The Los Angeles Review of Books ran a review of Summer Brennan‘s The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America, calling it “freighted with backstory, with multiple and intersecting histories.”
October 25, 2015
The Oyster War opens with the epigraph “Everything not saved will be lost.” The sentiment seems straightforward, appropriate for a book addressing, according to the subtitle, “the future of wilderness in America.” But I paused at the quote’s attribution. The book’s guiding thought comes not from Thoreau or Stegner, not from Muir or Snyder, not from generations of writers who’ve proclaimed the intrinsic value of the wild. Instead, the author pulled this quote from a Nintendo quit screen message.
What, exactly, are we talking about saving?
An epigraph can be quiet, whispering an idea into a reader’s ear. Or it can be loud. This one, with its incongruous source stamped in all caps across the middle of an otherwise blank page, stomps its feet, announces itself. This is not your ordinary environmental story, it shouts. Drop your assumptions now.
The Oyster War casts shadows over a political landscape often rendered in stark, noontime black and white. It forces us to think beyond an easy binary of wilderness (pure, moral, natural) and business (corrupting, foul). The “war” reported here isn’t between the usual foes, plunderer and defender (say, Shell and Greenpeace), and the wilderness in question isn’t a remote, pristine battleground (the Arctic, say). Instead, author Summer Brennan recounts the decade-long fight between the National Park Service and a small, family-run oyster farm operating, alongside cattle ranches and dairy farms, in California’s Point Reyes National Seashore, just an hour north of San Francisco.
In the early 2000s, Point Reyes’s Johnson Oyster Company was struggling to comply with environmental regulations and to stay afloat financially. Sewage from the company’s onshore buildings leaked into Drakes Estero, and plastic debris from the mariculture operation washed up on nearby beaches. The company’s 40-year lease with the National Park Service, which owned the oyster farm’s land and waters, was due to expire in 2012. Owner Tom Johnson was ready to give up.
In 2005, his neighbor, Kevin Lunny, a local rancher seeking to diversify his family’s operations, bought the struggling enterprise and renamed it Drakes Bay Oyster Company. As part of the sale, Lunny took over the lease. He knew park officials didn’t plan to extend it, but he hoped that by investing in the company and cleaning up the environmental problems he could convince them to issue a special operating permit. What perhaps he didn’t foresee was the park service’s determination to fulfill a long-standing mandate.
Back in 1976, four years after the Johnson Oyster Company signed its lease with the National Park Service, the Point Reyes Wilderness Act designated the majority of Drakes Estero, where the farm raised imported oysters, as “potential wilderness.” The continuing presence of the oyster farm was considered a “non-conforming condition,” and in 2004, the year before Lunny bought the oyster farm, an NPS field solicitor wrote that “the Park Service is mandated […] to convert potential wilderness […] to wilderness status as soon as the non-conforming use can be eliminated.”
These are only the barest outlines of the complicated fight over the fate of the oyster farm — a 10-year battle that would play out in lawsuits and scientific reports, federal legislation and mediation attempts, a grassroots poster-making campaign and countless column inches in local and national newspapers. The “war” would end only after the US Supreme Court had its say. Supporters of the farm — ranchers who worried that the threats to the oyster farm might endanger their own livelihoods, and advocates for local, sustainable agriculture — argued that agriculture and wilderness had coexisted for generations in Point Reyes and that the oyster farm, if managed sustainably, could be an asset to the landscape. Park employees, local environmental groups, and other residents countered that oyster workers disturbed seals and fouled the shores with plastic spacers they used in farming. The farm’s supporters accused the park service of government overreach and bad science. Wilderness advocates accused the farm of misrepresenting the facts.
Enter Summer Brennan, a journalist who landed in the middle of the controversy when she took a job as a reporter for the Point Reyes Light. Brennan was both insider and outsider — she’d grown up in the area but had spent the better part of a decade away. Eventually, she parted ways with the paper, and set out on her own, as she writes, “to solve a specific scientific mystery” — was oyster farming harming the estuary? — and to discover which side was telling the truth and which side was bending it. Along the way, she raises critical questions that extend beyond the immediate controversy — questions all of us need to be asking ourselves about our rapidly changing world. In the prologue, she identifies two “riddles” as central to the story of The Oyster War. One of these conundrums is, as Brennan puts it, “When humanity has touched and changed every corner of the earth, what does it mean to be wild?”
The wild is both cultural concept and legal description. Going back to Thoreau and beyond, we have understood wildness to be in opposition to cultivation. In “Walking,” Thoreau wrote, “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” For him, the wild was both a physical place and a mental state; when he wrote, in the same essay, “that in Wildness is the preservation of the World,” he was advocating both for the preservation of wild places and for a resistance to civilization’s demands. He valued wildness in part for what it offered to human beings: “When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable, and, to the citizen, most dismal swamp.”
Americans have inherited Thoreau’s romantic attraction to the natural world. We go to wild places to shed the city and its stresses, to “reboot,” to find ourselves and save ourselves. Our national park system was founded on the idea of preserving our country’s natural wonders and wild places — for the people. The 1872 legislation that created our first park set aside Yellowstone “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Pleasuring-ground. The phrase sounds decadent and hedonistic today, but then you think of that park’s traffic jams and camera-toting tourists walking toward buffalo and, well, it doesn’t seem that far off the mark.
The landscape we’ve inherited would be unrecognizable to Thoreau, and our environmental laws have reflected its degradation. Just over a century after his death, the 1964 Wilderness Act (which Brennan includes in the book’s appendix) created wilderness as a legal category, conferring a higher level of protection on an area than park status, and serving a different purpose as well. According to the act, “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” In wilderness, the needs of the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants eclipse the interests of human beings.
Inherent in the conflict over the oyster farm is the fact that human beings had been more than visitors in Point Reyes for a long time. The Wilderness Act goes on to refine the definition of wilderness as “land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation.” But the oyster farm operation on the shores of Drakes Estero, as Brennan describes it, included an oyster shack and hatchery, a dock and conveyor belt, drainage ponds, picnic tables, a shipping container that functioned as a cannery, and trailers and mobile homes that housed the farm’s employees. On a visit there, Brennan encounters escaped dairy cows, a child’s Big Wheel, propane tanks. How could this be wilderness?
Here is where the designation of “potential wilderness” enters the scene. In creating a legal category of areas that could be converted to wilderness once “non-conforming uses” were removed, the authors of wilderness legislation suggested that we might be able to undo the damage we’ve done, that we might restore a place to, if not its original state, at least a “natural” one. It’s a hopeful thought in a world where human activity, in the form of carbon emissions, now affects even the most inaccessible, seemingly unspoiled regions of our planet. But whatever condition a place reverts to, after an oyster farm is removed or after (if) we drastically reduce carbon emissions, it likely won’t even remotely resemble whatever might have been in the absence of human civilization.
The very idea of wilderness restoration requires that we revise our definition of what’s “natural,” and perhaps also that we reenvision the wild.
Food writer Michael Pollan, who, Brennan tells us, weighed in on the side of the oyster farm, has been arguing since his very first book appeared nearly 25 years ago that we need to abandon Thoreau’s view of wilderness and cultivation, nature and culture, as opposites. In today’s world, he insists in Second Nature, even wilderness requires intervention and management: “[B]y now, we have made so many changes in the land that some form of gardening has become unavoidable, even in those places we wish to preserve as monuments to our absence. […] it’s too late now to do nothing.”
What that management should look like is controversial. In the city parks near my house, volunteers rip out the invasive Himalayan blackberry, bindweed, and English ivy that tangle, climb, and threaten to engulf entire trees and replace them with native plants. But in many wilderness areas, workers are allowed only to remove invasive vegetation. Policy then dictates that they let “nature” take over and see what regenerates.
In the question of how to manage the stretch of land and water comprising the Drakes Estero wilderness area, Pollan and others contended that sustainable agriculture was a responsible use of a region that was already “semi-domesticated.” Others maintained that the “gardening” necessary to restore wilderness was digging out the oyster farm entirely.
Which brings us to the other “riddle” Brennan raises at the beginning of her book: “How do we decide who belongs or doesn’t belong?”
As I read The Oyster War, a controversy was brewing in my own neck of the woods. Two days before the Vietnamese supermarket three blocks from my house was to close its doors for the last time, a neighbor posted on the community’s Facebook page the announcement of the closure and a link to Trader Joe’s “Request Location” page. The post, which encouraged neighbors to ask the company to move into the soon-to-be-closed Viet-Wah location, set off a 50-comment flame war, with buzzwords like “local,” “affordable,” “corporatist,” “gentrification,” and “multicultural” lobbed like grenades.
My urban neighborhood, with its screaming sirens and sea of concrete, looks nothing like fog-hushed Point Reyes, where wind rushes across water, picks up sand, rustles through grasslands. Still, I can’t help but see parallels between the two, not just in the rancor inspired by change but in the issues that stir that rancor. Both there and here, people worry about their ability to remain, on the land, in their neighborhood, connected to a place that feels like home. Or they worry that all that’s valuable about a place will be lost as it changes.
As the battle in my neighborhood played itself out on Facebook, an occasional bell of sadness would cause a break in the hostilities, like this one: “That Viet-Wah was one of the first memories I had in the United States. Tomorrow a part of me closes.”
The Oyster War is a story about our relationship to the wild and our attachment to place, but it is also a story about how story itself functions. Near the end of the book, Brennan writes, “The more I researched and wrote or thought about this case, the more it seemed like a Rorschach inkblot test, with people seeing within its sprawling little mess whatever monsters they already found most frightening.” Among the monsters she calls out are “big” government,” sloppy science, and the struggle of the “little guy.”
Unique, specific stories can transmute into symbols when we close our eyes to nuance and particulars. With the proliferation of click-baiting, sound-biting media that convey only stripped-down summary or the shouts of the loudest voices, we are ever in danger of losing our ability to see the complexity of our world.
Every story is freighted with backstory, with multiple and intersecting histories. The great value of Brennan’s book, even if it gets, as she writes, only “as close to the truth as I could reasonably be expected to come,” is her deeply probing effort to understand and craft as full and complex an account as possible. Shaped like a spiral, the book begins at the outer edges of the narrative and circles slowly inward, tracing as it goes the many contexts that are indispensable to understanding the oyster farm controversy. Along the way, Brennan takes us across the country to negotiations over wilderness legislation in the halls of Congress and back in time to the origins of California oystering. We follow her into a dispute over the “culling” of nonnative deer in Point Reyes and through Edward Abbey’s writings and the inception of the radical environmental groups Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front. Finally, she leads us into the local ranching community, the creation of the Point Reyes National Seashore, and the scientific and legal volley between the oyster farm and the park service.
Only after accompanying Brennan through these histories can we begin to come to any conclusions about what should or shouldn’t have happened in the war over the oyster farm. Even then, we might not easily come down on one side or the other (and perhaps such a conflicted reaction is desirable in our complicated world). We will, however, have come closer to understanding some of the questions we face, and the options open to us, as we seek to create a world that retains something of the wild.
Everything not saved will be lost. Maybe the out-of-context origin of Brennan’s epigraph was simply coincidence. Maybe the quote just happened to fit her topic — wilderness — and who cares where it came from? But I doubt it. Because as the digital world — in the form of a quit screen message — unexpectedly intruded into my reading experience, what came to mind were all the words I’d ever lost, drowned in the deep blue screen of a crashing computer, locked away on an unreadable floppy, or simply forgotten.
Everything not saved will be lost. Doesn’t this apply to story, too? What about all the words lost — perspectives and knowledge unavailable — because they were never written down in the first place? Writing is an act of preservation, too. We need stories like the one Brennan tells here — stories that take time and great persistence to research, consider carefully, and then fashion into a coherent and engaging narrative. Books like The Oyster War ask much of their readers: patience, openness, a willingness to see all sides of a situation. Are we at risk of losing these complex accounts in favor of a quick glance at the headlines? And if so, what then? Will we become locked in our own perspective, seeing only what we want to see and ignoring the rest?