Now for Some Old Time Nature Writing…The Oyster and the Oil

categories: Cocktail Hour


The Oyster and the Oil

The oyster siphons water in though its gills between waving cilia as the tide rises again.  Above fly several white ibises, birds that make their living by poking crazy curved orange-red bills into crab holes in the marsh muck, bills that, thanks to millions of years of evolution, fit those holes like scimitars in sheaths of mud.   Above the ibises soars an osprey, black masked like a bandit, scanning the waters.  A light breeze from the south hushes through the marsh and fish, born not fifty yards away, leap in the air in what appears to the human eye to be sheer exhilaration.

Here, both mystic and scientist will tell you, it all connects.  But does a single, stationary oyster know this?  Perhaps on a cellular level it does.  Certainly it is dependent on a web of connections every day–every moment–of its life.  And while movement is not its species strength, the world comes to it.  Sea anemones and barnacles inhabit the nooks of its hard, ruffled back while plankton filters through its gills.  This particular oyster happens to live next to one of the most miraculous inventions in the history of planet earth: the salt marsh.  The salt marsh, a great nursery where almost every fish in the nearby sea is born.  The salt marsh, whose moods change every eight hours or so, transforming it from a rushing river to a landscape of stranding muck.

What the oyster does not know is that less than two hundred miles away oil is gushing out of a hole in the bottom of the sea. What the oyster does not know is that its existence, and the existence of the rest of its kind in this marsh, is threatened, if not doomed, by this far away event.  What the oyster does not know is that the very complexity of the landscape it calls home may be what helps doom it, that while the oil may roll off a beach, or be cleaned by humans, this will be impossible in a marsh, where the variety of grass–cordgrass and needlerush and eel grass and spartina–and the terrain of mud and muck, are all built for trapping nutrients, and will claim the oil as its own.

What the oyster doesn’t know, the oysterman does.  While the oyster senses connections on an almost primal level, the oysterman, being human, makes the connections in his worded brain. But no sooner do the words form, no sooner does the oysterman think “The oil is coming” than this thought takes physical form. The man slumps.  He understands, and quickly his body understands, that next year there will be no harvest, that all the work, all the effort, all the energy that he has put in for so many years will be for naught.  Later other reactions will come: anger, a burst of desperate, adrenalinzed energy as he tries to harvest what he can before the soot rolls in, and a return to the cigarettes he had sworn off in an attempt to stave off depression.  But it starts with a simple slump.  He thinks of his wife and three children, his payments on his house, boat, car.     

As it turns out this oysterman is not a dull man and it not unaware that what powers his boat and car, not to mention most of his home in an indirect way, is simply a more refined version of the substance gushing out of the Gulf’s floor.  He knows this, as surely as the oyster senses the connections on the marsh, but it is not foremost in his thoughts.  Human beings, like all other animals, focus on the short term when in the midst of an emergency.  This is encoded in us.  Cornered by a sabertooth, you don’t contemplate the kindling you will gather later for the fire.  For the oysterman there may be no evening fire, and anyway his business is not philosophizing but harvesting bivalve mollusks.  He leaves the theories to the others who have come rushing toward his home faster than the oil, wielding pens, cameras and microphones.  Left unsaid is the obvious: that these newcomers have rushed his way in planes and cars, vehicles that greedily swallow the same substance that spills two hundred miles away.  In fairness, most of those who rush in are aware of the hypocrisy, but they too are caught up in the emergency, sensing the sabertooth is closing in.  That this sense of emergency is wrapped up in their careers does not take away from the sense of urgency.  The word careerist may be an insult, but the phrase “what I do for a living” connotes the deep intertwining of life and livelihood.  After all, most of us used to hunt for a living.

As for the gushing oil itself, it is connected to the oyster in ways other than through the web of life.  In fact the oil may have once been part oyster, or at the very least made up of the oyster’s food of plankton and phytoplankton, a few million years ago, before it underwent its slow transformation in the high-pressured cauldron of the earth’s crust.  One could argue, from this point of view, that there is nothing more “natural” than the reddish black goo that is spreading across the surface of the Gulf waters.  And there is another connection: part of what the oyster does for a living is to filter the water that flows through its cilia at the rate of over a gallon an hour.  In this way it eliminates nitrogen and sediment and algae and human pollutants, keeping the waters around it healthy for the other species that live in and use the marsh and bay, homo sapiens included.  But even this creature, a perfect little water cleansing machine, will be overpowered by the heavy and viscous liquid that is on its way, a substance born of the material it usually feeds on.

A mile below the surface, in waters that neither human nor oyster could inhabit, creatures of an entirely different sort, their strange bodies having evolved to handle a constant pressure that would instantly crush and kill a human, swim by the black plume.  Though it will have long term effects on water temperature and oxygenation, for the moment the oil that billows upward is no more than curiosity for these deep dwellers.

The animals on the surface are not so lucky.  One thing all the reporters and cameramen have done, energized by the saber tooth of emergency, is to point their cameras at single birds, covered in oil, unable to fly.  It is a powerful image, beamed all over the world, and it pointedly tells the story of the tragedy of many embodied in one.  But what the cameras can’t tell is a larger, and deeper, story.  That is because nature is not merely a series of connections, but also a series of perfectly timed connections.  Which is why seasoned observers of the natural world have compared the movement of a year to a symphony.  The invisible conductor of that symphony is time on a level humans can’t imagine, and when that conductor called time points its baton, the trumpets blare or the flutes sing like thrushes.  “Phenology” is a word coined by naturalists for nature’s impeccable sense of timing, for the way that, as the year progresses, a fish will spawn in April just after the smaller fish it will dine on has spawned or the swallows will return north just as the insects appear.  One of the climaxes of the phenological year, of the great symphony, is migration, and as bad as this moment is on the shores of the Gulf, the fall bird migration promises another level of tragedy.  Birds from the north will land at a certain time to find what is not there.  For one season at least, the music will stop.

Animals adapt, people will no doubt say, but adaptation is the work of millennium not months.  For the oyster, and for the birds and the fish that spawn in the marsh, this will be the end of something.  The oysterman will fare a little better perhaps, at least in the short term.  After all homo sapiens have survived, and swarmed over the earth, in large part because adaptation—rapid quick-turn adaptation, unimaginable in other animals—is our species strength.  And so the oysterman, not suffocated by a sheen of oil, may suffer a less dire and dramatic fate than the oyster.  But he too, even as he continues to breath, will experience the end of something.

The old lesson that we taught our children was the sheer wonder of the great interconnecting web of life.  But who has time for wonder when you are staving off the saber tooth?   Though most of us perceive that the world is connected in ways we don’t understand, we don’t really have time to oohh and ahhh when the cedar waxwings fly into town to eat the winter berries.  But if the world can’t teach us its lesson through child-like wonder, it has sterner means at its disposal.  After all you don’t have to understand the latticework of connections to feel the results of the latticework being broken.   That is the thing about a web.  It takes the genius of time to weave it, but, as hard as it is to construct, it is easy to rip apart.

  1. An Alewife writes:

    maybe all this oil this will help the bluefin tuna to get endangered species status.

    there’s more to this than the shallow water oysters as you well know – the web of live is pretty wide and deep.

    Oil impact on blue water species is will be relatively invisible but for the turtles.

    Good writing – can’t wait to see more!

    • Jane Fleming Frmly Wychmere Book writes:

      As heart wrenching as your depictions is your writing is pure beauty and joy. So glad your Mother told me about this “blog” As always I love reading your work. Jane

  2. Eric Taubert writes:

    Great…I like your angle of approach here. I’m going to share it with some of my readers. Look forward to more!

  3. Tommy writes:

    To offset your carbon footprint completely, do what only a mad-man would do: hitch-hike. As for the bubbling goo being natural – naturally! Dinosaurs, and ferns and their like that disappeared into marvelous goo, and frozen gluck, long before God created man in his own image, may be the only beings to go extinct twice, as we run away with all our fossil fuels, until we’ve bled the last of them out. The price to pay here (the latest oil spill) will be huge, but we all adapt, and even as we sit here thumping our heads against the wall, there are mycologists out there trying to develop strains of fungus that eat and break down petroleum products. Oh, and isn’t the fact that your little bi-valve friends are filter feeders who make the water around them cleaner by trapping contaminents within them, enough to make you stop eating them before the big spill. The rivers are, after all, the biggest dumps we have, and where do you think all that silly sewage sludge ends up after all…….. downstream, baby!

  4. John Jack writes:

    I’m wondering what the theme music style is for The Oyster and the Oil. Probably not Heartland rock Bruce Springstein style. Nor Bubblegum pop rock. Maybe Bob Dylan. New World folk bluegrass? Bayou blues? Cajun jazz? Steampunk grunge? Boogie-Woogie shag?

  5. Tracy Seeley writes:

    I’m glad you’re there, to bring back the news, and the understanding. As heart-wrenching as a photo of an oil-soaked pelican can be, it always bothers me that we’re getting such a tiny part of the whole.

    As for driving down there in a gas-fueled vehicle, you can buy your way to forgiveness through purchasing carbon offsets at (a great organization funding a variety of successful projects like methane capture at dairy farms, wind systems, and landfill gas capture).

    Safe travels.