I was sitting at my ten-year-old Dell laptop the other afternoon when I excitedly said to my wife Carol “You should see these awesome pictures of Bruce’s mussels on the internet!” I guess I didn’t immediately realize how awkward it could have come across.

Of course, I wasn’t admiring Bruce’s mussels exactly, I was admiring Bruce’s colorful pictures of the Sangamon River’s mussels.

A few Saturdays ago, several volunteers joined Steve Buck of the U of I’s Committee on Natural Areas and several “Master Naturalists” at the Sangamon River Forest Preserve digging in the knee deep water of the Sangamon River for a mussel survey. Those who participated were astounded at the number and variety of mussels that lurk beneath the surface, making their home in the sandy Sangamon River bottom. In just a few hours surveying about 500 feet of the river, they found over 300 mussels in more than 14 different species of many different sizes, shapes and colors.

And I’ve since become astounded about the potential opportunities for mussel and clam humor a column on a mussel survey could provide.

For example, some guy asks “How many mussels does it take to change a light bulb?” And his dimwitted buddy responds “Gee, I dunno, a light bulb is not too heavy, so not many, I suppose…”

But seriously folks, the Illinois Natural History Survey conducts a periodic survey of the Sangamon River’s mussels. They ask questions such as: “Excuse me, Mussel-man, what is your opinion of the Quinn Administrations’ recent proposed budget cuts for protection of Illinois Waterways?”  Ha-ha, I imagine those crazy researchers at the Natural History Survey tell that one around the ol’ water cooler a LOT.

On a more serious note, when Chuck, one of the volunteers from the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy, went out in the river to lend a hand, Bruce, who was knee deep in the river, exclaimed “Fatmucket!” Chuck naturally responded “Oh yeah, so’s your ol’ man!” Then Bruce shouted “Monkey Face!” Wondering what he’d ever done to Bruce to deserve this, Chuck was feeling mightily insulted at this point, but Bruce just opened his hand and showed him a couple of mussels with brightly colored shells and said “No, this one’s a Fatmucket and here’s a Monkey Face.”

Mussels do have an amazing variety of creative, descriptive and colorful names. In addition to the Fatmucket and Monkey Face, there is the Three Ridge, Wabash Pigtoe, Pink Heelsplitter, Pistolgrip, the Pimpelback, Deertoe, Plain Pocketbook, Fat Pocketbook (as for me, I haven’t seen that particular species in quite a while), and the Creeper.

Sarah Bales of the Natural History Survey gave a talk at a recent USRC meeting where we learned that they often poetically refer to mussels as the “Livers of the River” (wonder how long it took for them to think THAT one up?).  Regardless, mussels do in fact play a very important role in cleaning and purifying the water of the river, which is why they are critical to the river’s ecosystem.

After Carol and I got over our initial amazement at the mussels’ stunning color and variety from Bruce’s pictures, we started to get kind of hungry. The previous Saturday night, we had sat down to a nice dinner of mussels in garlic butter over linguine and a glass of white wine. So naturally, being seafood loving locavores, we were interested in a potential dinner harvested from the river in our backyard.

Turns out that the Sangamon River’s mussels are a protected species, punishable by the force of law.  Which reminds me: What did Pinky “the Heelsplitter” Mussel say to the FBI interrogator? Nothing, he just ‘clammed up’.

In any case, apparently all of these freshwater mussels are (fortunately for them), both terrible tasting and incredibly tough. Apparently, certain native tribes would eat them, but only if they were bordering on starvation. I’ll stick with mussels from the frozen food section for now. But in this economy, you never know.

So as it turns out, the Sangamon River’s mussels are fascinating, quite beautiful and they seem to have a pretty good sense of humor. By the time this appears, Bruce’s mussel pictures should be posted for all to see at www.sangamonriver.org. As for pictures of Bruce’s muscles, well, you’ll just have to get in touch with him on that.


Appeared as “Notes from the River” in the Mahomet Citizen by Scott Hays on 9/7/2011

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