What Oysters Teach Us About Resilience?

One of the most engaging ways of writing and reading history are microhistories. A microhistory focuses on the small and seemingly mundane, yet by doing, so they tell a larger story, following different threads and weaving them together into a narrative fabric. Microhistories show that the existing Grand Stories about Great Men are entangled with “smaller” stories of a much more diverse set of humans, animals and things. Many of these smaller stories illustrate the darker sides of existing historiographies.

The 2005 book “The Big Oyster” is a very literal microhistory: it writes the history of New York City by looking at one if its tiniest inhabitants. The estuary of the East River used to be an ideal oyster habitat. From the indigenous inhabitants of Manhattan to the Dutch and British colonizers, oysters were a beloved food. When the population of New York grew, so did oyster consumption and trade. But not only did the oysters suffer from overharvesting, the continuous dredging for the New York port and the newly constructed New York sewage system turned out to be devastating to the oyster’s ecosystem.

Author Mark Kurlansky made fame writing similar histories on Cod (1996) and Salt (2002). By looking at oysters, he shows how the growth of the city – a city that is so often praised for its qualities as an inclusive melting pot, destroyed the ecosystem of the estuary. The book is an example of how we cannot write about human wealth without considering its effects on non-human wellbeing.

Almost twenty years after the publication of the book, the topic is still relevant. The oyster remains a symbol of New York’s relationship with the water, and its filtering qualities are being revalued in several oyster centered projects. The Billion Oyster Project, for example, combines biology lessons for school children with the restoration of oyster reefs in New York Harbor, arguing that “the key to solving the challenges of climate change is changing human behavior, and humans aren’t going to change their behavior without a direct connection to the natural world.” The Living Breakwaters Project, moreover, is one of the adaptation strategies in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy (2012), as oyster reefs turn out to be natural storm surge barrier

New Yorkers weren’t able to save the oyster over a century ago, but the oyster may well be able to save New York someday!