Oyster dredges get towed across the bottom. The mouth of the dredge has teeth. These teeth bite into the bottom. A good haul with an oyster dredge is a full dredge. It’s how we made our money. When the dredges came over the rails we dumped them onto a wooden table, called a cull table. This is where we stood, hour after hour, day after day. We watched the seasons go by with our heads down, busy with work. Once we dumped the dredges onto the table we sort the oysters by size. Some went to market; others got dumped back over the side to grow more. We sorted three marketsize oysters: petites, regs, and Joes. Oystering is all about culling. You’ll know when you’re a good culler because your hands will fly through a pile of oysters, as if your fingers developed eyes. Soon after you reach this point of dexterity you’ll begin to dream of oysters, piles of them. The dreams are never erotic. Aphrodite never emerges from an open flower.
In the dredge amongst the oysters— green and spider crabs and sea weeds. Cord weeds and whip weeds and sea lettuce. All these plants are drifters, coming and going with the tides. They don’t have a holdfast (aquatic roots) to anchor them to the bottom like the hardy tidal pool rock weeds, kelp, and Irish moss have. During the new and full moons of the spring and fall we’d catch huge masses of a wayward weed we called witches bush. The witches bush slowed us down, like walking up hill in dense snow, but there was nothing we could do about it. Oyster farms don’t use fences- animals and plants can come and go.
Then there were the old beer bottles from the 20s and 30s. The ancient oyster shells from a thousand years ago. And wood so old and preserved in the bottom mud that it looked like a dinosaur might emerge right out of it.
Every now and again, mostly in the fall—a time of change of falling temperature that all marine creatures acutely feel—we’d see staring out the dredge’s mouth, surrounded by oysters, a set of emerald green eyes.
“Mantis shrimp,” one of us would say.
The enigma of the estuary. Half lobster, half shrimp, solitary, a great and industrious maker of subterranean burrows. They also possess a cool adaptation. They have one of the fastest punch reflexes in the animal world. Meaning from a recoiled position to an outstretched striking position—wham! They do this faster than just about anything alive. For claws they have stabbers, much more lancelike than clawlike. Supposedly they impale their prey; supposedly they wander far from their burrows to feed, mostly at night. Their breeding is done on certain lunar and tidal phases. Little is known about this creature. I’ve heard it said that some people call them, “thumb splitters.”
On the farm we all knew this about them. It is the centerpiece of mantis lore. So when we caught our first one, the three of us stood around. “You got that? You’re closest. John, reach down and pick it up.”
After a while once you realize you got your thumbs still attached to your hands, you lighten up a bit. They aren’t scorpions, although they share the same phylum. But I never did get totally relaxed handling them and I’m sure I never did pet one with my gloves off. Mantis shrimp have a certain look about them that really does suggest: handle with care, if at all.
They have been known to have the strength to actually crack aquarium glass. The ones around New England grow to 10 inches and live in estuaries and the open sea. Worldwide there are 400 known species of mantis shrimp. Some mate for life, sharing a burrow, the two of them—it’s hard not to get anthropomorphic about it. Until they cut your thumb in two. This mating preference is extremely rare in the phylum arthropoda, a huge sprawling animal division representing 80% of all known animal species, including lobsters, spiders, crabs, mites, millipedes. Many mantis shrimp are colored like rainbows and live on coral reefs. The ones we see on the oyster farm are gray, like the color of a cloud with rain in it. They live in the mud. New York Harbor and Boston Harbor and Narragansett Bay all have mantis shrimp crawling in their burrows. It isn’t the kind of thing you think about while driving over a bridge, crossing over a New England waterway. But below your tires and into the water, and down on the bottom and into the bottom are mantis shrimp. They are delicious to eat. I tried them once. Their meat turns an orangey red, not quite as beautiful as cooked lobster but equally as good.