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August 23rd, 2013

When the Tide Goes Out, the Table is Set

BY Christian Ford

Once upon a time in the 20th Century, before the ocean had turned to carbonic acid and the North Pole had melted, a little girl went snorkeling on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and her life changed.  He name was Betsy Peabody and like most anyone with an eye for wonder, what she saw made an indelible impression.  Unlike most anyone, however, that impression didn’t come from something you could photograph.  Yes, the fish and the color and the seafans were dazzling, but what really struck Betsy was that the coral themselves — anonymous, faceless, vanishingly small — had somehow conjured a galaxy of other lives.  They’d built a world.

Two months ago, I didn’t know about Betsy or that day on the reef.  What I knew instead was that some wry soul had taken the familiar trope of the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and put a maritime spin on it by creating the Port Madison Community Shellfish Farm.   For a modest sum, you can purchase a share of the season’s five harvests and, if you like, slurp oysters straight off the beach while helping to bag the rest of the harvest.  But what seemed like a novel local food operation turned out to be something more.

For one thing, the community shellfish farms (there are three of them) aren’t the sideline of a clever shellfish farmer, but rather emerge from something called the Puget Sound Restoration Fund.  The PSRF, it turns out, is a modest organization bristling with ambition and some very wonkily scientific projects.  It was holding the reins of this small powerhouse that I met Betsy Peabody, all grown up and — if possible — even more enthused about “biogenic habitat… living structures that are host to an abundance of other creatures.”

Her mysterious childhood fascination had endured despite the challenge of, soon after her epiphany, moving to Colorado.  Her response to being landlocked was to spend summers at marine biology camps and get her scuba certification by the time she finished grade school.  What’s more, she discovered another marine biogenic habitat around which to chart her course to a future in science  — the mangrove swamps of the Gulf Coast.  Like Australia’s coral, the roots of these trees, “just in the act of living,” shaped the marine environment around them.

But once in college, Betsy discovered an obstacle harder to outflank.  On one hand, she was deeply compelled by these non-human world builders, “my own quirky interest,” as she puts it.  But she also had a less quirky interest in exploring that other world-building species, the one she belonged to.  Among the red tile roofs of Stanford, Betsy found science had a rival as she chose more and more classes in literature. It was a conundrum; Charles Dickens and the mangrove mire do not intersect.  In the end, it was the child’s ambition that was set aside.  Betsy’s career as a scientist didn’t happen.

But you know how kids are.  Just because you’ve told them no, doesn’t mean they’re going to stop asking.

In 1986, Betsy moved to the shores of Puget Sound.  The chill waters and snow-capped volcanoes were a long way from tropical shores and the Sound itself was a battered ecosystem.  But this was a place with over 3,000 species of invertebrates, where a stroll on the beach could easily turn into a walk through a fountain of squirting clams.  The environment itself seemed, inescapably, living.

Her inner child chafed at the sense of the path not taken and, finally, became too loud to ignore.  Problem was, Betsy didn’t have a degree that made her employable in the field she wanted to work in.  So she “started absolutely at the bottom of the pile.”

She didn’t stay long.  Volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium turned into an internship with a non-profit which escalated into working for a state agency trying to restore the photogenic Sound to some semblance of health.  The longer she engaged with that issue, the clearer it became that another world-building organism that was key — the oyster.

It all begins with algae.  My childhood taught me that algae is view-obscuring scum on fish tanks, but a more enlightened view would be that algae is the foundation of the entire oceanic food web.  In the same way that terrestrial plants capture sunlight to anchor the chain of hungry life on earth, so single-cell algae anchors life in the sea.  Algae likes to live near the shore, where the nutrient flow from the land and the sunlight in the shallow water gives them what they need to grow.  It’s the reason why estuaries like Puget Sound are such astonishingly productive environments.

However, people like to live near the shore, too and we have a knack — what with our gardening, farming and leaky septic systems — for increasing nutrient flow into the water and that’s where things get sticky.  Overfeed algae and their population explodes into a “bloom.”  But overshoot leads inevitably to crash.  The teeming algae clouds the water, starving themselves of light and so they die.  Mass death leads to mass decomposition, which burns through the oxygen in the water and suddenly you don’t have any left.  Tough luck if you’re a fish that needs to breathe.  This sort of anoxic disaster reaches its apogee at the Mississippi River delta, where farm runoff from the midwest breadbasket triggers a yearly dead zone covering some 5,800 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico.

In a healthy estuary, however, algae is kept in balance, and essential to that process is the oyster.  The reason is that oysters eat by filtering algae out of the water.  All shellfish do this, but oysters are the heavy lifters; an adult oyster can filter clean 25 gallons of water per day.  When the water is clear, light penetrates and the algae populations don’t crash.  What’s more, the clear water allows sea grasses to form their submerged meadows, which create nurseries for freshly hatched fish. Just as crucially, oyster beds and seagrass meadows create habitat for tiny crustaceans such as the harpacticoid copepod.

These little guys are crucial because they are what author Rowan Jacobsen calls “the baby food of the sea.”  Little salmon, halibut and herring — in fact, most fish that live their early lives in estuaries — depend on these remarkably nutritious  creatures to survive and grow.  But with few or no oysters to clear the water, the seagrass meadows die, and the harpacticoid feast turns to famine.  Many factors have contributed to the collapse of the northwest salmon populations, but it’s hard to imagine that losing their baby food isn’t a particularly important one of them.

Looking at the deep blue waters of the Sound, Betsy was struck by how the iconic salmon drew attention and funding for recovery efforts, while the anonymous oyster, the real bedrock species, was an orphan.  Educated, and perhaps a bit fatigued, by almost six years within the political/regulatory apparatus, Betsy set out on her own.  In 1997, she put together the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, dedicated to producing “living shorelines.  Shorelines that function.”

From the start, PSRF focused on doing stuff.  That meant projects which could result in a real, measurable difference.  But no matter what the project, the lynchpin was almost always the same, the need for clean water.  And who could be against clean water?

Turns out, just about everyone.  The problem is that if you want clean water, then you’ve got to dive deep into the muck of our life on land.  As a species, we really like living near the shore and we really don’t like living near the messes we make.  It’s a combination which, not to put too fine a point on it, adds up to us flushing away the unpleasant slipstream of our existence.  Leaky sewers, oozing septics, mountains of pet waste, dairy farm effluent, lawn chemicals, fertilizers — the cavalcade of crap you don’t want to deal with — it all rolls endlessly downstream to vanish out of sight and mind into the “beautiful” blue waters… where the remaining shellfish diligently try to filter the sludge.  Raw oyster, anyone?

But Betsy knew a small group of people for whom clean water was more than a nice idea — the Sound’s shellfish growers.  “They all, to a person, feel like their bay… is the most beautiful, productive place on earth (and) they will go to the mat to protect that place….  It made me think, well, we just need to grow the ranks.”  Which is all very nice, but how?

“So often people are asked to do things that are hard or that cost money when they can little afford to spend that money.  For instance, if their septic system is failing and they’ve got kids in college and they suddenly have to shell out $25,000 dollars…?”

This was the impasse.  As much as anyone wanted to live by a healthy, happy shore, they already had too much stuff to cope with.  Betsy had firsthand experience with how government and advocacy groups approached the problem.  But now she began to wonder whether their basic paradigm — “change what you’re doing to get what you like” — might not be complimented by something else, whether there was a way to “elevate this, transform this, into something that [people] want to do rather than something that they have to do.”  In other words, what if in addition to enforcement and advocacy, you also had temptation?

Social science was in her corner; there was a mountain of proof demonstrating that while we’d like to be “rational actors,” it’s emotion, not fact, that is the ultimate arbiter.  What if, Betsy mused, you could “give people what they like first…  celebrate it and elevate it and offer it as a way of getting them to, on their own accord, change what they’re doing?”

She was searching for a way to give people firsthand experience of a “place that’s teeming with life… that will speak to them in a non-verbal way, so that they are awakened — reawakened — to the fact that ‘this is what they like.’”

What she wanted to do was change going to the beach into an experience of harvest.  In other words, she’d quite literally turn people into shellfish foragers by making it easy and accessible.  The oyster would be the lure, the thing that would remind them, “Eating this food does feel good.  Having this primal experience is exactly what they were looking for.  Getting muddy like they did when they were kids.  Give them that,” and they’ll do what they need to in order to get it again.

Now that she knew the what, the question became where?  Surveying possible sites was a sobering reminder, because the Washington State Department of Health (DoH) had closed many historic harvesting grounds due to chronic bacterial contamination.  It was a maritime chicken-and-egg problem, needing clean water to farm the oysters, and needing the oysters to create the impulse to clean the water.  The solution, devised by Betsy and a former oyster farmer named Geoff Menzies, was to use the problem to create a spectacle.

Oysters had been harvested in Drayton Harbor, near the Canadian border, since the earliest days of habitation.  That had come to an end in 1994 when the DoH had closed the perpetually fouled harbor.  It was, effectively, an admission of defeat; the problem was too big, too diffuse, a death of a thousand cuts that couldn’t be regulated or enforced back to life.  Maybe that defeat was what gave DoH the freedom to say yes to Betsy when she sat down with them and asked if she could do something possibly illegal and certainly nuts.

Her proposal was to plant immature “seed” oysters in Drayton Harbor.  This meant that when the oysters were ready to harvest in three years, they’d most likely be a health hazard.  But if — if — that time could be used to complete all manner of pollution control projects to meet the state water quality standards, then the oysters would be there for the taking.  She was publicly throwing down the gauntlet.  “Three years.  Clock starts ticking right now because we’re planting the seed today.”

It was, to be blunt, the equivalent to jumping off the cliff and hoping to grow wings on the way down, because PSRF had zero chance of succeeding on its own.  This was a community-scale problem that could only be solved with community scale effort.  Intriguingly, Betsy’s plan to activate the community wasn’t about PSRF taking the lead, but rather for her organization to become one of many participants.

“One of the reasons that these kinds of ventures work… is that I’m not defining everything that needs to be done.  I’m not controlling that.  All I know is that I can offer this.”  Betsy’s finger quietly but insistently lands on the table.  “I can bring this to the table and I’m willing to invest my time.  I’m willing to be part of this venture, and I’m willing to be an instigating part of this venture.  But let’s see what you guys can come up with that will float this boat…  It gives other people the room and space to come up with what makes sense for them.  You get enough of that happening (and) it draws more people and agencies to the cause.”

That’s a bit of an understatement.  The range of PSRF’s allies in the Drayton Harbor project is almost comically diverse:  amongst the 42 listed partners, you’ll find the Volunteer Farmers of the Tideflats alongside the Washington State Department of Ecology, British Petroleum aligned with the Semiahmoo First Nation, the Pew Charitable Trust in harness with the Local Oyster Slurpers, the EPA sharing the load with the Russell Family Foundation, the Willows Inn teamed up with the Community Food Co-Op and the Trillium Corporation in cahoots with the Semiahmoo Ladies Club.

But just because PSRF’s provocation drew people in, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t resistance.

The local Health Dept has got to survey the septics, and that means that the local municipality has to video inspect all 100 miles of sewer lines and manholes to make sure there are no cracks…  And of course, people want to say, “that’s more of a problem than my area, so you should do that before I do my chore…    But if you’ve got a collective effort, you can say, I’ll help you.  I’ll help write the proposal. Or I’ll contribute some money to your doing that particular thing…  Eventually, you get enough people saying, ‘I like that vision, I want to serve those oysters in my restaurant and I haven’t been able to in ten years, so I’m signing on.’ And you just build something.”

With the Bellingham Herald running a graphic every three months showing the size of the oysters versus progress towards meeting the water standards, Betsy and Geoff shepherded their army of partners towards the “galvanizing vision.”  In 2004, three years after PSRF planted the seed, DoH signed off and the people of Drayton Harbor ate oysters from their own waters for the first time in a decade.

Unequivocal, quantifiable, measurable success.  And an infinitesimal fraction of the work that needs to be done for the Puget Sound Restoration Fund to live up to its name.  Today, Drayton Harbor oysters are still being harvested, but it’s not a case of sitting back and admiring what’s been accomplished.  The way our culture lives and works is inherently at odds with keeping water clean and Drayton still faces a battle to hold onto their shellfish harvest.  The difference is that now the residents of Drayton’s shores can quite literally taste what they’re fighting for.

•            •           •

PSRF is an organization of twenty people, more or less.  It simultaneously shepherds seven key projects and covers a territory of one thousand square miles of water, draining a landmass the size of Maryland with a shoreline longer than California’s.  In addition to working to re-establish the one native oyster of Puget Sound, the Olympia, they’re also trying to figure out how to bring back the Pinto abalone, rebuild the kelp forests that once thrived here, reduce the bacterial pollution sources (I’m looking at you, Fido) that shut down harvest, engage with the global disaster of ocean acidification, teach people to “garden” shellfish on their own tidelands, turn pressed kelp into art, help a native tribe restore the bay that was once the center of their culture, and (take a breath) “give free oysters to every person in this watershed who gets their septic inspected and pumped.  There’s a reason you’re being asked to do those things and you need to taste the rewards.”

Listening to Betsy, you’d think that she’d at least show some sign of wear.  But she doesn’t.  In fact, the more she illuminates the scale of the task, the way one discovery opens the door to yet another immense piece without which the whole puzzle won’t work, she more energized she becomes.

“The work I do feels more like inviting people to be part of something vital and interesting and infinitely worthwhile.  It doesn’t feel depleting…  Maybe that’s because there’s a lot of discovery in it — both self-discovery and discovery of the world close by.”

Betsy comes bearing oysters, but it may be that her real gift is the sense of shared endeavor.  Her ambitions for PSRF are heroic in scale, but the way she’s getting there is resolutely anti-heroic; this is not the Betsy Peabody Show where the rest of us have walk-on parts. She uses the metaphor of a table to describe the shores of the Sound as a place that feeds us, but it “isn’t just about finding food.  It’s a place around which people gather and have a chance to give.  In whatever way they choose…  Whatever their reasons, politics… Giving helps strip away these inconsequential details that ordinarily divide us.”

It’s an ethos that finds expression in the gratuitous diversity of a typical PSRF operation — scientists, children, retirees, native Americans, high schoolers, the US Navy, random neighbors and on and on — most of them volunteers.

It’s impressive because Betsy isn’t banging the drum for a sexy apex predator like a polar bear or tiger; she’s inviting people into a world of mud, slime and creatures that, while they might make a menu, wouldn’t feature on a postcard.  And there’s something to that because even now, even with PSRF’s litany of achievement, Betsy still talks about her fascination with a faintly apologetic grin.  It suggests a history of a thousand moments when — overtly or not — people sent her the message that, really, Betsy’s “quirky interest” wasn’t the kind of thing you should devote your life to.   But in 2007, when PSRF was celebrating its tenth anniversary, something happened that changed how Betsy viewed her own calling.

On the other side of the world, a group of archaeologists were digging in Cave 13B at South Africa’s Pinnacle Point.  People had lived here, 166,000 years ago, in a time of dire climate change.  Their cataclysm was an ice age, one that turned most of Africa into a desert and sent all of those early humans searching for places where they could survive.  Most didn’t.  But some found their way to the shoreline where something very strange happened.  They started making art and sophisticated stone blades, demonstrating the key creative and symbolic traits of modern humans tens of thousands of years before everyone else.  The inhabitants of Pinnacle Point were part of the sudden shift in the complexity of the human brain which leads directly to us.  The question is why?

The answer, it seems, is seafood, particularly the kind that sits there waiting for you on the beach.  Driven to the waterline, the inhabitants of Pinnacle Point exchanged their terrestrial diet for a littoral one and lucked into a nutritional gold mine.  The big brains we walk around with today need a lot of energy and a lot of certain nutrients, like omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA.  That’s interesting, because DHA is hard to come by unless you have access to a lot of fish and shellfish.  What’s more, those brains also need an array of minerals — iron, copper, selenium, zinc and particularly iodine —  which come packaged as a group in only one environment:  the edible shoreline.

In brief, discovery of the food riches of the shore seems to have been the catalyst that made modern humans into what they were and we are.  For Betsy, the journal articles out of Pinnacle Point were a revelation.  “All along, I thought I was following my own individual interests.  But I wasn’t.”  The world that oysters and other shellfish built turned out to be critical human habitat, and in the largest possible way.

The shellfish-powered humans migrated out of Africa; 125,000 years ago, they were feasting on Red Sea oysters and around 80,000 years ago, they crossed that sea.  Fifty thousand years back, the climate warmed and new reefs and estuaries formed.  Early humans followed, moving into Asia.  Thirty-seven thousand years ago, we were picking over the shores of Japan, proof that we’d used those big brains to build boats and use them.

Another ice age closed in, but people kept moving, finally crossing the Bering Land Bridge into North America.  Problem was, the “bridge” dead-ended into the glaciated ice dome of Canada.   But — contrary to earlier theories about how the New World was peopled — that wasn’t much of a problem.  Our ancestors were amphibious, people of the beach as they had been for 150,000 years.  They simply leapfrogged their way down the coastline, following the “kelp highway” with its wealth of the very foods that they had evolved to depend upon.

It was, in so many ways, the only non-crazy option.  Even a quarter-mile from the shore, the terrestrial forest was impenetrable and thick with bears.  The foods of the intertidal zone, by comparison, are plentiful, easy and safe.  Grandma can gather them just as easily as her grandchild, and no one even needs to cook.  When it’s time to move — whether because population rises or the neighboring tribe gets pushy — it’s easy.  Simply pile everyone, young and old, infirm and infant, into the boat and then push on to the next cove, the next inlet.  There’s always more, because a continuous strip of ideal human habitat encircles the entire Pacific ocean, a hundred yards wide and ten thousand miles long.

On that journey, somewhere more than 14,000 years ago, those first North Americans found their way to the very same shores in search of the very same foods that Betsy Peabody had spent the last ten years trying to restore.

If you strip away all of those identities — writer, doctor, republican, democrat, warrior — whatever it is that we know ourselves to be… there’s also a taproot that takes us back to a shared identity, to a time when resources along the shoreline were critical.  It’s no wonder that we’ve got a local food movement…  Primal food experiences feel good because… it feels right to be in a place and eating food of the place.  Eating an oyster raw is an archetypal eating experience… exactly the same experience that people have had ever since we migrated to the coast 160,000 years ago.

When Betsy talks about Puget Sound, it’s as though it were the last fading memory of shared and ancient wish, the dream of an edible world that we once all dreamed.  From Pinnacle Point to the dawn of farming, the world of the oyster was the world of humanity; these edible shores were once the difference between human survival and extinction.

That was a long time ago, of course.  We moved inland, learned to farm, built cities, demoted travel from a means of survival to entertainment.  Now the shore is for the eyes, and the landscape of the stomach is the most unsalty heartland.  You could say that, however profound its roots, Betsy’s quest is fundamentally quixotic, that even if she succeeds, her success will be to restore an environment that is now only a luxury.

But it doesn’t feel that way to me.  Though we may not act like it, this too is an era of human migration.  Like the discoverers of Pinnacle Point, we are beginning to go walkabout in response to the fact that what’s always worked isn’t working any more.  But we have it tougher than they did; there is no untouched world within which to find refuge.  Instead, it’s a full world, full of us, and increasingly empty of all the things that we used and used up to manufacture this world full of us.

If this migration can lead to refuge, we’ll find it in a different us.  It will mean changing the relation between individuals and communities, and understanding that there is no boundary between “our” habitat and any other.  It will mean a way of living that’s not predicated, as it has been ever since Pinnacle Point, on stripping the edible landscape and then moving on when the pickings get too slim.

If you accept this notion, then you begin to see a parallel between a woman who, in her youth, strayed from who she was in the same way that her species strayed from what fundamentally nourished it.   But no journey is without value.  There is no doubt that Betsy the scientist would be — with all due respect to the profession — just a scientist.  But she’s not a scientist.  She’s not a shellfish farmer.  She’s not an activist, a bureaucrat or an administrator.  She’s puckish, whip-smart, humble and inexorable and I think she is, ultimately, a scout.

On our migration, her role is not to range far, but to venture deep.  She is trying to find a path back to a time when the bounty of these shores was still overwhelming, an abundance so extreme that in the native languages of Puget Sound, the word for “idiot” means “person who cannot feed themselves.”   And forward in time, also, to a community energized instead of fragmented by the kind of bewildering human diversity that wouldn’t be out of place in one of the big 19th Century novels that captivated her in college.  In a way that Dickens would have made much hay of, it took Betsy’s dive into life as a tapestry of interwoven stories — into literature — to give Betsy the gifts that she uses to weave her own stories, the ones that bring people together on these beaches that once nurtured our most distant ancestors.

It’s all of a piece, the roads taken and not, the regrets and rediscoveries.  True to who Betsy is, we find a literary device hidden within this story of archaeology, biology and ecology.  The device is irony, and it goes like this: the little girl who once became enamored of world-building organisms, turned out to be a world-(re)building organism herself.


Betsy Peabody by Benjamin Drummond
Betsy on the Beach by Benjamin Drummond
Port Madison Shellfish Farmers by Christian Ford

Check out Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele’s excellent short video
Oyster Farmers Facing Climate Change