Tag Archives: Plum Island

Marsh poetics

In the Great Marsh of Massachusetts

A house remembers.
P1100759 - Copy

Golden vases hold insect secrets.
Ladybug eggs on marsh grass, Ipswich, Massachusetts (3)

Rivers flow into hopefulness.

In the Little Sippewissett Marsh of Massachusetts

Aprons clutch to broods.
Fiddler crab with eggs, Uca pugilator, Falmouth, Massachusetts (2)

In the Goodwin Island marshes of Virginia

Crabs of purple that hide in mud are still found.
Sesarma reticulatum, purple marsh crab, Goodwin Island, Virginia (2)
Sesarma reticulatum, purple marsh crab, Goodwin Island, Virginia (1)







Soft-shelled piss clam steamers

John digs clams as I dump over his bucket.
John digs clams as I dump over his basket to free them.  Run clams!

3 October 2013
Newbury, Massachusetts

I meet John at the landing of the Parker River in Newbury, a landing first used by those who settled the area between 1635-1660.  He backs the truck down the ramp.  A green crab scuttles into the water. 

We are both wearing diver’s booties, but he is wearing shorts and no shirt to my long-sleeves, pants and hat with earflaps.  I am the scientist and he is the native. 

We slip the kayaks in and paddle east. 

The early evening has a welcoming warmth, one that holds you like a bourbon buzz.  The wind is flat and without a whisper, as is the water.  The falling tide  pulls us along an astronomical conveyor belt towards the sound.  Twenty minutes later we drag our kayaks onto the exposed muddy island. 

We are here to dig soft-shell (Mya arenaria) clams.  John has clammed most of his life; he stood with his father in the expansive mudflats of Essex and Gloucester as a kid.  Today he clams in Newbury because, as he says with Yankee pride, these are, “The best in the world.”  He not shy to add, “the flavor and the texture of the clams are superior.”  John feels so strongly about these clams that even though he lives just two towns away, he pays a non-resident fee for these clams.  Ipswich, a town over, is world-famous for its clams.  Even growing up in Arkansas I had heard of Ipswich clams.  Now I’m standing with this Yankee among the triad of the best clams in the world courtesy of the marine muds of Newbury, Ipswich and Rowley. 


John walks looking at the mud, the mud slurping with his footsteps.  He’s looking for smooth, undisturbed surfaces perforated with button-sized holes.  These holes are where the clams’ siphons extend.  Clams inhale water for oxygen and food and exhale wastes through fleshy siphons.  For soft-shells, this lifestyle allows the clam to bury itself deep in the mud (>1 foot) and away from predators while still having access to food.  This is important because the soft-shelled clam gets its name from its thin, brittle shell, a shell with the rigidity of a crisp, wafer-thin cracker.  A cracker-shell offers little protection from the crushing claws of crabs or the jabbing bills of gulls. 

John sets down his wire basket and digs a 14-inch deep hole.  This is a hole to stand in so he doesn’t have to bend down as far and wrench his back as much.  Then he “Works the wall so [he] can get a good turn.”  He works in a radius gently slipping the wide tines of his short-handled clam rake into the wall and pulling it towards him so it falls over.  A ‘good turn’ is a piece of pulled-away mud wall that yields at least three or four clams.  He says the key is to, “pluck the clams from the wall without breaking them.” 

Easier said than done, my friend.  Easier said than done.  Within a few turns he hears it.  “Damn.”  He’s grazed a clam with his clam rake and its shell shattered.  He flings it behind him.  The waiting herring gull rushes over for an easy meal. 

The background is abuzz with the outboards of other clammers tearing through the low tide in shallow boats.  One, then two other clammers arrive to our flat.  They are quiet, stoic and set to work.  No time for chit-chat.  Low tide only affords four hours of clamming.  One clammer pulls a small sled behind him.  He’s a commercial clammer.  He is stocky.  He pulls off his shirt and reveals a broad back of bricks.  He pushes tiny earbuds into his ears, selects his music and begins digging with the flinging fierceness of a dog digging for a prison break.  He will try to dig forty to fifty pounds today. 

John and I are slower and less profitable.  John is a mess-clammer, meaning he only applies for day-licenses and collects 10 quarts.  Our quota is small for today, but the work is still hard.  Once the basket is nearly full, he hands the muddy clam rake to me. 

I jam the clam rake into the mud, yank back the mud-wall.  Glistening, gooey innards drip down my tines.  I have skewered two perfect-sized clams.  To the gulls they go.  John, with the patience and tone of the middle-school teacher that he is, shows me how to gently sink the tines of the rake into the mud and to pull back to save both my back and the clams.  I slide the tines into the mud and pull back gently.  I’m impressed by the sucking strength of the mud that pulls back.  I tug again and the mud wall falls to my feet.  I pluck four clams from the wall.  A good turn.  I see a fifth one and dig with my fingers.  Then I hear the crack of the shell, like a crisp, thin cracker snapping.  Another for the gull who feasts.  After a few more turns and few more mortalities, I give the rake back to the professional to finish it out. 

I walk around the broad flat.  There is a serenity to the evening.  John is silhouetted against the evening sun, I can make out the individual tines of the clam rake.  He and the other clammers cast long and active shadows on the mudflat.  They are working hard.  I, am not.

In concert with the silhouetted strikes and turns and plucks, there is a fantasia of waterspouts jetting two or three feet into the air throughout the flat.  The clams are squeezing the valves of their shells together to purge wastes from their bodies.  These waterspouts are why these also called ‘piss clams.’

Our quota met, John tosses me a longneck Stella Artois.  We tap the necks and toast a supper collected.  The tide is almost at its valley. 

The Stella Artois are not the only longnecks here at low tide.  On the opposite and gently sloping bank is a rank of great egrets, Ardea alba.  There are at least a dozen in either direction, regularly spaced and standing dead still just inside the water’s edge.  It’s not unusual to see great egrets wading in the water, but they are typically solitary.  It’s unusual to see so many. 

Then we hear it.   

A slap of tail .  And then one further down.  Damn!  We both say.  Then the water boils with tails and toothed mouths and desperate baitfish.  It’s a school of bluefish, Pomatomus saltatrix, which invoke piranha status with its toothy and finger-slicing mouth.  The body of the bluefish is a pack of oily and dense red muscle designed for bursts of speed and agility for annihilating schools of prey.  When caught on a line they will shake their heads like a catfish and dive down or jump in the air like a bass.  They are exciting.  Unless you’re prey.  Like the slender silversides, Menidia menidia, in front of me who are so desperate to escape they try to fly. 

Those that can fly, the egrets, don’t move.  They wait with their serpentine necks cocked until the silversides are driven to their feet and then strike with yellow stiletto daggers.  A silverside wriggles sideways in the mouth of the nearest egret before it is gulped down.  And then like a set of typewriter keys striking paper, dagger-like bills stabbed the water up and down the water’s edge.

When the waters calm, John and I paddle back in the evening wishing we had our fishing rigs but never complaining once. 

When John learns that in all my 10 years of being in the area I had never had soft-shelled clams he has me over the next night for a true New England dinner of steamers*, baked haddock, locally grown corn (or ‘cawn’ as they say ’round here) and apple pie from local apples.  What a treat!  Made this Southern feeler right welcomed!

John’s recipe for steamers
-Get yourself a mess of clams!  (see awesomeness above).
-Allow them to purge  in seawater overnight (at least 10h).  This gets rid of the grit and sand.

Below is Master Chef John’s wise words verbatim as he told them to me:

-Use a big pot to steam your clams. 
-Add 1″ of fresh water to the pot.

-Rough chop a medium-sized white onion, add to water in pot.
-Heat water and onions to a rapid boil for two minutes, then add clams.

-Allow clams to steam for about 5 minutes until the shells are all opened, then give it two more minutes to be sure they are done.  Don’t steam them for more than ten minutes!
-Ladle broth from pot into cups and serve with clams

-Remove clam from shell

-Peel skin from siphon (neck)
-Swirl clam in hot broth for final rinse

-Optional: Dip into drawn butter (only about a mm or two as too much butter will kill the flavor of the clam) [Note:  John has very strong feelings about people who drown their clams in butter.]
-Enjoy with ice cold beer!

-BTW: Never steam the clams in beer and eat only Ipswich or Plum Island Sound clams for complete satisfaction.

*As you see, the soft-shelled or piss clams are steamed, giving them yet another name! – this is why scientists rely on universally accepted scientific names.  


Saltmarsh Pickleweed, Salicornia europaea, in fall colors in Rowley, Massachusetts
Saltmarsh Pickleweed, Salicornia europaea, in fall colors at high tide in Rowley, Massachusetts

The week of 21 September 2013
Rowley, Massachusetts
I step onto the marsh and it announces autumn.  Before the leaves of the trees are set afire with an autumnal blaze, before the morning air is tart with a cold bite, scarlet forests of pickleweed are the first to foretell fall’s approach.  

I’m standing in the middle of a scarlet forest that extends for meters in either direction but stops abruptly against the taller Spartina alterniflora.  Among the golden buttery straw of Spartina I see small flare-ups of scarlet picklweed here and there.  The haphazardness of these patches is interesting in this salt marsh, because it has strict patterns of vegetation governed by the tides and competition among species.  The scarlet adds a color mosaic to an otherwise monotone palette.  The randomness of color is inspired by the gypsy lifestyle that the pickleweed has adopted.  It is a gypsy of populations, not necessarily individuals.  Individuals have one season to grow, reproduce, and die, making them annual plants (vs. perennials which persist for more than one year).  Its shallow root system and short stature (~20 cm) make it a weak competitor, thus it must be able to move on a whim as a population if overrun by superior competitors.  To survive on the marsh the pickleweeds must be opportunistic.  It is often found in areas where vegetation has been killed by disturbance or stress.  This most often happens when wrack – mats of dead vegetation that are carried by the tides – lays on top of living vegetation and smothers it.  The vegetation dies and the wrack is carried off by a spring tide (maybe weeks or months later), leaving behind a bare spot in the marsh.  For years, large swaths of wrack sat on this marsh, pushed against the levee that is the road by winds and tides, and smothered the marsh.  Some of the wrack is now gone and within a season half of the bare patch is colonized by picklweed.  This large stand of pickleweed may hold this spot for two years or more, until it is evicted by the deep-rooted and tall Spartinas that march across the marshscape.  The dots of pickleweed in the marsh are plants that squeezed in between Spartina neighbors where the canopy thinned and opened up, probably due to salt or flooding stress.  These gypsies are not picky where they settle; they know they won’t be there for long.

Wrack smothering marsh grass. As the tide lifts it off, it will leave behind a bare spot.
Wrack smothering marsh grass. As the tide lifts it off, it will leave behind a bare spot.

On another marsh, the foot of the scientist is the disturbance.  Each year a path is established to get to sampling locations and each year the path is moved to minimize footfall impact.  Now this year’s bare path runs parallel to line of scarlet as the pickleweed have occupied last year’s path.

This year's footpath paralleled by last year's, which is occupied by a line of scarlet pickleweed. This year’s footpath paralleled by last year’s, which is occupied by a line of scarlet pickleweed.

I kneel down and squeeze a fleshy finger of pickleweed.  It’s succulent. Succulence is a strategy used by plants to deal with low soil-water potential, that is, it’s hard to get the water out of the soil.  This happens in habitats where the soil water has a high salt concentration when there is infrequent rain (deserts; think cacti) or inundation by salty water (salt marshes and mangroves).  To increase the plant’s water potential (i.e., the potential of water moving into the plants) it increases osmotic pressure in its favor by storing salts in its cells.  This makes the plant saltier than the soil.  As we know with osmosis, water moves from areas of low salt concentration to high salt concentrations.** During a visit to the marshes of Barn Island, Connecticut , my friend Dr. Scott Warren demonstrated the plant’s osmotic strategy.  He squeezed the juice from a pickleweed onto a refractometer.  90 parts per thousand (ppt)!  Almost 10% salt!****  He pulled out a pocket knife, cut out a bit of marsh turf and squeeze it onto the refractometer.  55 ppt!  Aha!  So now the plant is able to pump water from the soil to plant passively via osmosis!  For reference, marine salt water is ~32-35 ppt.   

A forest of pickleweed
A forest of pickleweed

High salt concentration can disrupt cell function and kill you.  Here again, the gypsies are clever to prevent a briny death.  One feature that defines a plant as a plant is the presence of a large central vacuole in the cell.  These vacuoles are like large storage trunks separated from the cytoplasm and other organelles by a plasma membrane.  Plants shove all kinds of things into these cellular trunks and pickleweed stuffs its vacuole with sodium ions.  The cell is protected because the salts are safely stuffed into the salty trunk.

It is the saltiness of these cellular trunks that I am currently drawn to now.  I pluck a scarlet finger of pickleweed I bite into it.  It is soft, but firm and gives a slight crunch, which is why it’s sometimes called ‘glasswort’.  It’s salty but nothing that excites my taste buds.  Locals tell me people eat on salads but I’ll be damned if I’ve met anyone who has actually done that.  The wise internet tells me it is sometimes pickled in Great Britain (perhaps where the name ‘pickleweed’ comes from?). 

But tell me pickleweed, why the red?  You’ve abandoned your green because you’re breaking down the sun-harvesting chlorophyll as you begin to senesce.  You are winterizing.  But why the reds?  The reds come from your production of a class of pigments called anthocyanins, which come at an energetic cost.  Why spend the energy to make these pigments when you’re nearly dead?  Maybe you are signaling to grazers – perhaps a hungry salad-eater who needs a salty crunch –  that you should be eaten so that your seeds can be carried away?   

The pickleweed gives me no clues to this mystery.  Perhaps one of you out there know better.  

I pluck another red finger, which has many joints called nodes, and break the finger at one of those nodes.  It snaps and reveals two white circles.  Seeds.  The plant will soon loose it’s succulence, desiccate and release its seeds.  The seeds are the true gypsy form and they will caravan on the tides until they find their own one inch of marsh soil to call home next year.

**This is why you can kill a snail with salt; the water from the snail’s body exits its body wall to the saltier environment.  I can’t believe you did this you heartless bastard.  Didn’t you even hear him scream?

****I originally reported this at “almost 1% salt!” because I apparently can’t do math.

Nighttime paddle

Rowley River, Massachusetts, 10 P.M., under a new moon

You slip the kayak into the nighttime water.  Despite the chill in the air that necessitates a sweatshirt, the water is warm.  You push off and paddle against the gentle rising tide, towards the Plum Island Sound and away from the few house-lights along the river.  Behind you the tall September grass of the marsh banks is silhouetted against the light created by humans. 

In front of you, a great blue heron takes off but you can’t see him against the darkness of a new-moon sky.  It is his strangled, wretched call that announces his departure. 

Around the first bend your eyes adjust to the near darkness.  On your left, to the north, the Big Dipper sits so low on the horizon that it looks like it could tilt down and scoop up the entire river in its celestial mouth.  When you’re far enough, you stop paddling and lean back to take in the pure openness of the sky.  A sky so littered with stars that you wonder how many places in the world are left where you can find this isolation and see so much.  You wonder if you are seeing light that maybe no one else is seeing.  Light that raced across the universe at the speed of itself, across such an expanse that it’s incredible that nothing blocked its way.  Light that was created when two hydrogen atoms combined – in a place of heat and pressure, where elements and light are born – and raced across the universe to your eyes, just to show you what it had done.  You wonder how many stars, despite their best efforts to get our attention, have been ignored since the invention of the light bulb.    

A shooting star in the east!  You know it’s a charlatan, jealous of the true stars.  But it’s still a show to see.

The river, though rising and flowing, is flat.  The tale of the night sky is retold on the glass of the water.  

Not to be outdone, the river tells it’s own tale.  They barely catch your eye at first, but when you look at the water you see them.  Twinkles of green.  A burst there.  And over there.  Microscopic plankton called dinoflagellates producing their own light – bioluminescence – the light of life.  A small stir of the paddle and small green lights swirl in the vortices.

You let the current carry you backwards until the stern of your kayak rubs against the marsh grass and you stop.  You stare at the stars and the darkness downriver.  The tide starts to pull your bow around.   

The last train of the commuter rail rumbles.  You turn the kayak around and slowly paddle back, the stars and dinoflagellates swirling your wake.

The cow licks of the marsh

The marshes of the Rowley River, Massachusetts

Near the final curtain of every July in the marsh, just as the greenhead swarms abate and the swelter of real summer has a final push, emerges a new character on the scene: cow licks.  The flat marsh is punctuated with tufts of marsh grass that lean against each other in swirls like the cow licks of hair of a little boy who just woke up.  These are the cow licks of Spartina patens.

According to Dr. Scott Warren, a groovy plant physiologist now retired from Connecticut College, these cow licks form because “…patens has a weak joint at the base of the stem and when the tides come in they push the plants over.  Some are laid flat, but sometimes they lean against each other and find support, creating cow licks.  The slight vagaries in elevation, stem density, and wind create those patterns.”  And these cow licks don’t appear until the end of July because that’s when the plants are tall enough to be pushed over.

Scott Warren holding class in the marshes of Rowley, Massachusetts
Though retired, Scott Warren, still holds class in the marshes of Rowley, Massachusetts for a set of interns in 2013

Spartina patens is a soft, high marsh plant and it’s uncertain what the benefit of being a push-over to the plant is.  If you consider patens resident saltmarsh cousin, Spartina alterniflora, it is rigid and not typically pushed over by the tides.  In fact, many of the Spartina’s (Spartina alterniflora, Spartina cynosuroides, Spartina pectinata), have stiff reed-like stems, whereas patens does not.  Why be such a softy and a pushover? 

While the benefit to the plant is unclear to me (your hypotheses are welcome in the comments section), there are clear benefits to the animals.  When patens lays down or cow licks, it’s still attached to the sediment.  At summer’s final bow and fall’s flourish here in New England, the aboveground portion dies but remains attached to the ground.  In doing so, it is able to overwinter and form a layer of thatch on the ground.  In the winter, this thatch acts as insulation to protect overwintering surface invertebrates such as snails that huddle around clumps of patens.  In the summer, this thatch retains moisture from the infrequently flooding tides and provides a refuge of surface invertebrates from the heat and dryness of the sun.  Should you like, you can watch a bare patch of marsh in the morning and watch snails run back into the protection of patens as the water-robbing sun rises in the morning.  The thatch remains 2-3 years, and is replaced annually.    

Spartina patens benefits two-legged animals not only via lush landscapes, but also by providing hay.  The softness of patens and its position on the high marsh make it attractive to hayers.  In fact, it’s common name is ‘salt marsh hay.’  In August, after the flooding spring tides, patens is cut, dried, baled and sold.  Just like the colonists did, except with tractors.  You can read more about haying here.

The cow licks of Spartina patens herald a more comfortable time in the marsh when the biting bugs are largely gone and the heat begins to lessen.  A time when the seemingly sleepy marsh continues to lull the eye with its sweeping lushness and invites a moment to pause and wonder.