Mussels and Moonlight

By , April 3, 2011

It’s the night of the new moon, which means it’s time to read another poem from Mary Oliver’s Twelve Moons. Today’s poem is Mussels.

Mussels grow thickly on our homestead beach. They mass so compactly in most places that they don’t crush under our feet. We rely on them as traction to safely cross our rocks, which are made treacherously slick by black algae much of the year. In many places, especially deeper in the water, they grow to several inches long.

They create a special problem for us, a dilemma. They are delicious steamed. They’re a close source of free, easy to collect protein. Unfortunately, they seem to be the most likely mollusk around to be contaminated by the algae that produces Paralytic Shellfish Poison (PSP). Apparently, they get it often, and retain it longer than most of their kind.

For this reason, neighbors generally only collect them a few months of the year, generally January through March. They also tend to collect them from the wilder side of the peninsula, ours, where it’s hoped that the storm-driven ocean flushes away any algae remaining from the summer months. They’ve been doing it for years, and no one has died yet.

For the first several years, we gathered and ate mussels. However, our main family rule eventually dictated that we stop doing this.

Michelle doesn’t care for shellfish, so she rarely eats mussels or clams. Aly and I decided that if we did get poisoned, it would be one or both of us, but not Michelle, and that wouldn’t be fair to her. We agreed that we would stop eating mussels to eliminate that lopsided risk.

I don’t want to make it sound like we live under a suicide pact. Rather, ours is a policy of shared risk. We engage in activities that many would consider dangerous, but we engage in them together. Likely, if one goes, we’ll all go. This is why we never worried about taking Aly out on the ocean in our canoe when she was a baby. We didn’t want to curtail our lifestyle out of fear; we felt it important to continue doing the things we liked to do, taking her along, rather than risk falling out of the habit and practice of activity. I believe that attitude has led to our current lifestyle.

Generally, there’s probably little likelihood of PSP being present during the mussel-eating months. I despise avoiding a good food source because of a chance of a bad reaction. It’s one of the few compromises we make, but even this small one rankles a bit. But, we’re safer because of it. Not only are we avoiding PSP, but we’re not climbing up and down the rocks at a time of year when they’re generally iced over. We may not be likely to die of PSP, but we are likely to break some bones!

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