Saturday, 10 May 2008

The covemen

The covemen

very first adventuring nomads must have moved by boat, exploring tentatively cove to cove, secure in the knowledge that each inlet was a larder. Around the oyster beds would have been other shellfish, mussels, clams, crabs, abalone, winkles and species long since lost; seaweeds, marine flowers and fat swimming easy-to-spear white and oily fish. The first settlers in America talked of fish being so plentiful around oyster coves, that the noise of their splashing kept them awake at night.

Travellers could secure a safe settlement around an oyster bed and move on. As their boats got bigger they could travel further, hugging the coast, keeping sight of the rocky edges of land where there was safe and easy to grab food. Oysters were so abundant, that a man just had to drop over the side and prise a bunch of shells off the reef, shuck them open, if he had iron, or just throw them in the fire to roast and open easily in the heat. Both in Mexico, where Cortez recorded it, and later in the South seas, the first western travellers mention pearl oysters lying around “carelessly” on the beach

The oyster reefs were a navigable highway to uncharted lands. Journeys inland held no equivalent reassuring promise. Ironically in the light of what was to happen millennia later, oysters were safe food too. Their existence was a clear sign to settlers that this was a place of clean water; an area where it would be secure to stay. The oyster meant rich fishing and the promise of calm inland waters with easy prey.

The oyster had other virtues that set it apart from other fish, indeed all other prey. It was portable. Bagged up it could hang off the side of the boat and travel to sea or back to home. Closed up in the shell, the meat stayed fresh and succulent for weeks, even out of its home waters. It was wholesome nutritious food too, full of energy giving minerals, calcium for bones, and vitamins that the early diet would have lacked so badly, a source of nutrition far and away superior to anything else available to wandering Neolithic families.

Nor would these reefs have been isolated small finds to be sought out and protected. The oyster was as universal as man, more so in the beginning, whenever that was: Africa, India, South East Asia, Japan, China, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, all the Americas; so long as there was coastline where the waters were neither too salty nor too pure, not too cold nor too hot, the oysters spawned. In Europe they clung to the land mass down from Norway along the North Sea, through the Channel, round the edges of the French, Spanish and Portuguese coasts and formed a collar around the Mediterranean. The beds formed a ribbon along the Moroccan coast and penetrated the Black Sea as far as Crimea. They wrapped themselves like a scarf around the coast of Ireland. In Britain they formed a giant horseshoe from the south coast to the Forth and the Clyde.

The semi salt waters protected the oysters from other predators; and so long as there was a firm rocky footing to gain attachment; so long as the sea currents were not so strong to destabilise the colonies, so long as the temperatures were not too extreme, so long as no hurricane came to muddy their beds, the oyster thrived. And where the oyster flourished, so other estuarine life prospered feeding off its life giving habit of filtering the waters, sorting the plankton and turning nitrogen to oxygen. The oyster was life. Where other creatures in the food chain fed on each other, the oyster was, to an extent at least, exempt from the life and death struggles of the marine food chain, protected by its rocky shell.

No comments: