Opinion Columns & Blogs

Op Images: An oyster allegory captures irony and absurdity

Water, so silent that my heart stills, stretches to the sea and reflects a hint of a clear day. Oysters grow here. My first encounter with one was with my mother, in 1974, on a visit to Point Reyes National Seashore and the oyster farm at Drakes Bay. She gave me what seemed like an immense oyster and urged me to savor the scent of the ocean, to ignore the slime and swallow it down. Seeking this almost ceremonial ritual, I’ve returned many times.

Given my history with this place, this visit was a privilege. I joined the oystermen for a day of harvest. I got to see the oyster beds up close. I got to see, with new appreciation, what it takes to grow and harvest one small, protein-packed oyster.

This place is an estuary, where vulnerable creatures rely on both fresh and salt water, an in and out flow with the moon. Where salt vs. fresh poses a perpetual challenge to all kinds of species. In Drakes Bay, this isn’t the only conflict concealed by a deceptively calm surface, as the oyster farm waits in legal limbo regarding its future.

As a child, I loved Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” It surely contributed to my deep appreciation of both irony and absurdity. The Walrus and the Carpenter were looking for oysters along a beach, and …

They wept like anything to

See such quantities of sand:

“If this were only cleared away,”

They said, “it would be grand!”

“If seven maids with seven mops

Swept it for half a year.

Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,

“That they could get it clear?”

“I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,

And shed a bitter tear.

California boasts remarkable destinations – icons of engineered and natural beauty. The oyster farm is both, at least for now, and offers what has become a treasured custom for many visitors. Simple traditions in a primitive place, little changed in over 80 years as an aquaculture farm. There is something profoundly comforting in our quickened world, about such elemental harvesting, and yet one so dependent upon the sea. Something so simple as buying a bunch of oysters from a farm run by families, wandering to a shell-strewn beach to sit at a worn and well used table, with such a view.