A Cape Cod Notebook 12/25/07

listenA Local Gathering Place

By Robert Finch

Raking for clams on the tidal flats, or "scratching," as it is more commonly called, is largely a so litary business. Nonetheless, it's usually when I'm out on the flats that I feel most companionable and sociable. That is, never do I feel so amiably inclined towards my fellow citizens as when I'm scrat ching slightly apart from them.

Usually I go out on the flats alone, or at most with one or two companions. Frequently I meet frien ds out there whom I've not seen in months. We smile and say, "Small world," but it's not, really. Rath er, it's that places like this - tidal creeks, herring runs, tern colonies, crab holes, and clam flats - are as much the true gathering places of our community as the local coffee shop or the post office.

While scratching, we tend to space ourselves out over a broad area and say little. We're content to rake apart in silence, with the wind at our backs, drawing the steel prongs of our clam rakes steadily through the soft, gray, muddy sand. It's an absorbing, almost mesmerizing activity, but we keep an e ye on our neighbors, looking for any tell-tale signs - an increased frequency of pulling up quahogs, or a suspicious nonchalance in behavior - that might indicate that he or she has found a "honey hole."

What talk there is tends to be of landmarks and seamarks, as though to confirm a sense of where we are out on this wide, wet, unbounded plain. One of us points to a far, dark bar of land to the west, floating like a dead whale on the horizon. "That Sandwich?" he shouts. "No, Plymouth," comes the reply. But generally little is said. Wind, light, and space discourage petty conversation, and the tides command our attention.

If we find good digging, we won't move around much but will steadily and methodically reap our own patches of sea floor. The ebb of the tide is our clock, and we ourselves mark its passage as it dro ps from thigh to knee, knee to calf, until the tops of our wire buckets begin to break above small wave lets and the mounded quahog shells glisten darkly in the nearly horizontal winter sunlight. As the water falls, the expanse of the Bay drops away, leaving each of us alone in a wide, blue field, far from l and.

This overcrowded peninsula grows increasingly difficult to perceive through its thickening human veneer. Yet out here on these flats I sense there's still space enough for all of us. In the measu red rhythm of scratching, in our slow, heavy progress through the water as we move our buckets from spot to spot, we find an unhurried pace and the sense of a steady, assured, and well-entrenched supply, a place where every man and woman may still go out and find their own limit.