By Gina Warren
The air is damp and soft with recent rain, heavy with the smell of eucalyptus trees that stand sentinel along highway one as it dips through Marshall, a small town nestled on the California coast about forty miles North of San Francisco. It’s bright and the hills, textured like clam shells, are turning green in the knuckles. Another dry summer concedes to autumn.
Tomales Bay Oyster Company is the oldest consistently running shellfish farm in California. When you pull in to the parking lot your tires crunch over the rough talc of crushed oyster shells. The tide is high and cobalt blue, water shimmering at the crests, kicking spangles of sun in the wake of thin-billed murres. I’m standing within sight of the bay at the long blue oyster counter, talking to a twenty-something crew member about the mysterious reproductive cycle of oysters. I’ve never asked about how big oysters make baby oysters, although I’ve eaten them my entire life. When I was about two and my parents used to plan family dinners, my dad would figure he’d eat five or so, Mom would have a few, Uncle Tom wouldn’t eat any, Grandma would have two or three, Grandpa might have a couple, and Gina would eat at least a dozen.
I’ve often told friends that eating a raw oyster is like slurping snot and semen. The crew-member, just under six feet tall with broad shoulders, wearing a green “Oyster Girls” trucker-style hat, tells me that Pacific Oysters hold their reproductive fluid before dispensing it. I stand wide-eyed and a little repulsed, shuddering at the biological precision of my prior description.
“Want to see?” he asks, hauling a bag of twelve smallish oysters from the wet holding tank behind the counter. “These are called creamers.” He pulls out one oyster, slips a knife easily into the hinge at the anterior edge, tweaks his wrist side to side, and pops the blade into the shell, cutting the oyster’s adductor muscle while pulling off the top half in one simple motion.
“See the milky part? That’s semen.” He takes the knife, turning and splaying the oyster. It oozes rust. “This one has been eating brown algae.”
I’ve learned that once female oysters are fertilized, they dispense millions of eggs into the tide. The larvae, called spat, develop in the ocean for two to three weeks until they settle on a hard surface. “Usually another oyster,” he tells me.
“Do they travel far with the tide? Two to three weeks is a long time to float around.”
“No,” he says, “they stay fairly close to home.”
Oysters spend their lives as sedentary creatures. Once they’re done with their stint as free-floating vagabonds, oysters pay full rent, not just first month and last, and permanently adhere their mantle to something solid.
Tomales Bay has been a part of my family for generations. My grandfather used to tell me stories of summers in Inverness with his grandparents, how he’d have to haul wood from the hill and chop it before being allowed to play. No one is allowed to live there permanently; we gather, we visit, we frequent, but ultimately we don’t stay. I remember family dinners when I was younger: spaghetti and garlic bread for fifteen, playing Yahtzee until three a.m. with my mother and grandmother, and racing bikes down Mt. Vision at night with my dad and my uncle, pen lights Duct-taped to the frames.
I am not quite as sedentary as an oyster. In college I lived in North Carolina, then later in Oregon. Soon as I turned eighteen I was gone, moved to just about the farthest point in the continental United States from my childhood home. And for all the time I spent away, I ached. It wasn’t that I missed home—often times I didn’t—it was that I felt far away from myself.
I didn’t know the words for this ache until, by chance, I came across the speech John F. Kennedy gave at Newport in 1962 before the America’s Cup Races. “All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears,” he said. “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea… we are going back from whence we came.”
Every naturally occurring element has been found in seawater. The two most common elements in seawater, chlorine and sodium, are the most prevalent elements in human blood. Combine sodium and chlorine and you get sodium chloride—salt. Oysters, unlike fish and other sea creatures, travel with ocean encased in themselves. Humans, too, encase ocean. “The percentages of sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iodine, chlorine, and other minerals in human blood,” wrote Robert Lehrman in The Long Road to Man (1964), “coincide with those of sea water. Our ocean-living ancestors developed cells adapted to the chemical environment of sea water. When they left the ocean, they took a part of the environment with them.” We took a personal microcosm of seawater with us, a lineage of ocean. Blood, the road to our ancestral womb. It ties us, grounding as an anchor. In emergency situations, seawater has been used in transfusions. When I pull too far from the tide that polished me like sea glass, too far from the ocean that fills me, I feel its tether like a hook in my heart. I am bound to the ocean. Fully, completely. Irrevocably. After college, I moved home.
When it’s time to leave Tomales Bay Oyster Company the man in salty black galoshes takes my cash, hands me a dozen oysters, and offers me a small pack of malted milk balls because they’ve got post-Halloween spares.
“See you later, Inverness,” he yells to my retreating back.
I stand outside my car in the shelled parking lot, blinking at the bright sky. There’s a slight breeze sifting the smell of pickleweed and marsh grass from the estuary across the hillside, green with early November. The double time beat of meringue shimmies from an old radio somewhere to my left over the sound of oysters shells clapping open on a barbecue. I do not know it now, but in seven months I will begin working at this oyster company, and further cement my mantle to Tomales Bay. I will move to Point Reyes, and live a ten minute drive from here. I will spend hours making dozens of oysters and weighing bags of clams, hours reminding folks to keep their oysters on ice, hours sitting on the side of the tank, wearing shorts and a T-shirt in the summer sun.
All I know now is that I am about to go back to the Inverness house, make tea, and chop wood for a fire. I’ll dice onions and quarter potatoes for dinner, then call my friends and tell them to come over bearing butter and garlic and bourbon. We will eat hot barbecued oysters right off the grill with our greasy fingers, play Monopoly and steal each other’s money when we aren’t looking or when we fall for a ruse and go to the kitchen to get someone a beer. We will walk to the beach for a midnight swim in the dense fog and, eventually, as night settles and drips around us, we will stoke the fire one more time before falling asleep tired and sandy and safe and complete.
Copyright Warren 2015