One morning while at the Collingswood Farmers’ Market, a regular attendee commented to me that he read a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer that mentioned among other things, clammers in Brigantine. He went on to say that there wasn’t a particular name cited in the article but that he saved it for me and would give it to me the following week. A couple of weeks passed and I didn’t think much of it until he brought me the paper and as soon as I read it, I knew, it had to be a reference to Bill aka “Clam Daddy”. I reached out to the author and he gave me permission to reprint it. It is a beautifully written piece about Brigantine.
Quiet solitude of Brigantine by Thomas Belton originally printed in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Opinion (section) Regional Spotlight on p A14, Monday, September 2, 2013.
Quiet Solitude of Brigantine
by Thomas Belton
The sea, grey with storm sediment, rolls onto an eroded shoreline. Four inches of rain fell in a day, swelling the Back Bay and creeks behind Brigantine Island to capacity, uprooting salt grass and macroalgae that now cover the beach in bands of green and golden sea wrack.
August is a transition month along this temperate coast, as water cools and the dune grasses blossom, sending seed puffs aloft in one final gasp. Somers Bay behind me is calm after the storm’s passage. The clouds hover just overhead in a low white penumbra that fills the universe with a held breath.
We have come to the beach house with our dogs to seek the island’s quiet solitude. Our home at the Shore offers solace from the mainland’s demands and a chance to blend with the passing seasons. Living by the sea is hope, which memorializes our presence on this deserted beach at dawn.
Already the migrations have begun. The birds drop down to the beach and rest their wings, stretch their legs while feeding in the fecund waters of the inlet. Flocks of black skimmers sweep over the water in aerobatic wonder as terns crash into the waves seeking fish. Sandpipers and plovers race up and down in their silly Charlie Chaplin walk, snatching food from the wash. Behind us and across the protective shoulders of the barrier island, acres of salt marsh and submerged sea grass bleed rich nutrients into the water that act as fertilizer for the algal plankton that wash out and are eaten by tiny zooplankton and fish that are in turn eaten by the exhausted birds.
Our house on the bay side looks onto the Forsythe wildlife refuge, which protects millions of birds, fish, foxes, and turtles that have lived here for millennia. All summer we watched as the marshlands moved beneath the seasons. In April the sedge islands filled with the loud, raucous seagulls and elegant great blue herons on their nests. In June the terrapin turtles waddled out and across our front lawn to lay their leathery eggs in the warm sand behind our house. In August, the flounder and bluefish arrived, bringing fishermen to cast from the shoreline.
The one thing that remains steady throughout the seasons is the peculiar set of cedar poles just offshore in the shallow water. These stakes hold down the protective nets overs seed lots where clammers have leased the bay bottom from the state for their harvest. All year long they motor out at low tide and drop into the water to plant their dime-size spat, juvenile clams raised ashore in an upweller barn just down my street. They wear wet suits to keep off the chill as they wade about, raking their juvenile clams like turnips in a field to help them grow. Periodically, they’ll reach down and pull some out, and cull those ready for market, plunking them into a peach basket pulled behind in an inflated tire tube.
It’s a hard life pulling a clam rake through an unyielding bay bottom. The sand compacted by the weight of the water above, the clams released from their protective burrowing only with the greatest of effort and dogged determination by the sun-seared clammer.
Man’s place by the sea is often difficult and transient. The eye of Superstorm Sandy came ashore on Brigantine Island almost a year ago, bringing incredible damage to the lives and property of the islanders. Most are rebuilding, and those that live on the sustenance of the sea still go out in their boats. The seasons progress through another year, autumn comes just the same, the birds fly south, and the clammer works his lot.
We are still here on this island. It simply feels right that the land and the sea meet here on this thin strip of land and that we are a part of its merger.
Thomas Belton is a marine Biologist and the author of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities’ 2010 Honor Book: “Protecting New Jersey’s Environment From Cancer Alley to the New Garden State.” E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.