It is a rite of autumn. A month before the opening of the commercial season for bay scallops, the amateur version of the season begins. The rakes and waders, wire baskets and inner tubes, and the push rakes all come out of storage. A few more adventurous folks will pull on wetsuits and flippers to snorkel for their scallops.
After the first few days of the season, the talk will be about the best places to find scallops. The people who really know won’t tell. Suppers will be planned around scallops sautéed in butter and garlic and tossed with some angel hair pasta, or wrapped in bacon and broiled, or some other favorite family recipe.
I considered heading down to the Marine Department to buy my own shellfish license and become part of this annual harvest. Instead I called Rob Benchley.
There are old-timers who have forgotten more about scalloping than I will ever know, which is not that high a bar to jump over. There are younger guys who pride themselves on their scalloping, but I can never tell whether it is genuine experience or genuine draft beer doing the talking.
Benchley’s opinions are just about what I was looking for. He is not one of the old-timers, except in the curious way that we seem to all be getting older. And he is not the sort of guy to pretend he knows more than he does.
Rob knew this much when I called him: He will be out there on opening day. He has been scalloping with his uncle, Bill Hubert, every opening day for the last 20 years. They always go to the same spot, never looking for new places to scallop regardless of the size of the catch. Tradition is nothing to be trifled with.
“For years it was a passion of mine to family scallop,” he said. That passion went beyond the hunter-gatherer urge. “It helps keep me connected to the things I love about being here.”
He often pulls on his wetsuit and mask to slip below the surface looking for scallops. “It is just great to get your head under water,” he said. “You see scallops in the eel grass, maybe a couple of littleneck clams, maybe some fish swim past. There’s no noise, no ‘you got mail,’ no telephone. It’s a good way to just be calm.”
There was a day when he filled his freezer with scallops every autumn. Like everyone else, however, he sometimes feels the slog of everyday life getting in the way of things. Inevitably, what keeps most of us from getting out there are things so small they leave us shaking our heads at ourselves.
“You have to be geared up so things don’t get in your way,” he said. “The inner tube I use is flat, it’s had a slow leak for six years. So I go fill it up and put some duct tape on it. But sometimes just that is enough to make me not go. Any little thing that can stop you from going, will stop you.”
As he was telling me this I was looking at my button for the Inshore Classic fishing tournament at the Anglers’ Club. I was certain it would get me out fishing. So far it has not. I have stopped even looking at the tote board. Real life has, once again, gotten in the way of my fun.
Benchley lives out in Sconset, which quickly takes on the feel of an isolated fishing village after the summer people go home. Drive down Baxter Road toward Sankaty lighthouse some day just as dusk is settling in if you want to get a small glimpse of what life must have been like in the 1800s.
That does not mean there is nothing to do out on the edge of the island. Benchley is a volunteer firefighter, and a water commissioner, on top of the photography and writing he does to pay the bills.
“I cannot believe how much time being on the water commission takes. And it is really interesting stuff. There is the natural resource itself, state law, federal law, and the actual mechanics of getting water to people.”
Not to mention a good deal of public relations and the politics that inevitably accompany any local board or committee.
A few years ago Benchley and Jim Patrick wrote a book called “Scallop Season: A Nantucket Chronicle.” It is the book to read if you want to know what it is like to make your living on the water, dredging for bay scallops. It is an opus that covered two seasons in the lives of men and women who make up the commercial scalloping fleet.
“It was just going to be the ’99 season, but it took us two years. We kept discovering this entire universe of scallop culture. It was filled with all these things that dictate life here, or used to. A lot of it is dying off and changing.”
Life on the water used to define this island. It did not matter whether you worked on the water or not. It is, after all, an island. Scalloping, even today, reminds us of that. But it also reminds us that things change. These days family scalloping is often defined by the Jeeps of summer people and weekend people, with brand-new rakes on the roof rack.
There is nothing wrong with that. Most of them seem like perfectly-nice people. But there is no doubt things are different.
“There seems to be an urgency to family scalloping that’s just not necessary,” Benchley said. Now the freezers get filled not because someone happened to get out on the water a few days a week, but because someone set out to fill the freezer. Scallops as distinctive Christmas gifts instead of something to throw into a skillet on some random Tuesday.
Maybe it is me, but more and more moments of life here seem to be a barometer that delineates the old Nantucket from the new Nantucket.
Getting a rake and scalloping because you want to bring home supper, or because you need it to turn your head to the natural beauty you miss in the struggle to make ends meet here, is the old Nantucket. Scalloping because it is one of those iconic island things you just do not want to miss, while not a sin, is the new Nantucket.
– John Stanton