The Life In An Oyster

This is a repost from Loam Magazine, an environmental arts media company. I wrote a piece for them that was published on May 23, which you can view here. That piece is also copied below. Enjoy!

I remember the unexpectedness most. After spending almost every summer of my childhood exploring the rocky coastline of Maine and Nova Scotia, I thought I understood my relationship to the ocean. It was a place of immense beauty, mysterious creatures of all shapes and sizes, undiscovered frontiers, and in desperate need of protection.

But years later, as I discovered the muddy shores of the Puget Sound in between classes, I stumbled on something. It was an oyster, but not like any I had ever seen. It was the length of my forearm, covered in a quilt of Christmas colored seaweeds and crawling life, it seemed strangely alone. This oyster didn’t seem to need protection from the likes of me or anyone else. It seemed like it had survived countless tribulations and had been there longer than anything. I needed to know its story.

It turned out that throughout the small, narrow inlet where this old oyster lived were oyster farms. These are marine farms, otherwise known as aquaculture. These oysters were cultivated from their free-swimming larval stage to about a year old, when they were harvested and brought to oyster bars, restaurants, and groceries throughout the world. At first, I was skeptical.

But when I spent time on some of these farms, I discovered beaches full of abundance. More like ranches than farms, the growing equipment and oysters seemed to attract unimaginable life and biodiversity. Eel like gunnels and hermit crabs hunkered down during the twice-daily low tides that exposed the mudflats. Enormous moon snails and sunflower stars lurked around sweet spots especially dense with shellfish, ready to feed with reckless abandon when the frigid estuary dutifully flooded the beach again.

As much life as was visible at low tide, lying dormant to avoid detection from curious seagulls flying overhead, what was most incredible was what these farms looked like underwater. A friend of mine found out by deploying underwater cameras, and we watched in amazement as flounder, seals, sea ducks, and even octopus came in droves to enjoy the buffet provided by the farm. It was a sight to see.

These commercial farms are home to hundreds of thousands of oysters and clams, each filtering dozens of nutrient rich gallons of water every day.

Whatever was in that water was in the oysters and clams too, and the farmers understood that better than anyone. Rain brought what’s known as nonpoint source pollution from throughout the watershed into the rivers that fed the Sound. From abandoned pet waste at local parks to over applied fertilizers and pesticides in people’s yards, the rain skimmed it all into streams, storm drains, and rivers that eventually made their way to these oyster farms.

It wasn’t environmentalists on the front lines of this challenge, lobbying for legislation and passing out pet waste bags. No, instead it was the oyster farmers – after all, their livelihoods were at stake.

Oysters could only be harvested from clean water. When water quality declined, the farms were closed and workers were sent home without pay. But when the water coming down the rivers was clean and the storm drains were dry, the water quality bounced back in just days. After all, the tides flushed water from the inlets to the Sound and into the Pacific twice a day. The oysters were usually safe to eat just days after that.

On the same beach I found that lone oyster, I worked with some college classmates to get necessary approvals and support to start an oyster farm. We realized there was no better way to galvanize support for keeping our water clean and beach protected than to involve the student body and the community. When we broke ground, curious students wandered down to the beach – many for the first time. As students from across the country and the world pulled on hip waders and rubber gloves and trudged through the campus’ temperate rainforest and down to the beach, they discovered what I discovered: oysters are life.

After months and months of farming those tidelands, both during warm summer days and frigid winter nights, we completed the farm to table cycle that has captured the hearts and souls of people all over the world for generations. We carefully and joyfully gathered as many oysters as we wanted, and we slurped the best oysters any of us had ever tasted. They were ours, and they were perfect.

To this day, I don’t know where that lone oyster came from, but I know where it took me. Years later, the school’s oyster farm is still there too. I don’t know the students tending to it now, but I do know how important they are. People protect what they care about, and care about what brings them joy and enlivens their senses. Even now, the first oyster I tasted from our garden keeps my fire lit.

As it turns out, those oysters don’t need our protection. But the water they live in does. So when you slurp your next oyster, thank the coalition of water protectors and oyster farmers who made it possible. And by all means – farm on.

The school referenced in this article is The Evergreen State College, and the oyster farm is called The Evergreen Shellfish Garden.


Environmentalism Beyond Climate Change

Human civilization has relied on the environment to provide food and water for tens of thousands of years. Time and time again, great empires have fallen because they’ve failed to steward their natural resources, making their societies vulnerable to climatic events like drought. Yes, a changing climate threatens the ecological balance that makes human life possible, but it’s not the only threat. As was said in Ulysses, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” It’s about time we wake up.

Climate change skeptics often point out that Carbon Dioxide is not a pollutant – after all, how can the very act of breathing be pollution? While this argument is intentionally naive (moderation is key), it begs the question, “what is pollution?”. That question has been central to the environmental movement for decades. Environmentalists have worked to understand questions including what is pollution, who and what are affected by it, who is perpetrating it, and how can it be stopped? In the mid 20th century, these questions led to many successes.

Of course, there are still environmental groups working on specific pollution issues all across the world. But as climate change garners more and more encapsulating attention within the environmental movement, broader society is again neglecting environmental stewardship.

While labeling Carbon Dioxide as a pollutant, as the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency did, is a smart political maneuver – thus enabling it to be regulated by the same laws that regulate other pollutants – C02 isn’t inherently dangerous to the environment. Carbon Dioxide, along with other greenhouse gases, threaten the planet through what is projected to be a complicated series of events affecting sea levels, weather, and climate more broadly. These events are already in motion, and there’s no doubt the consequences will fundamentally change life as we know it. These changes will disproportionately harm the billions of people who live in poverty. These changes will inevitably reduce the carrying capacity of the planet for human population. And paradoxically, these changes will make humanity even more reliant on the environment.

As our freshwater resources and arable land become more scarce, we’ll need a healthy and resilient environment more than ever. Yet if our oceans are full of plastic and empty of life, if our rivers and streams are contaminated with heavy metals, if our soil is contaminated with pesticides, if our forests are clearcut – a changing climate will simply exacerbate the catastrophic effects of that ecological damage.

Increasingly, when politicians are asked about the environment, their answers are rudimentary. Democrats say climate change is a critically important issue that needs to be addressed with investment in alternative energy and regulations of fossil fuel industries. Republicans say the science on human caused climate change is unclear, and that the government needs to protect clean air and clean water (just don’t ask them to elaborate or act). But that’s it – there seems to be no more room for discussion, let alone innovative solutions.

While climate change has become a mostly partisan issue, most environmental issues are significantly more bi-partisan. Two thirds of American consumers have bought products because they are perceived to be better for the environment, significantly more than who believe in climate change. Nearly everyone wants clean air to breath, clean water to drink, open spaces to enjoy, and healthy food to feed their families. But burdensome regulations are unpopular – people want choice.

Most importantly, people who believe climate change is a hoax are largely entrenched in those views. By merging all environmental issues with climate change, that deeply held skepticism extends to all of those environmental issues too.

Most environmental issues are local and regional in nature, not global. These issues are easier to understand and easier to solve or prevent. By facing them head on, we can bring communities together. Often, these issues pit old world jobs (logging, hunting, mining, etc) against future prosperity. And they can be solved with sustainable economic development and grassroots activism. Over and over again, communities across the country, like Greensburg Kansas, have been reborn as a result of intense focus and dedication. Places like Bristol Bay in Alaska are the frontline, with massive corporate special interests leveraging their resources to mine precious minerals at the likely expense of fragile ecosystems that support eco-tourism and salmon fisheries. Battles like this have nothing to do with climate change, and they’re vitally important. 

If climate change is viewed and addressed as a distinct issue, requiring specific and large scale prevention and mitigation strategies, then there’s hope for addressing other environmental issues too. But if we continue to view climate change as the ultimate environmental issue, with all others secondary, then history’s nightmare will continue.