Posnett scours the globe for natural commodities that sustain a balance in which consumption doesn’t lead to destruction and harvesting involves replenishing and renewal.
It is a challenge to categorize both the book and its author, a former financial investigator born in London and based in Philadelphia whose interest in markets and trades piqued his interest in writing about the natural world. In his first book, he pleasingly evokes an era in which “the object from the wild often performed an important literary function in a specific popular genre, the Victorian quest romance.” Each of the seven chapters details such a quest into the exotic and the wilderness in search of some organic golden fleece that has been commodified for luxury consumption. Each has its own fascination: There’s the down from the eider, a “fat seabird, more penguin than duck,” which sheds feathers that are then gathered by harvesters in Iceland with no apparent harm to the duck, though luxury profit ultimately compromises the process. When a single down jacket can retail for $8,000, there is plenty of incentive to take the birds out of their natural habitat, increase their number and their production, and thus risk killing the golden goose. A local compares eiderdown to cocaine, which is worth much more on the street than at its source, a comparison that does not lend itself to purity of process. In other chapters, the author explores the trade in bird guano (for fertilizer), sea silk (spun by mussels and other mollusks to anchor them), and the tagua nut, which had been used for buttons and carvings and is biodegradable where plastic is not. The most strangely exotic story may be that of civet coffee: The catlike animal digests only the finest coffee beans, flavors them with its enzymes, and then excretes them for harvesting, adding digestive enzymes to the coffee’s distinctive flavor. Throughout the book, the author’s writing derives less from naturalists and environmentalists and more from the likes of Borges and Calvino.
An engrossing tale of wonder.