Skip Navigation

Make A Reservation:

4 Charles Prime Rib
Au Cheval New York
Bavette's (Chicago)
Gilt Bar
Maude's Liquor Bar
Unquiet Ghosts on the California CoastPoint Reyes:  Meltingly LovelyDoorway to the Past or Future?Trammeled Wilderness?  Oyster Farming at Point ReyesIndustrial Farming at Drakes Bay Oyster Company?The Maze of Drakes Estero

July 2nd, 2014

Edge of the Continent

BY Christian Ford

Point Reyes — pronounced “rays” — has always seemed a world apart.  Rugged, windswept and beautiful when you can see it between frequent bouts of fog, this triangular peninsula juts into the Pacific ocean 30 miles north of San Francisco.  Today, it’s a unit of the National Park system, a “National Seashore” whose vast and deserted beaches are the cleanest in the state.  But it’s something else entirely, because the peninsula stands on a different geological plate than the shore it juts from and consequently it’s in motion, riding the Pacific Plate towards a higher-latitude future. Usually, that’s pretty slow going, but the 1906 quake moved Point Reyes twenty-one feet closer to Alaska in a matter of minutes.

In the late 50s and early 60s, Point Reyes augured a different type of future.  When real estate developers began to dream of entombing Point Reyes beneath beachfront houses and strip malls, the locals — farmers and ranchers mostly  descended from Forty-Niners who’d opted out — brokered by an unusual solution.  Aided by the Sierra Club, a variety of local lawmakers and a long-standing interest from the National Park Service, the farmers midwifed the National Seashore, a strange mix of roughly half wilderness and half “pastoral lands,” which is to say, farms.  By the 1970s, the Parks Service had become the owner of the farms and, in return, issued multi-generation leases back to the farmers.

The fifteen or twenty agricultural operations were centered around cows grazing on the Point’s verdant grasslands, with one exception.  In the multi-fingered estuary on the southerly shore of Point Reyes was Drake’s Bay Oyster Company.  Founded in the 1930s, DBOC had gone on to become California’s largest producer of oysters, 19 million of them, growing suspended in culture bags, silently filtering the cold, pristine water of Drakes Estero.

It took four decades for the contradiction of intermingling working ranches and wilderness to finally cause trouble.   “Wilderness” may conjure an image of untouched spaces, but it’s a legal term, defined by Congress when the Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1964:  “In contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, (a wilderness) 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.”

So wilderness is a legal state, and Drakes Estero — in spite of the fact that the land surrounding it is ranch land — was designated wilderness, save for the three square miles of water where DBOC was operating.  When the DBOC’s forty year lease expired in 2012, the National Park Service declined to renew it, unlike the leases of the surrounding cattle operations.

The details of how NPS came to single out Drakes Bay Oyster Company for extirpation are fairly low-rent — crappy science, political agendas, an unexplained loathing of shellfish in conjunction with an unexamined affection for cows — and if you’re curious, it’s worth reading the write-ups from both Grist and Harpers.  The short version, however, is that the Lundy family, which owns DBOC, is not going quietly and the conflict has divided those who would normally be allies, such as environmentalists and the Sierra Club, from local food cognoscenti such as Alice Walters and Michael Pollan, as well as high profile politicians like Barbara Feinstein.  It’s also made the Lundy’s — pioneering organic beef ranchers in bright green and blue Marin County — the beneficiary of pro-bono legal work via a Koch Brothers funded organization as well as frequent guests on Fox News.  They even found a friend in the Senator from Louisiana who inserted a clause extending DBOC’s lease into a bill intended to permit the Keystone XL pipeline and open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.  It’s enough to make your head spin.

But the bizarre way this case refuses to fit into our usual political and social template suggests that, perhaps, Point Reyes is again nosing into the future before the rest of us get there.

The conflict over DBOC looks to be a battle between differing values, whether an operation producing 38% of California’s oysters can co-exist with the seal pupping beaches and eelgrass beds of the Estero, or whether this genuinely unique environment should be isolated from man’s touch.  But if you tunnel down to the foundations of these values, what you discover is that both sides of the argument arise from a single fundamental belief — that it is somehow possible to separate us from the world that we inhabit.

I’ve had the good fortune to briefly touch upon the one corner of this world that really is wild, Antarctica.  It was a profoundly humbling experience, not just because of its scale or brutal beauty, but because no one needed an interpretive sign to know that this was a place where human beings could only ever be visitors.  And why?  Because feeding yourself is impossible.  Ernest Shackleton’s stranded crew managed to survive nearly a year only because they carried salvaged supplies of food with them, supplemented by a loathsome diet of penguin.  Today, everyone — soldiers in their bases, scientists at the pole, extreme explorers — all of them live by dint of importing food from somewhere, anywhere, else.

Out there in that somewhere-anywhere where the rest of us live, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the modern idea of “wilderness” isn’t fundamental, but a cultural artifact of the time when the scope of the destruction we’d done as a species was just coming into view.  Our eventual response to that, the Wilderness Act, is almost charming in its naiveté;  fence off corners here and there and prevent roads from going through and — voila! — we have preserved wilderness.

Almost charming, but not quite, because the cluelessness masks a failure to understand a lethally important truth, that nature isn’t something on the other side of the glass, but the thing that we are inextricably part of and I don’t mean that in a metaphysical sense.  Nature is profoundly physical because it’s about physics, about parsing the primary solar energy capture — whether by the trees out my window or by the plankton adrift on the world’s seas — through layer upon layer of other kinds of life.

Looking out my window two weeks into summer, the leaves are still new and gleaming, and brilliant in the sun.  It’s pretty to the point of triteness, but if I stare hard enough, use my imagination long enough, I begin to see the postcard for what it really is.  I want to call the waving branches a factory — though like all industrial metaphors, it is both reductive and condescending — but what I’m really looking at is more akin to a waterfall.  In the same way that the curtain of gracefully falling water reveals its power by exploding at the bottom, so the cascade of solar energy is wrenched into chemical energy when it strikes chloroplasts.  The whispering branches, the drifting plankton, they are actually sites of incomprehensible might, places where the sterile power of the sun transforms into energy you can eat.  It is the literal font of life for everything from glittering dragonflies to myself and, of course, the oysters in Drakes Estero.

There were always shellfish in the Estero; the Miwok indians who lived here for the five thousand years before the coming of the farmers depended upon them for a substantial part of their diet.  Whether or not oysters were a part of that we don’t know because the shell middens the Miwok left behind contain mostly clams and mussels.  But whatever the variety of bivalve, they make their living in the same way, by filtering organic material from the water.  Oysters, in particular, are so effective at this, that in many places they are used as a remediation strategy for cleaning water sickened by agricultural runoff.  Relentlessly “breathing” their environment, oysters are intimately linked to the well-being of where they live.  Their presence is a sign of a healthy ecosystem.

An oyster farm doesn’t have the aesthetic charm of an oyster reef, but there are favorable comparisons you can make — such as with almost any other kind of agriculture.  Oyster farming improves the site of the farm, rendering it cleaner, more diverse, more filled with life and healthier for all organisms surrounding it.  From a human point of view, oyster farming has the capacity to produce stunning amounts of exceptionally high quality protein, complete with ideal proportions of omega fats and minerals, while simultaneously cleaning the water of algae blooms that human habitation — and its nutrient rich runoff — continually fosters.

We inhabit a world of seven billion souls, predicted to climb to nine billion.  Half of those live within one hundred miles of the world’s coastlines.  You’d be excused for thinking that oyster farming’s prospects are bright, provided the sea doesn’t acidify too far or too fast.  The future we unwillingly inhabit both wants and needs more agriculture like Drakes Bay Oyster Company.  But the industrial era hangover enshrined in our laws — that place humanity solidly outside of the “ecosystem services” that the economists can’t seem to remember keep us alive —  isn’t going quietly.

It would have been nice, you know, to leave parts of this world — big parts, vast landscapes, complete ecosystems — “untrammeled by man” and not just so that we could admire its prettiness, but so that the creatures who comprise the web of energy flow and nutrient cycling would still thrive.  The stupefying richness of non-human life that our world once held?  Now, that’s a view worth protecting.  But the space between us and the world we inhabit is an illusion.  We’ve been shaping and reshaping our environment since we mastered fire, and now, well, there’s trash littering the abyssal floors of seas never before visited by man and trash orbiting above our heads.  When the atmosphere itself bears sooty fingerprints, it’s flat-earth folly, or willful denial, to imagine that wilderness is anything more than a legality.

Somewhere in our evolving relationship with mother earth, we drew a line between what William Cronon sagely identified as the “first nature” of untouched landscapes and the “second nature” of the landscapes that we shape.  He also pointed out that the separation between the two was always a fantasy, as was the fairytale belief in wilderness.  Reality is making that point, too, and in a pretty damn unsubtle way because, while the fight over DBOC continues, another — bigger — battle is being lost.

There are hundreds of archaeological sites on Point Reyes, 140 of them the last remnants of the Miwoks who once lived here.  But the soft cliffs that make Point Reyes so picturesque also make it extremely vulnerable to the higher tides and stronger rains that are the new normal.  The rising sea doesn’t have to swallow Point Reyes.  All it has to do is nip at the edges and the cliffs crumble for hundreds of feet.  It’s happening now.  In the words of an archaeologist trying to catalogue what’s there before it’s gone, “These sites are toast. And we’re essentially losing them all at once.”

As the archaeologists desperately catalogue and the descendants of the Miwok look for stable ground to rebury the emerging bones of their ancestors, you can look down on the putative wilderness of the Estero and hear, over the lowing of the cows, the knowing laughter of Joseph Heller.  If ever there was a landscape version of Catch-22, this is it, as the Parks Service solemnly tends to the flesh wound the of Estero, oblivious to the fact that the version of Point Reyes that they’re preserving is already dead.

The battle to save Drakes Bay Oyster Company is likely lost, too.  The legal dominoes have been falling against the operation, and while there’s a possibility that things could still turn, the real value of this fight may well lie in the confusion and mixed messages, the broken alliances and outright betrayals, the civil war that has broken out within one of the cradles of the organic and local food movement.

After this is over, the inability to fit this conflict into our existing narrative of what’s right and socially valuable will remain as an unquiet ghost, disturbing those who make their living by providing a way for the rest of us to live.  Just as the organic and local movement emerged from this obscure landscape to become part of Walmart’s grocery strategy, perhaps Drakes Bay is another point of inflection, a place and moment where the immense and grinding enterprise of the way we feed ourselves is just starting to pivot.

I like to think that, somewhere, we are collectively dreaming of a “third nature,” a state of mind which recognizes that continuing the experiment of civilization requires continuing the survival of the other kinds of life that pre-existed that experiment. As population rises, Florida submerges and many of the places where we once grew food join Mesopotamia’s barley fields as historical curiosities, food production will — Wilderness Act or no Wilderness Act — turn out not to be an optional land use.  But then, the flourishing — not mere survival — of the ecosystems that our farms are embedded within isn’t optional either.

This Third Nature agriculture already exists, scattered around the world, places where production of food for people also produces food and creates habitat for lives that are not human.  These are places that leave the soil richer, the water cleaner, the air less heavy with carbon.  They are places where the dividing line between our farms and the world cannot really be traced.  Drakes Bay Oyster Company, however imperfectly, is one of those places.

Coming to grips with the reality of a Third Nature agriculture means relinquishing the prideful otherness — or maybe it’s just laziness — that has characterized our kind for as long as we’ve been a kind.  Third Nature means knowing that tomorrow’s dinner is dependent upon making room at the table for everyone and everything and accepting that we won’t just be giving up on these exhausted fields and moving on to the next valley, continent, or planet.   That’s been our strategy for a long time, since the very beginning.  But standing on Point Reyes, it’s hard to escape the thought that we’ve run out of continent, that the virgin fields are all behind us, and that the strategy that’s always worked will, in the end, render us nothing more than visitors, who do not remain.


Fishboat “Point Reyes” by Lotus Carroll
Cliffs of Point Reyes by Juicyrai
Drakes Bay Oyster Co by JKWoo
Oyster Beds in Drakes Estero by Alan Grinberg
Boat and Bags by Wayne Hsieh
Drakes Estero by Alan Grinberg