An absorbing account of the clash between environmentalists and oyster farmers in the coastal towns north of San Francisco.
In her debut, Brennan, a contributor to the Believer, the Rumpus, and other publications, describes a lengthy political and ecological battle involving the National Park Service, wilderness advocates, and the agricultural community in the Point Reyes National Seashore, a park preserve in Marin County, California. The “oyster war,” which won national media attention, pitted passionate supporters of the wild against equally vociferous champions of organic farming and resulted in the closing of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which had been raising oysters in a pristine estuary. Brennan, who grew up in the area and worked for the Point Reyes Light, offers a well-crafted narrative exploring every aspect of the controversy, from the contentious issue of whether the oyster farm was polluting the estuary (scientific and investigatory reports had uncertain findings) to the unusual array of individuals taking part (including Richard Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman and Senator Dianne Feinstein). The author recounts the history of oystering in America; the mixed uses of the biologically rich Northern California seashore by farmers, hikers, and campers; and how the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act protected the area. When the Park Service refused to renew the oyster company’s lease to operate within the park—ostensibly to restore the area to its wilderness condition—legal battles ensued. Brennan interweaves the stories of oyster pirates, cattle ranchers, Native Americans, scientists, and species ranging from exotic deer to harbor seals. She confronts the ambiguities of the conflicting arguments and motives of the key players, leaving readers to share her wonder at the “false dichotomy” between wild and cultivated landscapes. The oyster war, she writes, was “a story about loss…whether it be the loss of nature or the loss of a way of being in the world that feels sane, where men and women pull sustenance out of the lands and water.”
Well-written and superbly reported.