Friday, 23 May 2008

Reflections on the water

In a family sense the oyster cove represents an image of pre-historic domesticity, with the women, children and elderly left securely to gather the oysters while the men went away to hunt. The oyster reef itself is a potently familial setting.

In art the elemental nature of the oyster has drawn painters. The still lifes by Manet and some of the Dutch masters serve, in almost a gynaecological sense, to show how big oysters used to grow in the days when they were plentiful and wild and left to themselves. In urban architecture and design the oyster bar holds a special place of fashionable status.

Oyster bars were in practice the first manifestations of what we now call restaurants. Graphic design was born in Baltimore designing labels for canned oysters in winter and fruit in the summer. The oyster was the first trans-American trade-able food commodity, a harbinger of the modern supermarket culture.

Writers have often found new and original clothes for this oldest of bivalves in ways that other molluscs (other foods even) could only envy, if they could have thought of such things.

And to boot the oyster has clung to its reputation as an aphrodisiacs through the centuries.

A captain in the infamous Oyster Navy at Cheseapeake said that he never believed that he would kill a man for an oyster, which holds two separate truths. The one that he was surprised at all because oysters were something so plentiful and everyday that they seemed almost inevitable and therefore worthless. Of course, the other obvious point was that he could be so innocent. Of course man has killed for oysters. The native American coastal Indians were direct or indirect victims; one probably of many estuarine communities who would be ransacked by the arrival of new people envious of the wealth and the security of the food in their waters. The oysters of Britain’s coastline were an invitation to the raiders from Rome. Vikings too, for sure, pillaged and plundered where the oysters were plentiful, although, it was said Vikings did not think that oysters were macho enough food for them and regarded them as effeminate, but studies of their diet have found sure enough that oysters featured. The pirate ships plied their desperate villainy in the Caribbean from oyster bay to oyster bay.

Another meeting point, between the oyster world and the human, is how the great seafaring nations – Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Japan and America herself – have all enjoyed an oyster culture. This is not completely unconnected. Oystermen needed boats and wherever there have been oysters aplenty there has quickly built up a trade and industry in ship building around it, often distinct and individual according to the needs of the oystermen, or indeed the needs of the sailors for whom oysters were a necessary accompanying food with which to travel. English kings needed to keep the Thames shipbuilding alive to have a navy at all which they exploited more vigorously than other nations. This navy was built by oyster boat builders and and manned by oystermen press ganged into sailing these boats. Ships then needed sails which led to cloth making, famously in the middle ages in Essex trading with Flanders and equally the seamstresses of the Chesapeake turning their skilled hands to shirts and suits for Manhattan financiers.

The oyster offers a reflection from the waters on our own lives. In primary colours we can see in oyster communities how our own society evolved.

Social classes were set by whether a man made his living on the water, or had moved inland to farm or found wealth in trading. There is an uncomfortable irony that many of the towns that were once famous for trading their now redundant oyster beds have become fashionable, exclusive, leisure beach and sailing resorts. Perhaps we too have come to aspire to be like oysters sitting quietly breathing in the sea air in our retirement.