I was standing in the middle of the kitchen, in tears. A stood by the sink watching helplessly, and a bit confused. In the metal bowl on the counter, the mussel slowly pulled its ruffled pink edge back into its shell and clamped shut. Nearby, a translucent barnacle licked the air, as if trying to determine what had brought about its drastic change in circumstance.
The day before, early in the morning to catch the spring tide, we had ventured to a rocky point north of Lincoln City with John Kallas of Wild Food Adventures. We were there to learn about seaweeds, but since mussels literally come with the territory, they were lucky enough to be on the agenda.
John first led us as far out on the rocks as the tide would allow. We stood on a mat of brown and green seaweed, glistening in the early sun, warily eyeing the waves as they crashed behind John and surged up through the crevices around us. I could hardly keep my eyes on him as he spoke; we were standing on level with the sea, and the waves over his shoulder seemed so close and were certainly taller than I. I felt a stranger in this intertidal environment, surrounded by natural forces that ranged from the grand scale of the indifferent ocean to the tiny life that filled every nook and cranny: anemones, shore crabs, barnacles, and creatures I could neither see nor name.
As John spoke, lifting different seaweeds and passing pieces around for each of us to taste, this strange environment began to take on a semblance of order. There’s a magical moment when you learn to identify something new, whether plants in a forest, vegetables at a farmers market, or spices at an ethnic grocery; in what was at first a confused jumble of meaningless colors and shapes, patterns begin to arise. The green and brown around us took shape, became named: over there a clump of rockweed, here a feather boa flung out like a boot strap, and shimmering in that pool a leaf of iridaea.
We clambered about, gingerly trying to avoid slipping or falling up to our knees through a hole in the rock as John had done, hopping across watery channels that surged higher with each wave as the tide came in. The rising water soon threatened to cut our group in half, leaving the stragglers stranded on a shifting piece of sand, so we finally moved inland and turned our attentions to the mussel colonies clustered atop every rock the high tide would reach.
It was as if daintily clipping seaweeds from the rocky shore had merely whetted our appetite. We set upon the mussels with vigor, which proved necessary to dig the creatures out of their tightly nested colonies. As I triumphantly plucked a fine fat mussel from its perch, a movement caught my eye in the hole I had created. Peering inside the hollow space between the mussels and rock, I could see tiny black shore crabs, scuttling away from the startling light. We looked more closely and saw the teeming life built on this seemingly static habitat, and from then on slid our scissor blades into the cracks with a bit more trepidation.
With the north wind blowing and the waves crashing nearby, with the spring sun warming the sand and our salt-sprayed faces, we walked back down the beach with a new respect and understanding for the complexities of life in this marginal place.
And yet, for all the new knowledge and perspective I had gained, there I stood, not 48 hours later, unable to go through with what I had begun. I knew that it was too late; we had stripped them of all ability to survive. The mussels were going to die. It didn’t matter if I was the one to put them in the pot; they were still dying by my hand.
Sometimes you can know something quite rationally and clearly, but it doesn’t make a difference. All my knowledge and rationality couldn’t stand up to the sight of one little mussel, opening its shell as if to speak, then curling back in on itself when it realized there was nothing more to be done.
I still plan to go back to the coast at those lowest of low tides, and clamber about on the rocks, hopping over watery channels and stepping around starfish. But I’ll be the one daintily clipping seaweeds.
If you plan to harvest mussels, clams, or other shellfish in Oregon, you will need to purchase a shellfish license from the Department of Fish and Wildlife—and don’t forget to call the shellfish safety information hotline to find out if there has been a red tide or other toxins reported.
Seaweed stories still to come!