A particularly delicious appetizer frequently launches a memorable meal. But not often does an exceptional hors d’oeuvre motivate months of research and reflection that culminate in a fascinating book. Calais author Rowan Jacobsen ’fesses up that he “fell in love with one tiny oyster in particular” while traveling and tasting for his 2007 mollusk manual, A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America. Of the hundreds of varieties he sampled, Jacobsen found that the Olympia, or Oly (rhymes with “holy”), has a “coppery, smoked-mushroom sweetness … unlike anything else in the world.”
The Oly once “carpeted bays” along the West Coast, “as far north as Sitka, Alaska, and as far south as Panama,” Jacobsen explains. By the mid-20th century, however, the known habitat for the petite treat had shrunk to “a few inlets in southern Puget Sound,” in northwest Washington State. The Oly’s peril inspired Jacobsen’s latest book, The Living Shore: Rediscovering a Lost World, a remarkable gem of environmental contemplation. The palate-pleasing oyster generates tasty food for thought.
“A few shifts in the market or landscape could make it virtually impossible to interact with this oyster again,” Jacobsen worries. His tight focus on the bivalve’s predicament becomes a window to a panorama of larger issues. By examining the Oly’s history, its current plight and the possibilities for protecting or even expanding its habitat, the author explores front-burner topics such as coastal ecology, species preservation and sustainable aquaculture.
Contacts made while writing A Geography of Oysters land Jacobsen a spot aboard a unique research expedition. In the mid-1990s, a Canadian marine biologist surveying a remote part of British Columbia accidentally stumbled on bays and estuaries filled with Olys. In July 2008, Jacobsen joined eight conservationists and scientists on a return voyage to Nootka Island, off Vancouver Island’s Pacific coast. Their mission: to discover if the thriving Oly beds “still existed, and learn why they still existed.”
Jacobsen recounts the weeklong trip — through isolated fjords, to secluded beaches and inlets — in lush detail. A sea otter that approaches the boat has “a face like a wizened and mustachioed kung fu expert.” The playful creatures, just back from the brink of extinction, “have more charisma than Paul Newman.” But they’re also potential enemies to the expedition’s elusive quarry: “ninety-pound weasels that can eat up to twenty pounds of shellfish a day.” If the otters have found the Olys, they may have destroyed them.
Will the researchers find the oysters? Science journalism blends with suspenseful storytelling as the author digresses from his narrative of the journey to explore other topics: etymology, EPA regulations, even the role of nutrition in human evolution. These intriguing detours connect the miniature mollusk’s destiny with the Pacific Northwest’s past and its future, as well as highlighting the importance of oysters to marine ecosystems worldwide.
A key theme is the surprisingly important role of oysters in Native American history. Although salmon is the iconic seafood traditionally associated with Pacific Northwest tribes, giant shell mounds (middens) testify to the significance of clams and oysters in their diet. Shellfish provided “the less glamorous protein, the ham sandwich of 1000 B.C.” In fact, some tribes did more than just gather the sea’s bounty. They farmed it, creating terraced “clam gardens” on beaches and building walled fish traps at the mouths of rivers.
The abundance of this environment leads Jacobsen to espouse, and elegantly defend, a coastal theory of American continental settlement. The idea, quietly amassing scientific backers and archaeological evidence since the early 1970s, tosses out the established walked-across-the-Bering-land-bridge model. “Instead of dragging Grandma and the toddlers through the bush in pursuit of giant mammals,” writes Jacobsen, “you just load them and all your gear into a hide boat — the minivan of the Stone Age — and follow … the kelp highway,” the trail of plentiful resources circling the Pacific Rim. Shellfish are the featured menu item on its “endless raw bar.”
Native Americans used those resources intensively without exhausting them, which shows the resilience of species in their indigenous environments. Could the old way of living with now-threatened plants and animals be the new way of saving them? Jacobsen notes “a sea change under way in the conservation world.” The current focus is on “reestablishing a productive coexistence of people and natural systems, rather than enforcing a separation.”
It took a catastrophic combination of circumstances — massive over-harvesting and environmental destruction — to decimate the once-plentiful Olys. (See excerpt above.) Discovering that these oysters fed Vancouver Island’s native tribes for centuries, and survive there still, gives Jacobsen hope that they will make successful candidates for modern sustainable aquaculture. Consuming them — responsibly — may save the Olys.
In The Living Shore, man meets mollusk, and the tenacious little bivalve turns out to have a lot to teach. Jacobsen’s engaging meditation conveys those lessons eloquently.
On January 24, 1848, on the banks of the American River in California’s Sierra Nevada, an event took place that forever changed the Olympia’s fortunes … At the time, San Francisco was a two-bit port of perhaps a thousand people … But by the end of the following year, more than a hundred thousand forty-niners had descended on San Francisco and the hills beyond, and the city population swelled to nearly thirty thousand. A few of the lucky ones found gold. And a few of the clever ones realized that the easy money was not hiding in the hills but quietly opening and closing its shells all around San Francisco Bay.
For the forty-niners who struck it rich, epic celebrations were obligatory. San Francisco had plenty of booze to fuel these celebrations, but very few foods worthy of marking such an event. It was not a fancy town. It was barely a town at all. Fortunately, its immense bay possessed billions of oysters, the perfect celebration food. New Yorkers always celebrated with oysters. Parisians always celebrated with oysters. And if it was good enough for them ... Oysters and champagne for all my friends, and their friends, too! In fact, oysters and champagne all around!
Oysters sometimes went for a dollar apiece in 1850 San Francisco. There was probably more value in the bay’s bivalves than in the hills’ ore. A few enterprising locals made a killing gathering the wild oysters. Perhaps there were even real killings — San Francisco was virtually lawless at the time. Oystermen staked their claims to sections of tide flats in the Sausalito area and quickly fenced them off to discourage poachers. But the fences could do nothing about the silt already pouring out of the Sierra Nevada from hydraulic mining operations, which used high-pressure hoses to liquidate hillsides, and the oyster farmers were forced to move their yards to the less disturbed south bay. That bought them only a little time, because Olympias are slow-growing oysters, taking five years to reach what is euphemistically referred to as market size, which, in the case of Olympias, still means it takes two thousand to make a gallon of meats (compared to two hundred for other species). A determined miner could down five hundred in a sitting. Demand far outpaced supply, and within a few short years San Francisco Bay was stripped clean of its living skin of oysters.
San Francisco continued to boom and to eat. The city cast its hungry gaze northward, and the oyster community vaporized as if a ray gun were strafing the coast.
The Living Shore: Rediscovering a Lost World by Rowan Jacobsen, Bloomsbury, 167 pages. $20.