A once and future abundance

 

The Living Shore: Rediscovering a Lost World
Rowan Jacobsen
176 pages, hardcover: $20.
Bloomsbury USA, 2009.


The Olympia oyster — small, slow-growing, sensitive to heat and cold, copper in color and taste — is a rarity among shellfish. Yet this fussy bivalve, the West Coast's only native oyster, once carpeted intertidal areas from Alaska to California, feeding generations of Native Americans and early settlers until overharvesting and pollution all but wiped it out. Today, the Olympia's survival is central to habitat restoration projects in California and Washington. It's also at the heart of Rowan Jacobsen's latest book, which argues that oysters are "the food that made us human." We stand to lose much more than we think from the ongoing destruction of coastal areas.

The Living Shore begins with a voyage of discovery as a group of scientists set out to locate the last pristine beds of Olympias, reportedly surviving somewhere along the coast of Vancouver Island. Jacobsen, a food writer whose work increasingly has focused on the environmental threats facing his favorite delicacies, talks his way onto the cruise and, surrounded by bountiful wilderness, has an epiphany. He begins "to feel bad for the sputtering ecosystems we call home" and fantasizes "about what it would be like to live among such vitality all the time."

Back on land, Jacobsen hits the books, drawing on recent work in anthropology, medicine and evolutionary science to suggest that the natural abundance of coastal ecosystems can explain some human mysteries: why we have big brains and fat babies, and how our ancestors settled the continents. It is a tantalizing picture, if sketchily drawn. In one of the most gripping sections of the book, Jacobsen transcribes a "freewheeling roundtable" among the scientists about what they have learned from their expedition, in which they raise the devastating possibility that for some places restoration efforts may arrive too late.

"Why do we care about Olympia oysters?" asks one of the crew. It's a question that dogs many restoration projects. Why should we care about any isolated plant or animal that can no longer survive without our active interference? Jacobsen's answer is that in saving shellfish, we're just returning the favor. For anyone who has ever breathed the salt air, savored a salmon filet, tasted the brine of an oyster and thought, "This is the way to live," The Living Shore is both a celebration of that life and a call to preserve it.