Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Edge

Time is different now that I've been on the water for a few years trying to make a living. The transitions between days, weather systems, and seasons are much different than before. I live within them and through them. Being on the water all the time makes for an endless summer in many respects, but the winters are harder. The summer lasts a long time because working keeps one warm and the bay is always beautiful. And then the winter months (January through March) are the tough ones when fingers hurt and there is much to do in short time – short because of day length and the frequency of poor weather or even worse, ice. Since working on the water I’ve felt that seasonal transitions occur in real time and I believe this is possible to experience only outside of an office, or sometimes referred to as the fattening pen. In real time there are no distinct margins of entry, there are no real thresholds, but I do notice change ever so subtly. Each day is different, yet often the same.

The oysters experience and behave differently. These things grow when the growing is good, get ready for sex, maybe have sex, then feed as much as possible until the temperatures decline to about 40 F when they go dormant and get covered up by silt. Their enemies (crabs and some snails) go away in winter too, so they just lie there and sleep. But they’re not completely safe because guys like me head out there with frozen fingers and lift them out of their slumber, sort them out, wash them, and sell them.

Guys like me continually watch the oysters. We study them throughout the winter months and ask ourselves questions like: Are they pumping (feeding) yet? Any new growth noticeable? Are the crabs getting them? And so on. When brief glimpses of nice weather begin to appear in February, and when the bay is thawing out a bit, we tend to look for signs of spring. Maybe we’ll see a few more hermit crabs, but nothing else really happens until March when maybe a flounder or an eel will show up. Slowly, then suddenly, the bay comes to life. In early April the crabs appear in numbers, the brown frown (brown algae) invades and becomes quite problematic, and some fish are visible. Also the gannets move in, as do the ospreys. Ducks start moving out. Fingers stop hurting (I think 40 F is the threshold). By late April (now) the whole thing is changing daily – more crabs, more birds, and more fish. Add in a catalyst, a couple of 90 degree days, and things start changing faster.

But the most fascinating thing about April, to me, is seeing that edge appear on the oyster. The edge begins in early April, very subtly, but it is recognizable; a few millimeters of new, white shell. Then within a few days it soars: a quarter of an inch almost overnight. Some oysters show it really well (see photos). This one particular oyster was a nice one but was too thin, or short, for the market last fall and was returned to the farm. I found it while wading yesterday morning on a good drainer. The new shell growth was phenomenal, not in its length, but in its shape and pattern.

I showed this oyster to Bill Bennett. He also marveled at it and said, while pointing out the length and curvature of the new growth, “That oyster is going to fill that whole void, that volume, in no time and keep growing out to a nice size!” But then we both looked at each other and realized that he was wrong. “No he isn’t, he’s going out on the truck,” I returned. And we both laughed for a bit. We’d love to watch them grow like this all year, but at some point they grow so large that you can’t sell them. As Skip often reminds me, “They don’t make good pets.” Or something like that.

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