with friends; often I worked alone.

Sometimes I felt as if I had the whole bay and island to myself. I never met anyone else who combined treading, beach, going out and so on, with intense study, writing, and exploration of life, ideas, self, nature, and society. My explorations were not very systematic, but they were informed by fertile intuition and chosen by informed conscious judgment. At that young age I studied philosophy--Ayn Rand, Martin Buber, Friedrich Nietzsche, Aristotle, among many others--with great difficulty but with great vitality and concentration to match the many challenges. This was not a parlor excercise, nor an abstract remove seated in an ivory tower, although abstract thought and vision united the motions of my energy, as disparate as the courses were through which energy engaged me. Martin Buber is known for the coming Powerful Peace; Ayn Rand for the future establishment of the just, capitalist society.

There were some exceptions to my solitude as friends who possessed intellectuality themselves were receptive to ideas. A housemate read classic novels. With a propensity to grand vision and a yearning for freedom, George joined the Navy as a scuba diver, then came to Long Beach Island to clam in the sunlight. Mark, whom I introduced to treading when together we quit a side job, had a serious meditation discipline and studied psychology to finish postgraduate work at Rutgers. By the time I knew George and Mark, I was already along the way of my years at the shore. But before meeting these two men, I spent the summer of 1982 clamming and discussing the Great Books of Western Civilization with a friend, Scott, from St. John's College, Annapolis, MD, where I was enrolled and studied during the spring, 1982, semester. And during the summers of 1983, 1984, and 1985, my brother David and more than half a dozen or so of his friends--all them bright at the least--spent summers on Long Beach Island and clammed.

First introduced to treading in the summer of 1980, I saw that most clammers were college kids. But during the run on Shelter Island beds in fall 1983, I learned that many clammers came from who knows where. Once I stood in my boat and gazed a long time in awe at about 300 other boats. We averaged about 350 clams per hour basketed, and sometimes near 600. I usually worked two tides, spending seven or eight hours a day treading that fall. Paid nine cents a clam, we all did very well for what the economy was in 1983. By January 1984, 13 1/2 cents a clam kept the few of the hard core, me included, working hard in freezing winds and brine.

Old time rakers also worked through winter. They used a long-handled raking device known as a Shinnecock, named from the Shinnecock Indian Nation on Long Island. It's made of heavy aluminum with interchangeable handle parts, together measuring from 20 to 45 feet in total length. The head of the rake is 30 inches wide with four-inch teeth and a basket scoop behind them. Rakers could pull 200 necks or more in one boat drift, but this was very rare. Generally, treaders basketed clams faster than rakers pulled them.

Littlenecks and topnecks are smaller and more marketable clams. Chowders can be five inches wide and tough to eat. But I used to break a chowder open on occasion for a break while busy in the water and eat it. That's a fresh clam. I have in my private collection the chowder shell of all chowders, a 2 million year old fossil Mercenaria mercenaria (hard clam of the bays) that measures 6 1/2 inches tip to shell tip. I bought it at a paleontological and geological market event in 2004 at the Morris Museum near Morristown, New Jersey, just up the road from George Washington's Revolutionary War Headquarters.

Unlike the brave soldiers at Jockey Hollow during the winter of 1777, rakers kept warm in the winter by propane heaters stationed in their garveys and respected us treaders well. A garvey is an open boat made of Pinelands cedar originating on Barnegat Bay in the 18th century. In contrast, treaders' fashionably colored surfing and diving wetsuits featured 20th century neoprene. Most treaders' boats were modern fiberglass varieties, which sturdily carried onion bags filled with clams.

By spring 1984, I had filled enough of those to have everything I needed. For a month, instead of treading, I wrote and contemplated life with head in the sky day and night. It was pure compensation for winter work in brine as cold as 29 degrees.

That same month I made a short visit to St. John's College, and desires arose afterwards to try another school, Hampshire College, Amherst, MA. I could have re-enrolled at St. John's, the invitation to do so open. My moral compass, however, pointed to Hampshire, and for this I have gratitude. Hampshire is not explicitly a school for the classics as is St. John's. But the school motto is from the greatest of ancient Greek philosophers, Aristotle: "To know is not enough." Founded among hippies in 1970, Hampshire has remained an unconventional school. I seemed to sense 20th century Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung waiting for me there before I had reviewed any course offerings. On the lighter note, everyday life remained blithe and cheerful. The American spirit of confidence.

"Hey, Junghog!" My friend Mark shot me the moniker that stuck. I had borrowed his copy of Jung's memoir for about two months. At the time, Mark drove an hour each day from near Hightstown to often meet us at dawn. My girlfriend of 4 1/2 years lived in Philadelphia and she came to LBI. Alternatively I went to Philadelphia, and we traveled elsewhere besides.

Most people, perhaps, believed that the city, and the whole of the nation, were secure as stone. But even with Reagan in office and the gathering entrepreneurial upswing of the 1980's, I believed that a future crash worse than that of 1929 was possible, although I was confident--more than confident, something absolute within me, which could overcome any difficulty, informed me that relentless persistence will reward us with survival and renewal of the great human spirit.

I had always known that I would return to the mainland from Long Beach Island. I held my last commercial clamming license in 1993. By then clams were all but gone. In 1992 a clam bed yielded 450 an hour and that was the very last of such numbers. Clammers by the hundreds and thousands had over the years depleted the clams. Much is said about pollution in the bay and I have got word that most of the eelgrass is gone. Eelgrass is necessary to clam reproduction and the bay's ecology. But I know we clammed the bay out. Reproductive inhibition due to lack of eelgrass seems to have coincided with our take, and improving the bay's ecology is possible, because the pollution is a human by-product.


  1. 1993 is over 20 years ago. Am I to assume it is still clammed out? Those are wonderful memories.

    1. It's never really got better. In 2000 or 2001, I found a big area w/lots of cherrystones, having come down for the day, and we returned months later to approximately the same place & found same. Now those cherrystones are either outsized chowders--or dead & gone. Are there any patches of littlenecks & hope for a future resurgence? The main problem seems to be too much nitrate in the water, decimating eelgrass. Clams can't reproduce w/out it. The newly hatched clams attach to eelgrass, before they drop off & dig in. So long as run-off from more & more lawns, especially to the west increases over the time, that eelgrass, by what I can infer, is not coming back. It was a combination of us fishing the clams out and the increase of pollution, and which was really more the seems the pollution really was insidious, while clam populations were more resilient than I thought when I wrote this piece nearly 5 years ago.


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