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WEEK THIRTEEN - Bivalve Curious

April 7, 2017

      Instead of practicing optimum posture at the sturdy little desk five feet away, I'm hunchbacked in bed over my laptop (mother would be so disappointed). I've stationed myself here partly because it's warm under the covers and partly because I feel a childish sense of safety. Outside, I can hear the wind tearing limbs from trees and yanking on corrugated tin roofing.  As unsettling as I find it, this weather isn't nearly as wild as last night's storm. Some time well after dark, the jarring cries of emergency alert messages issued from each of the three occupied bedrooms in the house. A tornado had been sighted in Liberty County, Georgia, right across the water from St. Catherines. Those in the area were advised to seek shelter immediately. I hadn't missed having a basement in the intern house before, but suddenly found myself wishing I hadn't chosen a top floor bedroom. Outside, it looked like Mother Nature was throwing one hell of a rave. Lightning like I've never seen tore through the sky in nearly constant streams of electric fire. I grabbed a water bottle, a blanket, a pair of shoes, put some pants on, and went downstairs to seek windowless shelter. But, I was the only one in a panic, the only intern clutching her phone and staring at pictures of radar maps. 

 

     Among the jumbled thoughts of rising panic, I couldn't help but imagine - in vivid detail - how it must have been to sit through Hurricane Matthew. There weren't any humans on the island during that storm, but I'm sure the lemurs were freaked out. On the heels of that thought came a flashback to my climate change class (taught by the awesome Jackie Mohan) wherein I'm told that storms are predicted to become more severe as the earth's temperature climbs. Erosion, flooding, catastrophic property damage, loss of life and limb...I tried to control my breathing, to use my yoga training and relax. My thoughts turned then, inexplicably, to oysters. Or maybe it wasn't such a bizarre leap. When New Yorkers had a chance to ask themselves why Hurricane Sandy had been such a mess, one of the answers was New York Harbor's lost bivalves; a living sea wall decimated by overharvesting.

     St. Catherines Island was once part of a southeastern oyster industry to rival that of Chesapeake Bay, the remnants of which can be found in the form of rusted out old boilers and a partially dismantled house on the southern end of the island. It was started locally by a man named Augustus Oemler, who built three factories here shortly after WWI (and married the island owner's daughter). At the time, the area's oyster export was counted at around 30,000 bushels of these bivalves per year.  Oemler's business thrived until the 1920's, when it was forced to close its doors. The reasons were many, including overharvesting, environmental contamination, and socio-economic factors. Oemler's investment represents only a blip on the timeline that describes the island's history. Oysters are as inextricably linked to St. Catherines' past as they are to the substrate they thrive on.

 

     The archaeologists who study the ancient foragers of St. Catherines look at shell middens - the discarded remains of eaten oysters - to learn about the habits of these people and to date other artifacts. When the Spanish came in the 1500's, their diet certainly consisted of oysters as well. Much later, in the mid 1800's, the island was home to freed slaves. According to Liberty County, this population numbered in the hundreds. The crumbling walls of their homes can still be found scattered near the compound and further south. Instead of log cabins or brick buildings, these cottages were constructed with a material called "tabby." I first came across tabby buildings on Sapelo Island, just to the south of St. Cat's. It's a material one encounters only on the coast, but was common in this area. Tabby is made up of lime, ash, water, sand and oyster shells

 

     As the island's research guests continue to examine our oyster populations both old and new, other folks in the region have their own ideas about Georgia's bivalves. The same industry Oemler once invested in is revving back up and the demand for oysters from the southeast is increasing. Does this mean that St. Catherines will once again be sprouting boilers and building canning plants? Probably not. But the waters near the island may see a bit more traffic from the human kind of oystercatcher (as opposed to the American oystercatcher) in the future. They're going to have to wait until this storm dies down though, before it's safe to go bivalve hunting.

 

(Special thanks to André Gallant for oyster input, writing encouragement, advice, and tasty beverages.)

 

 

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