CASCO BAY, MAINE — Casco Bay, Maine. -- It is early morning, but the clock that this woman watches so dutifully all year is unimportant here. The tide what matters. And mussel beds do not stay open 24 hours a day.
So she is up and dressed for success in this venture. On her feet, a pair of blue and gray reef walkers. Above them, faded green cotton pants rolled up to the knee and bearing berry stains from seasons past. Above that a red T-shirt, and a blue baseball cap advertising the local market.
In the city where she lives most of the year, this fashion style could be faithfully described as dork, full dork, or, in the language of fashion, dorque. To complete the overall look, she is carrying a vintage mesh potato sack for her hunting and gathering.
Thus attired, the woman heads down the dirt road to the ocean. She passes by the blackberries, their prickly branches heavy with breakfast fruit. She barely stops to inspect the raspberries that have acquired the fine mold that signals the end of their season. She will come back to them later.
At the water's edge, she makes her way over the rocks whose vast crop of mussels are only temporarily exposed to the air. Carefully, she clambers over this space, lifting great clumps of seaweed, as small crabs scamper away. She carefully chooses her spots, places where the biggest blue-black mussels have the fewest barnacles.
She is shopping, fussy as any buyer for a trendy urban kitchen, picking the finest foods available at the market. But what a different sort of marketplace this is. As she loosens the beards that connect these mussels to the rocks, she finds herself overwhelmed by the natural bounty of this season and this place. By the ease of putting food on her island table.
Mussels, raspberries, blackberries, mackerel. These are the free meals that she gathers from this island. What, she muses ironically, would it take to get such delicacies in the city? How many extra steps have been put between us and dinner in the urban obstacle course? An education to get a job to get a paycheck to get a car to drive on roads that are paved to get us to the store from one direction and the food from another. That is just the beginning.
What does it take to bring home the bacon or berries in the city? Another random list forms in her head: An alarm clock, a lipstick, pantyhose, gasoline, a bank card . . . money moving around the elaborate circuit we call the economy. What does it take here? Two hands.
For most of the year, the woman on the mussel flats ''makes a living.'' She produces sentences in a building constructed for people who make and sell sentences in return for paychecks deposited and withdrawn in banks created for their convenience and their debt. The reward for people who ''make a living'' is, if they are lucky, a few weeks in a place where it seems possible to simply live. And to live simply.
If the woman sounds romantic about the country, she is not really. She has no desire to live off the land in February. She has watched her neighbors here do the hard work of bringing in that other island crop, lobster. Water doesn't wholly insulate this place from the world.
She knows that people want more than fish and berries. They want heat in the winter, beds in their homes, college for their kids. They want candy bars and VCRs.
But she also knows that as these wants expand like a mail-order catalog, something else is added to the American wish list. The longing for time.
Ask families what they want and the same answer comes out: Time. Some tell the pollsters that they would exchange money for time, literally buy it if they could. Others express it in a desire to shortcut the complicated and unnatural cycle that takes them around the days like a stock car in an interminable race.
So on a summer day, up to her ankles in the rising tide, she is grateful for what is here for the picking, mussels and peace of mind. Walking back this country road with tonight's dinner, she is saving time, aware as only a city dweller can be, of the luxury in living hand to mouth. How simple life is when you can want what is at hand.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.