Life Lessons From the Razor Clam

Caitlin - Durham, North Carolina
Entered on June 2, 2008
Age Group: 18 - 30

The razor clam is an elusive creature. My grandfather and I would hunch for hours, digging a never-ending hole in search of the tell tale tunnels as we scooped away the sand. Marsh sand has a permeating smell, and when your face is that close to it for that long it leaves its mark on you. Whenever I smell wet sand, I associate it with a satisfying ache in my shoulders and the triumphant feeling of pulling the razor clams from their burrows in the muck.

Every summer, my family treks to the coast of North Carolina to sleep on cramped futons, beach chairs, and pull out sofas for a week. My grandfather, a college professor, always brings along wildlife guidebooks and binoculars. Every moment is an opportunity for learning. My family has a saying: “Ask Grand-daddy for the time, and you’ll get the history of clocks.” Walks on the beach are times to classify shells. Fishing is an exposé of the coastal marine life. At the tender age of eight, he turned me into an animal rights activist as together we saved the baby sharks angry fishermen had left to wither in the hot sun on the pier.

But perhaps my grandfather’s crowning moment was when we would dig for clams. My cousins and I would load nets, shovels, buckets, and fishing poles into the back of his beat up Chevy pickup truck and bounce along in the truck bed as my grandfather drove to the cove. We would stay for hours, dragging the sieve-like seine through the surf, filling buckets upon buckets with small creatures. Miniature fiddler crabs, their claws raised threateningly as I reached towards them. Needlefish, stone crabs, and marsh snails all struggled against the vertical walls of their prison as we devoured page upon page of the dog-eared guidebooks trying to identify our newfound captives.

Years later in AP Biology, I learned the proper names of the creatures I had caught. Clams were now class bivalvia, phylum mollusca. I learned that abductor muscles held the shells closed, obstructing my view of the insides. I learned that the clam’s foot, when pumped full of hemolymph, is what enables the clam to pull its shell behind it with the speed that once mystified me as I uselessly scooped sand in its pursuit.

What I didn’t learn from the textbook is the strength with which the shells held closed as my young fingers tried to pry them open. I didn’t learn the feel of a razor clam’s soft body as I finally grasped it and pulled the clam from the sand. I didn’t witness the fiddler crab’s warning dance as it eluded my nets. Biology class taught me why, but my trips to the cove with my grandfather taught me everything else. They taught me to question everything, and that every moment is a chance to learn. The search for knowledge is like digging an endless hole in pursuit of a speedy and elusive prize; one must persevere through aching shoulders until the prize is caught. But more importantly, there are always more holes to dig.