Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Oyster Is My World

“The world is my oyster“ is one of the most widely used proverbs.
It comes from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600) in Act II, Scene II and goes: Falstaff: I will not lend thee a penny. Pistol: Why, then, the world's mine oyster, Which I with sword will open. It’s quite poetic and there’s a reason why it appeals to so many people; our world is whatever we make of it. Ironically after almost a decade of traveling the world to see what I can make of myself, I came back to New York in end of 2007 to find this old saying has a new twist for me.

One of the more spectacular New York City skyline views can be appreciated at the edge of the Hudson River. At Pier 40, located at West Street and Houston Street in the lower west side of Manhattan is The River Project. A marine science field station founded in 1986, it works to protect and restore the ecosystem of the Hudson River estuary. They have a lot of programs there, running from scientific research to hands-on environmental education to urban habitat improvement. I was there for oyster gardening event to learn more about oysters and see if I could produce an environmental video about it for NPR Science Friday.

Up until that point in my life I knew very little about oysters, what I know was that we eat them raw. One of the scientists I interviewed suggested reading Mark Kurlansky's The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. After reading, I now have a better understanding of the history of oysters and the history of New York City. I was quite amazed to learn that NYC used to be the oyster capital of the world. When the Europeans first came, oysters were used for trading. The oysters in NYC were such good quality that even the French and other Europeans demanded for them. Up until less than a century ago, oysters were abundant along the Hudson River and East River. Savored by both the rich and the poor, it was truly a people’s food.

But not just for eating, I learned about the wonders of what oysters do for our environment. For our fragile ecosystem, oysters restore the habitat in numerous ways. Known as filter feeders, they have the capability to clean water. Similar to coral reefs when oysters form oyster reefs, they create home for other animals. Living on the shores, they help prevent coastal erosion as the tides wash in. For all the practical, social and environmental purposes, the dying out of oysters in New York City is a great tragedy. The last line of Kurlansky’s book sums it up well: "The great and unnatural city was built at the site of a natural wonder, and that the lowly oysters working at the bottom were a treasure more precious than pearls".

Would New York City, this great big city that I call home, have had the same history had there never been oysters here? That I may never know but for sure I believe the oysters are a valuable part of our society. I’ve learned a whole lot along the way and above all I learnt: Oysters aren't only good as a half shell; they are even better as a whole shell.

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MA Shumin produced environmental videos for NPR Science Friday. You can watch her "Oyster , Not Just For Eating" video here: