Wednesday, August 1, 2012


There are thousands of mussel species in the world, most at sea but hundreds of them living in fresh water, and at least ten in my home state of New Hampshire. (I’m told freshwater mussels are edible, but not as tasty as saltwater ones. Being too squeamish to catch and eat my own specimens, I’ll leave that judgment to others.) All mussels spend most of their time clinging to a rock or burrowed under sand or mud. They’re all filter feeders; they siphon in water and eat any organic matter they find. They don’t tolerate pollution well, so if you find mussels in your local lake or brook, you can rejoice in the purity of the water. When the season is right, they release their eggs and sperm en masse; the resulting babies drift along the currents in huge numbers until they become prey for larger animals, or after a rather complicated maturation cycle, find a nice bit of real estate, secrete a shell, and settle down for the rest of their lives. Depending on species, they grow to as little as one and half inches or as much as eleven inches. Sometimes, if the currents change and again depending on species, an individual mussel might seek out new hunting—er, siphoning grounds. 

Mussels—at least the ones I’ve seen—also do another thing. They write. Don’t believe me? Check out the picture below. This guy is clearly practicing his cursive e’s in the sand, though he got a little sidetracked there at the end. Or maybe the e’s are the sidetracking until he figured out where he wanted to go and set off to get there. (Don’t ask me how I know it’s a guy; I’m using the generic masculine here, folks. The only way to sex a mussel is to dissect it, and my curiosity didn’t extend that far. Besides, I wanted to read the rest of his book.) When you consider that mussels crawl at a cracking one to two inches per hour, and that the track in the picture is about 16” end to end not counting the e’s, you can only conclude that this guy had a lot to say.

Going down to the lake early every morning while I was on vacation last week, I saw a lot of mussel writing, mostly scrawled lines, quick scribbles and enigmatic traces. The strange hieroglyphs would appear overnight and then wash away under the force of powerboat waves, so they were only visible for a short time. They were hard to photograph, given the refractive power of water, the low angle of the sun, and the constant rippling of the waves. I took about thirty shots before I got this one. When something is so fleeting and furtive, I figure it has to mean something. 

So what does this mussel writing mean? Some would say it means nothing; it’s just the random wandering of a hungry mollusk. But, I ask, what about those weirdly regular e’s? Are they a sign of mussel madness? Magnetic disturbance? A message from the Ineffable? Sheer joie de vivre

I don’t know what it means to this particular mussel, but here’s what this writer finds in it: Keep going. Keep writing. Even if you’re going around in circles, it’s okay to keep writing. Maybe if you’re going around in circles, eventually you’ll get dizzy and stagger onto the right track by accident. And who knows? Maybe the circles will give you glimpses into other tracks. After all, every curve has an infinite number of tangents to explore. At the very least, you’ll build up your writing mussels.