From the Vineyard Gazette editions of September 1983:

Of all our inheritances from the late Adam, the pleasantest must be the obligation that we sweat for a living. Everybody reverences hard work and can sit for hours watching other people do it. Let’s get down to cases.

On the glassy surface of the bay six or eight small boats are moping to and fro this morning, and eight or ten clamdiggers have clambered overboard into waist-deep water and scattered to their day’s work. Apparently they don’t know clamming is a primitive form of drudgery. That was the sound of laughter. You remember that quite a few people go clamming for fun as well as profit or chowder.

In spite of having lived here less than two centuries, I’m Vineyarder enough not to blab to anyone except family the precise location of sunken treasure like clam or oyster beds and blueberry moors. Every trade has its secrets, and clamming is a trade. I can tell you no more about the location of the clam bed over which I am puzzling than that it is within sight of an old character’s window.

This clam bed appears to be the inexhaustible natural resource. That is what is puzzling about it. Day after day through these warm months, as through centuries of summers, the clamdiggers have come down to rake or tread up their daily quota. The routine is unchanging. Where a man had his skiff moored last evening he’ll moor it today and tomorrow. By midday the little colony of boats will have huddled in an alignment the boats themselves seem to remember. Then until dusk falls, or rain does, or a squall rumbles, it’s back to work. By 5 p.m. or high tide, the diggers have scrambled aboard and the boats have thinned away and vanished. Day after day the harvest goes on, and any year’s harvest must total tens of thousands of clams, millions of clams, tons of clams.

Every square inch of that sandy bottom has been dragged over. Nothing live could remain to exist, much less prosper, in that filtered ooze. But tomorrow the sturdy little boats will be back, unless some local ordinance forbids the taking of shellfish. Overnight the beds on the shallow bars in the bay will have replenished their inventory of clams.

By any nightfall the beds are stripped. By next morning they are restocked. Some of us need scenarios to live by, can’t be in the presence of a natural phenomenon like a volcano or a United States Senator just to shrug and mutter, “Well, that’s the way it is.” I have tried to devise an explanation for the self-resurrecting clam beds that doesn’t depend on federal conservation grants or some like miracle. The likeliest hypothesis I’ve evolved so far is that the clams themselves do the restocking.

It sounds preposterous of course. As a species the clam (Venus mercenaria) is not regarded as an intellectual giant, and the proposition that quahaugs somehow notify each other that volunteers are needed to replenish the beds on Martha’s Vineyard seems steep. There does seem the certainty that after the clamdiggers’ boats putter away the call to duty will go out through the Island’s waters. Dutifully clams in clattering hundreds will rally to the defense of the bay’s reputation as an inexhaustible resource. They’ll snuggle into the muck vacated by yesterday’s folk heroes, to await their own martyrdom and glory. The clam’s ethical system can get complicated.

In the meantime an old character can sit at his window sipping coffee and wondering at the valor of men and women who go down to the sea in small boats. Through the summer, on through the autumn, they rake clams. When the weather turns cold, on into the dark months when the bay is littered with ice, they come to do their work simply because the work’s to be done. Out come the nets and culling boards, and they fetch to market the plump scallops. There’s profit in it, of course, but more. “Greater even than a pious man,” says the Talmud, “is he who eats that which is the fruit of his own toil.” And Emerson added, “The crowning fortune of a man is to be born to some pursuit which finds him employment and happiness.” I have to believe that the shellfisherman, even the old ‘uns bent with their occupational Arthuritis, are happy.

Like the clam beds, the company of clammers is self-renewing. Individual by individual, it changes; as an entity, a living organism, it remains pretty much the same. So, I guess, does the self-renewing creature at the window.

— William A. Caldwell