Hiding in Plain Sight

Our time in New Zealand is winding to a close, and each day speeds by faster. We will be back in Detroit in early December, just in time to leave the beginning of summer in Ahipara and face the unseasonable cold predicted for the Midwest. My daily walk on the beach suddenly is more precious to me.

I haven’t collected my usual assortment of shells this year. Still, I have managed to get my feet wet almost every day, regardless of the weather. I am now accustomed to wading through the River of Souls to access the beach. I hardly notice the mucky sand at the shoreline or the rare creature that brushes up against me in the murky water. Once on the beach, I can walk forever; I listen to my podcasts, watch the birds dance, feel the power of the waves, and hunt for clams.

A bed of tuatua

Last year, the tuatua were plentiful, and I was able to film them coming out of their hiding places in the sand. Sadly, this year, I have seen very few, probably due to weather cycles and tides and water temperatures. Carrie and I spotted a few on the beach up north by Cape Reinga, and I was reminded of the significant struggle of this tiny creature to survive.

The tuatua and the pipi are two edible saltwater clams found in New Zealand, and the two names are often used interchangeably, though that’s technically incorrect. They are distinguished by different shells, and, to some extent, where you can find them. Tuatuas are usually harvested on the beach, while a pipi clam grows in a harbor or estuary. The “meat” of the clams consists of the entire muscle inside the shell. When the tide goes out, the tuatuas begin to wiggle their way to the surface of the sand, using that muscle. The birds swoop down and nab them before the tide comes back in. If the tuatua makes it out to sea, it becomes part of the food chain for fish, starfish, and larger mammals.

Waiting for tuatua

For centuries, the tuatua/pipi were a food staple for coastal villages. One boy told me he likes to eat them raw, but local friends say they usually make fritters with the actual meat of the clam. If you soak them in seawater for 24 hours, apparently, the clam spits out most of the sand grit, making the eating part more enjoyable.

Historically, Maori harvested clams using flax baskets. The open weave design of the flax allowed smaller pipi to fall back into the clam bed as the basket was swirled through the water. Locals today do the “pipi shuffle,” or the “Tuatua twist,” twisting side to side in ankle-deep water until they uncover a bed of clams. The diggers then scoop up clams, sorting them by size. At one time, there was never-ending food supply. Today, harvesting is regulated, and some areas are restricted to allow regeneration. Maybe that’s the reason I haven’t seen any diggers this year on 90-mile.

The tuatua seems like that “against all the odds” story. Clams spawn at sea, burrow into beach sand, develop, and eventually emerge from their hiding place, only to face certain death. If diggers don’t find them, the birds do. The likelihood of the clam making its way out to sea is low, and then it faces starfish and other hungry predators up the food chain.

Like the tuatua, I feel I face impossible odds regarding my writing. I have been “hiding” out, growing, and developing a writing muscle, hoping to emerge and get an agent, and then, find a publisher. The picture book market is considered the tightest market in publishing. What appears to be so easy and simplistic is actually rather strenuous. Most children’s authors take over 5 years to even make it to the first step of getting an agent, and then the real challenge begins. To call the process daunting would be an understatement.

All writer’s brains struggle with self-doubt. Each new challenge, transition, or rejection brings in that questioning voice. Maybe this effort is not worth it, or perhaps I shouldn’t waste my time. Life would be more comfortable not to engage almost inevitable failure. Just stay hidden! The inner voice always encourages that self-protection.

But nature provides tremendous inspiration to charge ahead and not give up the fight. For most species, survival involves a disproportionate amount of failure and loss and change. Fortunately, clams are oblivious to the downside, probably right up to the minute they are eaten. They just do their thing and let nature take care of fate.

After walking on the beach and thinking about the deeper meaning of clams, I found this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that helped me get through some disappointments this week.

Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year. He is rich who owns the day, and no one owns the day who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety . . . . Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in. Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day.”

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