There is a trick to digging wet sand with your hands. When you first touch it, it feels as solid as concrete, and you can grind down your fingernails scrabbling away and making little progress. The trick is to wait for a wave. When a wave comes, even a long slow gentle one, buoyancy and turbulence dissolve the surface of the sand out from under you. The particles become momentarily weightless. In this transitional state, with the sand and water indistinguishable, your hands and feet can sink deep with just a gentle pressure. A few moments after the waves recede the granules lock, each irregular bump finding an irregular groove to partner with, and, mortared together by the hydrogen bonds of water and salt, they return to concrete.
The clams know this. A clam caught on the surface will wait, inert, until the tumbling and streaming of water triggers some instinct, and then with their hydrofoil shells angled into the receding wave, they extend their muscular tongues. It is tempting to call it digging, but this isn’t what it most closely resembles. It is like climbing a rope. The suspended sand slurry offers little traction or support, so the clams ratchet themselves deeper, tongue by shell, as a climber on a floppy rope does with arms and legs.
On Pismo beach, when you sink your hands into the sand in this way, you’ll invariably bump into a handful of Pismo clams. In every single square foot of the plain of the intertidal zone, you’ll find at least a dozen. When you find so many clams in every place you check, and then look up from your small catch to the extent of the beach, your brain cannot fathom the multiplication. It is a feeling like watching a single star out of the multitudes in the sky and seeing an exoplanet dim it as it transits, or hearing a gravitational wave after just a few weeks of being able to listen for them. The spoils themselves seem inconsequential, but their implications for the scale of the vast unseen world around you boggle the imagination. There are just too many to believe. If they were not hidden under a few inches of sand, they would cover it like cobbles on a creekbed. Pismo clams range all up the southern half of the Pacific Coast of North America, from Baja to Halfmoon bay, but more than half of the entire population of the species is found at Pismo Beach.
The signs near the beach say “CLAMMING IS ILLEGAL UNLESS … MINIMUM 4 1/2″ DIAMETER SIZE,” and you will not find any clams that large on the beach. Whether by accumulated selection or just from having been picked clean, they no longer fly that close to the sun. Pismo clams were a mainstay in the diet of California’s native peoples. They were fished commercially, taken by locals, and by tourists, until by the 1980s they were gone. It is hard to imagine, looking at the beach today, that it was ever empty, and that through management of the fishery alone they have so bountifully returned. But that is perhaps the most important thing to understand about abundance. It is fragile.
150 miles north of Pismo Beach is Moss Landing. It too is a huge beach, with a wide, flat intertidal region. It too is nestled into a graceful arc of coastline. But it has few Pismo clams. You will find a few prodigal sons, once every two dozen handfuls, but nothing like their abundance just a little farther south. Instead, it is saturated with mole crabs.
Mole crabs live a life much like clams, fishing for debris among the waves, but they are completely opposite in temperament. The mole crabs have no instinct to bide their time and conserve their energy. From the moment they’re exposed to the air, they frantically dig with their hind legs if the surface they’re on resembles wet sand even as little as a human palm wet with seawater. The efficiency of their shovel-like legs is incredible. Elon Musk could not design a finer boring machine. When you drop them on the sand, they right themselves like roly-polies and rebury themselves in a blink.
If you stand in the waves where the water pulls the sand under your feet, you’ll feel them moving out from under you. There are dozens in every little patch. After catching a few, you’ll notice they come in two sizes, the scurriers and the bumblers. The small ones that slip through your fingers are the males. The large ones that can’t help but be caught, and will sit in your hand embarrassed to be exposed are the matronly females, which you can confirm from the orange eggs packed among their leg joints.
Why is Pismo Beach so saturated with clams, but not Moss Landing? Why is Moss Landing so saturated with mole crabs, but not Pismo Beach? Why do the clams return to Pismo Beach but not elsewhere, even after being decimated down to nothing, over and over again? Nobody knows.
Maybe it’s a matter of temperature, that Moss Landing is just slightly out of the region where they’re most comfortable. Maybe the deep ocean currents happen to bring their favorite microbiota food there. Maybe, when the clams entrust their trillions of eggs to float free in the ocean, that some accident of current happens to always return them there. There are places on the beach, where the waves are just a little different, where their resonance with the coast takes a slightly different pattern, and the physics of the waves changes. They start bringing larger denser objects farther up the beach. These accidents of current and geometry are key spots for beachcombing, and you’ll find wonderful shells in those places. Maybe some similar accident of current and ocean geometry is responsible for the clams always ending up on Pismo Beach.
But nobody knows. Nature has created a clam heaven, and no one knows how. It is unique in the world, and we couldn’t begin to understand how to recreate it, because we don’t understand how it exists. This is the second most important thing to understand about abundance. It is almost always an accident.
Every fall, in Sitka sound, the herring spawn. They turn the water milky white with sperm, and coat the rocky beaches with eggs three layers thick. The Tlingit people have a custom of dipping a hemlock bough into the water, letting the herring cover it with eggs, and then eating the eggs fresh off the branches. Ten years ago, the shoals would fill the fishing nets in such numbers that if they sounded in unison it would capsize the boats. The humpbacks would come to the sound by the hundreds to gobble them up with great churning maws. When the bald eagles rested from their gluttony they would fill every tree and roof, their white heads dusting them like Christmas popcorn garlands. But abundance is fragile. This year there will be no herring harvest in Sitka sound, because the herring are all too young and too small to sell.
Whenever you witness true abundance, it seems insane. It is incredible in the original sense of the word. It is not constrained by needing to seem possible. It is something that can’t be, and yet is. It is a wave that never crests. It is a wild YOLO war whoop made flesh.
When I think of silicon valley, people from all over the world, gathered by currents of ambition and network effects, brought to the bay area, and stacked into decrepit victorians like clams on a beach, I see the same phenomena at work. For all its myriad faults, its crushing rents and commutes, the gradual exodus and suffering of its working class, the core of silicon valley is an exuberant abundance unmatched in the world.
Why did Fairchild have to choose its epicenter as a one dimensional strip of land between mountains and bay with nowhere to physically expand to? Why did every starry-eyed post-bubble founder plop their headquarters in a dinky suburb that would fight them for office space and housing forever after? Abundance is an accident.
The political forces that would preserve the bay area’s structures in amber, even as its people decamp, cry that this growth isn’t natural. They insist that these people should move somewhere else, that the bay is full, and was just fine as it was, that tech companies should go do the work of revitalizing all the rust belt towns that their employees escaped. But it is not in the nature of life to be spread evenly over the world like smooth peanut butter. That is the nature of death, literal heat death, where everything is the same and nothing can change. We have such a meager window into such an immiserated natural world, that we don’t realize how deeply natural this is. The most intransigent cause of a lack of imagination is, after all, a lack of referrents.
Every year, we think that this cannot possibly continue, and every year it does.
Until now. As covid and wildfire smoke have atomized us all into whatever living space we can afford, and into a grid of separate video boxes on a screen, the place as it was no longer exists. The forces that kept people here are temporarily gone. Through cratering rents San Francisco is finally proving to opponents of growth that supply and demand apply to housing too.
As I consider my own possible exit from the bay, the rent I can’t justify paying for the commute I no longer have to plan around, I think about how we should remember silicon valley if this is in fact the end.
Abundance is fragile, it is accidental, and it is the most incredible thing on earth. If the valley must die, then let it be remembered for the force of nature it was. And maybe, like the clams always coming home, it will someday live again.