Beachcombing (2) Boring Piddocks

I must confess to have not made it out nearly as much as I would have liked recently. As the light levels increased, and I was no longer going to work in the dark / coming home in the dark, I thought I’d finally get down to the beach more often— but instead something much less exciting happened: I stayed in and perfected the art of the pre-dinner nap.

It wasn’t simple laziness that led to this. I have recently started following a number of beachcombing groups on facebook. Each time I login, I am assailed with images of elusive Sea-beans, rare, vagrant seeds that have drifted over from farflung shores. By comparison, my local beach doesn’t seem up to much. All the same though, this morning I set out to dispel my disenchantedness, hoping to find something that would finally get me thinking again.

Some of the offending culprits

Mercifully, I was having a good day, and it did not take long before I encountered an old friend of mine: the Piddock. Tacking along the strandline, I came across an unusually small Piddock shell. Given how delicate these shells are (also known, touchingly, as Angelwings), I was surprised to find one that had survived this far up the beach— intact except for a small hole towards its thinner end. Even once they get to their full size (the largest I’ve seen where I am was 9cm from one end to another, though they do get bigger), it is still easy to crush the shell in a single hand. Taking this as a sign that Piddocks were the way forward, I set out to find the source of this tiny reminder of a shell.

Much smaller than this…

The tide was out so I didn’t have to wait long until I’d located some prime Piddock habitat. As I walked further out along the beach, the sand became siltier. Eventually this silty sand became thick mud— hard and slippery with clay. The retreating sea had cut runnels through it— so what I stepped gingerly across looked more like the surface of some alien planet than a beach— with its own strange geography of eroded islets, deltas, and clouded pools. Looking up, I became aware of a sensation of being watched. I turned to see a large black bird picking through the mud I’d tramped across. It was a Crow, but for a second the unexpected strangeness of the terrain made it almost impossible to recognise— as if ‘Crow’ here meant something altogether different— uncanny even. Sensing my attentiveness, the bird cawed resignedly and lumbered up into the stiff, sea air. I turned back to my hunt for Piddocks, feeling for all the world like a giant awkwardly tip-toeing across Mars.

Of course, I fell over, got muddy and soaked, and cold on top of it all. I scooped the mud from my beard and crumbled it between my fingers: small particles, not especially gritty, somewhere between dark and milk chocolate in colour. Feeling the sheer richness of this stuff between my hands, its cloying stickiness, and inhaling its algal reek, I remembered the creation story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which humans are created from a mixture of earth, moisture, and heat. The early modern poet Edmund Spenser riffs on this (as well as other ancient Greek and Latin sources) in Book 1 of his epic poem The Faerie Queene. Describing the fecundity of the mud deposited by the river Nile’s annual flooding, he writes:

His fattie waues doe fertile slime outwell,
And ouerflow each plaine and lowly dale:
But when his later spring gins to auale,
Huge heapes of mudd he leaues, wherein there breed
Ten thousand kindes of creatures partly male
And partly femall of his fruitful seed;
Such vgly monstrous shapes elsewher may no man reed.
(FQ, Bk1. 1.21.2-9)

The mud that the Nile’s ‘fattie waues’ leave behind is exceptionally generative, creating out of only heat, earth, and moisture, a myriad of undefinable, multifarious new animals. And yet, this exponential rate of growth is without direction, leaving animals hermaphroditic and ‘vgly monstrous’. What Spenser contemplates here (bearing in mind this was first published in 1590) is the horror of creation without a guiding principle, such as God, to lead it— and the fear that nature may, like the Nile mud, become so efficient at garnering new life, that it itself is turned on its head, and accelerating away from the order conferred by God, become unnatural. For Spenser, God was the arbiter of creation; and therefore, any ways in which the natural world appears to excel itself outside of God’s influence must appear more as symptoms of a fallen world than anything else.

I get quite excited about things like Spenser and mud, but must try not to digress. Given Spenser’s terror-at-mud, I find my reaction to what was, at least to begin with, a pleasant stroll on the beach, quite reasonable. Then I stood on a Piddock. Daydreaming as I had been, I had walked straight into the middle of the Piddock bed without realising. At once the Piddock withdrew its siphon and squirted some seawater back up to the surface. Where the retreating sea had erroded the mud, I could see some exposed Piddock shells, some broken, some whole, lodged in their earthen cells. I should explain.

They are also hide-and-seek world champions

Piddocks, like most shellfish, are born as seaborne plankton. They free float until they sense the scent of their fellow Piddocks which signals to them that a suitable home is nearby. Settling on what is (hopefully) a suitable substrate, they begin the process of boring down into the rock (or in this case, mud). If undisturbed / untrodden on, they will spend their whole lives in this way— like little anchorites confined to a single room, using only a twin siphon to filter the sea above for nutriment. In this way, whole colonies build up quickly wherever suitable material is present. Although most of the Piddocks I encountered lived in mud, in the past I have also come across some which have bored into soft chalk, or even driftwood. The hole they form is almost perfectly round and stones they have bored through are often confused with hag stones. The eventual break up of these stones will, no doubt, contribute to erosion, and the formation of beach sand. I would be curious to know exactly what my local beach would look like if there were no Piddocks around to break up the softer rocks, and whether they could be introduced to suitable areas to slow coastline erosion. As councils purchase sand to bolster the natural sea defences a beach provides, I wonder if Piddocks could be used towards the same end.

And they happen to be fairly amazing artists as well come to think of it…

I don’t have the heart to evict a Piddock from its burrow, but a quick image search reveals that they are definitely not the most attractive of creatures. By contrast, their shell (the source of the name ‘Angelwing’) is exactly that— angelic in appearance. If this contrast were not strange enough already, they also glow in the dark. I have never been out at night to check, but Piddocks are indeed bioluminescent creatures. What use this could be to them, encased as they are in mud, rock, or clay, is, as of yet, beyond me. Although a number of sea creatures are bioluminescent, and it is possible that for the Piddock it is simply the side effect of some chemical reaction, I refuse to believe there isn’t a specific purpose for it.

But I think I’ve stamped around enough now. And I think the lone fisherman just down the beach, hunting for lugworms, is giving me funny looks. Backing away from the Piddock’s strange sea-carved habitat, I watch them spitting their siphoned water back into the sea as it approaches, like thousands of tiny, hidden fountains. Despite knowing it’s wrong to get sentimental about it, I can’t help but feel a glimmer of pity for their isolated little lives, so like the thousands of people, who, each year, disappear, for seemingly no good reason at all.


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