Clams and Cockles

Clams and cockles

Clams and Cockles

Clams and cockles are molluscs; around 85,000 species of molluscs live on land, in the sea or intertidal zones all over the world. In the following poem I dive into their immense diversity and make an impossible attempt to gather them into the 14 lines of a sonnet.



I shall not praise a single slug or snail,

this is a poem for molluscs of all sorts:

for those on land that glide on slimy trails

and those that live on sea beds, mud or rocks;  

molluscs with shells that twirl to left or right,

that feed with toothsome tongues or kill their prey

with poison darts. I praise all molluscs bright

as butterflies or coloured ghastly grey,

sweet juicy mussels, cockles hard as stones,

cowries, colossal squid and octopus,

winkles, limpets, argonauts and tritons,

all charm me with their fearful otherness.

No net of words can capture them, I found,

before, in undiscovered seas, I drowned.       Anne Bryan      

Stevie Smith’s poem ’Egocentric’  includes some splendid animals: ‘the golden lion’ ‘the ruby orbed pelican’, ‘the tiger stepping out on padded toe’ but also the humble ‘mud delighting clam’.  Can a clam feel delight? Smith is, I would think, unique among poets in suggesting this, but then she is not afraid of being absurd.


Brancaster Beach, Norfolk

Smith loved the North Norfolk coast which she often visited with friends.

 The flat expanse of Brancaster beach looks empty but hidden beneath its smooth surface is a community of animals including cockles and clams which will open their shells and feed on floating plankton when the tide washes over the beach


Charles Darwin was particularly interested in clams that live in freshwater.

 In The Origin of Species he writes ‘I well remember, when first collecting in the fresh waters of Brazil, feeling much surprise at the similarity of the fresh-water insects, shells, etc., and at the dissimilarity of the surrounding terrestrial beings, compared with those of Britain.’

 Darwin suggested that ‘ the wide distribution of fresh-water plants and of the lower animals, … I believe mainly depends on the wide dispersal of their seeds and eggs by animals, more especially by fresh-water birds, which have large powers of flight, and naturally travel from one to another and often distant piece of water.’

The question of how freshwater clams that live in wet mud find their way across dry land still interested him at the end of his life. In the journal Nature he wrote in 1882;n February 18 of the present year Mr Crick of Northampton caught a female beetle … with a shell of a small clam clinging to one of its legs.’

 ‘The beetle and clam were brought home in a handkerchief, and placed after about three hours in water, and the shell remained attached from February 18 to 23, when it dropped off, being still alive… a single one would stock any isolated pond, as the species is an hermaphrodite form. … How far (this beetle) could fly is not known; but during the voyage of the Beagle a closely-allied form … flew on board when the nearest point of land was forty-five miles distant; and it is an improbable chance that it had flown from the nearest point.’

‘Mr. Crick visited the same pond a fortnight afterwards, and found on the bank a frog which appeared to have been lately killed; and to the outer toe of one of its hind legs a living shell of the same species was attached’

Evidence that tiny ‘mud delighting clams’ fly with birds and beetles and hop across the countryside on frogs might seem absurdly irrelevant to most people but for Darwin it was important evidence for his theory


Many animals benefit by migrating by one means or another and humans are no exception, but sometimes, with people as with clams, it turns out badly. 

In 2004 number of illegal immigrants from China who had travelled to the UK hidden in the back of trucks were directed by gang masters to collect cockles in the rich mud of Morecambe Bay.  

The Chinese workers were resented by many local people, and the language barrier meant that they didn’t understand warnings about treacherous tides. 

One the evening of 5th February 2004 twenty three Chinese workers were drowned by the incoming sea, only one man was rescued by helicopter on that dark and cold night

  On the Death of the Chinese Cockle Pickers

    The monks in saffron robes and sandals stride

    down Morecambe’s wintry promenade. They cast

    their prayers down the murky ditches snaking way

    across the estuary, they sling their words against

    the flow of racial enmities, across the sludge 

    of angry confrontations, and send their sorrow

    far beyond the miles of gleaming mud,

    to reach the desperate men that drowned in darkness,

    to bathe the dead still held in alien mortuaries.


    The waves of prayers and supplications wash

    across the glistening ooze that is impervious

     to suffering, the deaths of men or dinosaurs

     are all the same to those grey acres hovering between

     the land and sea, the pleas are meaningless

     to all those small crustaceans, molluscs, worms

     that suck detritus from the tidal floods; the words

     drift on the wind towards a pale horizon

     that shimmers faintly far beyond the sands.        A        

Stevie Smith directed much poetic energy to the subject of death and to sreligion as personified by the Church of England; the Buddhist monks would have seen death from a different viewpoint. Darwin looked at death from a standpoint  that included the deaths of all forms of life that had ever lived; not only humans but also the golden lion, the ruby orbed pelican, the tiger stepping out on padded toe and the mud delighting clam.

In The Origin of Species (1st Edition) Darwin wrote:  ‘Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.’

The prayers are not, in my opinion, made redundant when the world is seen from the grandeur of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary view; the prayers and rituals of all religions have, I believe, evolved to help us to support each other in the grief we all feel in the face of death.


Quotes from Darwin’s work are taken from: 
Wyhe, John van ed., 2002- The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online ( © Anne Bryan 2018