My hands feel like they’ve been hit with a weed whacker. On finger is swollen, another scraped to hell. A burn here, a blister there. The tips are all tender, and I don’t know how many little puncture wounds I have that are in various stages of healing.
These are the hands of a gatherer, an angler, a hunter. A cook. They are my hands. This past week has been a maelstrom mashup of almost all that I do in my odd little life, and my hands tell that story.
A burn from a catering job. Blisters from hammering away at a rocky shoreline with a steel bulb planter, looking for littlenecks. A nasty puncture wound from a rockfish spine. Another from an errant hook. A lattice of lacerations on the back of my hands – the price of picking blackberries. And with most of my fingerprints scraped off by hours of digging forearm deep into rocky sand in search of buried horseneck clams, it’d be a great time to commit a crime.
Hands, if you look closely, will often tell you how their owners put food on their table. Think of a fisherman’s calloused paws, or an artist’s delicate digits. People’s professions can be guessed at by the state of their hands. Mine are no different, only they tell this story more directly.
Lord knows I need not do this. I have been a writer by trade for more than two decades. I live in a suburb, surrounded by supermarkets. Were I to forsake them, I’d still have a farmer’s market available to me almost every day of the week, and friends who raise livestock far superior to any of the sad, factory-farmed meat you see wrapped in plastic. I choose to work for my food for a variety of reasons, but it’s in no small part because, well, we are hard-wired to do so. Every animal on earth does two things above all else: Reproduce, and eat. It’s what we do.
Yesterday I found myself standing above Tomales Bay, stopping to catch my breath. The hill I was climbing was steep, and I was carrying a bucket full of clams and seawater that weighed somewhere north of 35 pounds. Heart hammering against my ribs, I looked up, gasped for air — and understood why I do this: An oceanic breeze cooled my forehead, whisking away the beading sweat so it could meld itself into the mists that still hung in hollows of this coastal plain. I could smell the salt, but also the spicy perfume of a California summer, a mix dominated in this place by a native bay laurel and a seaside sagebush that I wish I could somehow wear as cologne.
A quail sentry sat on a fencepost watching me, its topknot comma bobbing up and down in the breeze. Wildflowers in canary and white, azure and magenta decorated a landscape swaddled in the gold of dried grass and highlighted by the deep hunter greens of buckbrush, Monterey cypress and scrub oak.
I pressed on, legs burning, lungs protesting, until I reached my trusty old Toyota pickup, almost two miles from the beach. I wedged the bucket into the front seat so it wouldn’t tip over on my 100-mile trip back home; It wouldn’t be the first time I’d have clams as driving companions. Door shut and motor running, I caught a whiff of myself. I smelled of work and brine, with a hint of low tide but also that wondrous spicy aroma that had surrounded me all morning. It was a good day.
And it marked the end of a good week. A week where I had fished for leopard sharks within a baseball’s throw of where the San Francisco Giants play, and where I had caught striped bass directly under the South Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, winds roaring even louder than the din of commuter traffic overhead. Yes, I work for my food, but it rarely feels like work.
All of us, from cats to crows to humans, take satisfaction in a successful foray for food. A classic example of this took place in a small city’s zoo, where a bunch of lions and leopards had been behaving listlessly. They were captives, bored to tears. Then, one day, the zookeepers changed the way they fed the cats. Instead of just having hunks of raw meat tossed to them, the cats were now required to solve problems to get their food. Only by navigating mazes or figuring out an ever-changing set of puzzles would they get their reward. And sure enough, after this the cats perked up: They had a job to do. Finally.
Think this is unique to cats? Think again. It is a truism that the best fish you’ve ever eaten is one you’d caught earlier that day. Roasted simply over fire, maybe with a rasher or two of bacon, this trout or bass or whatever tastes of more than fish: It tastes of a job well done, of a small, but important, victory.
I know. You lead a busy life. You have a job, a spouse, maybe a kid or three. Time is precious. But in this age when we as a species are as divorced from the natural world as we have ever been, it is ever more important that you spend some of your precious time gathering the scratches and burns and cuts and punctures that I get every day – especially if you have children, so that our way of life shall not perish from the face of the earth.
Maybe it’s fishing. Perhaps digging clams is your thing. Or picking blackberries. Or just cooking something from scratch. Wear that little burn mark or that scratch with pride. It is your trophy of a life well lived. Each little mark, every slight scar tells you and the world that you are independent. That you are alive.