Everything we do has an effort-to-payoff ratio, which I pay close attention to. The lower the E:P ratio – that is, the lower the effort and the higher the payoff – the happier I am. If it’s too high, I’m inclined to quit. Low enough, and I consider doing it professionally.
Sea salt anchors the low end. The effort involved borders on nothing. About once a week during woodstove season, we fetch a pot of water from Sandy Neck. We put the water in a pan on the stove. When all the water’s dried up, we put the salt in a container. A season’s worth of water gives us at least a year’s worth of salt, with leftovers to give to our friends.
But the payoff is more than just salt. It’s the fascination people have with the idea that you can make your own salt. Of all the things we do, this seems to be the one that interests people most.
On the other end of the E:P ratio spectrum is lobstering.
Lobstering is a lot of hard, heavy work. You have to acquire and set up the pots with ropes and buoys painted your designated colors and etched with your permit number. You have to load your boat and take the pots to somewhere lobsters are likely to be, generally a place that’s far from shore and covered by a lot of rough water.
Then you have to wait for weather that’s calm enough for a small boat (ours is a 19-foot Eastern) to safely venture out into Cape Cod Bay. You go out to your spot (ours is about three miles from the Millway marina, where we put in), bait your traps, and drop them in your best approximation of a straight line.
This year, we did our ten pots (the Massachusetts limit) in two shifts. Last year, we did it in one, and we learned our lesson. Five pots fit on our boat easily. Ten fit very uneasily indeed. We did our first load of five on Monday, and went out Tuesday with the second five, picking up our line where we’d left off. And then, once they were all in, the E really began.
The need to haul pots up from the bottom of Cape Cod Bay is what ought to make the effort-to-payoff ratio of lobstering unsatisfactory. It’s hard to pull a fifty-pound trap up through fifty feet of water, hand over hand. It takes me several minutes of serious effort, and I don’t have the upper-body strength the get the pot up on the gunwale without bashing it against the side of the boat – Kevin has to do that part. Checking even five of the pots is a workout for both of us.
But it’s hauling the pots up from the bottom of Cape Cod Bay that keeps me coming back. Bringing a giant cage up from the murky depths in the hopes that there will be a lobster in it, peering over the gunwale to get a glimpse of the contents, is absurdly exciting.
It’s almost as exciting as catching a fish, and together those two activities are the best argument for the compelling power of mystery that I’ve ever encountered.
Mystery does nothing for me. Except when it involves seafood.
Those of you who follow this space have heard me say that I believe everything is knowable, and I’d like to know as much of it as possible. I’m a hard-edged rationalist, in it for the science and the certainty. Mystery does nothing for me.
Except when it involves seafood.
Trying to coax things to eat out of their home below the water’s surface is an exercise in guesswork. Even the best-informed among us don’t know precisely what’s going on down there. The most experienced fisherman will still pick a lure by trial and error. Cutting-edge oceanographic science can only tell us so much about what fish do and when and why they do it. Lobsters, particularly, are notoriously enigmatic.
But solving the mystery, if only for that one pot on that one day, is only part of the reason catching a lobster is exciting. It’s also, I suspect, because luring edible animals into cages – whether on land or under water – awakens the predatory instinct.
Humans are predators. I know this. But it’s been a long time since, as a species, we’ve had to hunt to survive, and I guess I’d had the idea that millennia of civilization had evolved the predatory instinct out of us, or at least tamped it down. And, even if it didn’t, what would women be doing with a predatory instinct? We’re the gatherers, remember?
But there’s no other explanation for why my heart beats faster and the adrenaline flows when there’s a fish or a lobster on the line. As distasteful as I find the idea of killing, say, a deer, I suspect the same instinct will kick in when I have one in my sight this fall, when hunting season rolls around. I’m catching my own food, and tapping into the brain-stem chemistry that enabled us not just to survive as a species, but to head the food chain.
So much for the veneer of civilization. Next thing you know, I’ll be wearing animal skins and carrying a club.
Our five traps contained lots of crabs (which we also eat, when they’re big enough), a zillion snails (whose edibility I’m unsure of, but will look into), and one lobster that was just under legal size. Do you have any idea how hard it is to throw a lobster back? My brain stem says, “Hey, we caught that fair and square!” and my stomach says “Hey, that would taste really good!” Luckily, the cerebral cortex has veto power, and it says, “Hey, we play by the rules, and we want to maintain a sustainable lobster population. Besides, you can go to jail for taking lobsters illegally.”
But we’ll be back, probably tomorrow, to check again. No matter how much effort it is, the payoff isn’t just lobsters. It’s the ridiculous, disproportionate excitement that comes with tapping into my primal, reptilian self.
When I got back to civilization, I washed the salt water and sea crud off me, and prepared to go to the nice, clean supermarket to buy what I needed for dinner. On the way out the door, though, I checked my teeth and claws. Red.