Darwin and me

Were we to put forth nominees for Most Influential Scientist Ever, I suspect many of you would, like me, be pulling for Charles Darwin. That such a straightforward hypothesis about how we, all of us, came to be the way we are had the power to fundamentally change our understanding of the world around us!

My understanding of natural selection is a lot like my understanding of Bernoulli’s principle. I understand that the air flowing over the top of an airplane wing moves faster than the air underneath it, and therefore exerts less pressure on the wing. At speed, you get lift. I get it, but I still marvel every time an airplane gets off the ground.

Likewise, it makes perfect sense to me that traits conferring a survival advantage are selected for. And, for a simple trait – like, say, the shape of a finch’s beak – the process seems pretty mundane. But it astonishes me that the same process can result in an eye, or a central nervous system, or an organism that can throw a baseball at 100 miles an hour.

We, all of us, owe Darwin our gratitude.

Which is why I am sorry to report that he and I part company when it comes to barnacles.

Darwin studied barnacles. He kept tanks in his basement for a good eight years, and then did what all serious scientists did after they spent a long time studying an arcane subject – wrote a monograph!

There’s even a story about one of Darwin’s sons visiting a friend. Upon learning that the friend’s house had no basement, he asked, in some surprise, “Where does your father keep his barnacles?” (Full disclosure: my source for that story is my mother, who is well-versed in Darwin. Independent corroboration would be appreciated.)

I do not share Darwin’s enthusiasm. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I hate barnacles. Barnacles are the bane of my existence. And of Kevin’s as well. And how, you may wonder, have those innocent-looking invertebrates earned our enmity? By taking up residence on our oysters, that’s how.

There is a thriving community of barnacles in Barnstable Harbor, where we grow our oysters. In the spring, the harbor is inundated with Mongol hordes of larvae, looking for a place to settle. They dearly love an oyster shell, and attach themselves (by means of the evocatively named “cement gland”) in large clusters on our crop.

We can, to a large extent, avoid this problem on our seed (the one-year-old oysters, which overwintered in a cooler) by waiting until after the barnacle set to put them in the water. In the mature oysters, which we leave in the water over the winter, there’s no getting around it. If you have oysters, you have barnacles.

And the barnacles have to come off. For starters, they’re unsightly, and it seems silly to spend so much effort growing a beautiful oyster only to deliver it encrusted. But the bigger issue is that the barnacles, removed from the water, die in short order. The smell of dead barnacles is not appetizing.

There are two ways to get barnacles off oysters. You can do it one at a time, with an implement like a paint scraper. Or you can do it en masse, with a tumbler, which works just like your washing machine. You put the oysters in, and it spins. They oysters knock against the tumbler’s walls, and each other, and the barnacles get knocked off.

All of the farmers around us tumble. And many have large stainless-steel tumblers, costing several thousand dollars, built for the purpose. Our neighbors to the north, Scott and Tina Laurie of Spring Creek Oyster, have a beauty in a floating shed on their farm.  And then there’s our tumbler.

It’s a big red seventies-era cement mixer that Kevin found on Craigslist. It’s electric, so we have to bring along a small generator to power it. The generator can keep it spinning, but it can’t quite get it spinning, so Kevin has to do a manual assist. Once it’s going, though, it works fine.

On tumbling day, we go out early in the tide so there’s enough water to get the boat close to the oysters. Tumbling day would more accurately be called schlepping day, since that’s the work that we humans (as opposed to the machine) have to do. The closer we are, the less schlepping we do.

On tumbling day, you find out who your friends are, and Dave is most definitely our friend. He’s Kevin’s oldest friend, and came out to help us tumble despite the fact that his visit here – he lives in Vermont – was supposed to be a vacation.

It was a beautiful morning, cool and breezy. Kevin and Dave loaded Big Red into the boat – a complicated operation involving a block and tackle, two trees, and some perilous moments. In went the generator and the pump (to supply the stream of water needed). A few bushel baskets, a shovel, and bug spray, and off we went.

We got the boat as close as we could to the trays, and Kevin got everything set up as Dave and I went for the first batch of oysters.

We tumble about 300 oysters at a time, and they stay in the tumbler for about five minutes. Most of the barnacles were dead (victims, we think, of a summer heat wave), and dead shells came off much more easily than live animals. Had most of the barnacles still been alive, we would have had to tumble them much longer.

After their five minutes, they come out beautifully clean. The mud is gone. The barnacles are mostly gone. And the delicate rim of shell growth is also gone. This means that a tumbling is a set-back, growth wise, but it has the result of hardening the rest of the shell. Tumbling can also help shape the oysters – they get deep rather than long – and there are many growers who tumble for those reasons, even if they farm in a barnacle-free zone.

With three people, the job went quickly. Most of our crop had died over our record-cold winter, so we had only about 5000 survivors to tumble. We finished just as the ebb did, and used the second half of the tide to do some general maintenance (Dave and Kevin) and to dig up some clams for dinner (me).

Kevin and I find it immensely gratifying to grow oysters. We are fortunate to be farming in a place where the water produces a world-class product, and we often think, on a Saturday night, of the people ordering them in New York restaurants. There’s a look people get when they eat a really nice oyster, and there is tremendous satisfaction in being responsible for that pleasure.

But, for me, growing oysters is also a hedge against the romance of food. I write about food production, and it’s a reminder that producing food is hard work. Dirty, heavy, tedious, repetitive, sometimes dangerous work. Nothing takes the romance out of farming like actually farming.

Anyone out there who, likewise, would like to have a personal de-romanticizing experience is welcome to join us on tumbling day. I promise mud, heavy lifting, the roar of machinery, and a callous indifference to the death of thousands upon thousands of barnacles.

If I had my druthers, I’d rather be Darwin. I’d prefer to foster barnacles in my basement, to observe them closely and write about them extensively for the benefit of all mankind. I’d prefer to think about things until I have a startling idea that sets the world on fire. But, so far, no insight of Darwinian proportions has been forthcoming, and I have every reason to believe that state of affairs will continue. And so, the barnacles must die.

10 people are having a conversation about “Darwin and me

  1. I use the old screwdriver method, but then again I only have to clean a half a peck at a time during recreational shellfishing oyster season.

  2. Tamar,
    We have young neighbors here in Wellfleet who farm oysters, about which I’m ignorant, save for your blog. They sometimes give us what they call “uglies.” Is this growth of barnacles purely an aesthetic issue? You mention smell, but I’ve never noticed it. I have seen, and enjoyed, oysters from Jeremy’s Point, which were layered with shells and barnacles. Does the public need re-education about what an oyster looks like? (Though I do love the sight of that cement mixer, having grown up with those in the 50’s-60’s in California.)

    I enjoy your (too rare) posts.

  3. fascinating. really.

    i remember scraping barnacles off of the bottoms of boats, but i’d never thought about them vis a vis oysters. and the idea of tumbling to get them off? just so cool.

  4. Tamar,

    I still don’t understand how you convince Dave to do all of this hard back breaking work while he is suppose to be on vacation, unless this is suppose to be a bus man’s holiday.

    I am going to have to speak to him about this.


  5. Rick, with only half a peck, a screwdriver is a fine solution. (Also useful for breaking up clusters.)

    Susan, yes, the barnacles are an aesthetic issue, although you wouldn’t notice the smell until they die, which takes a while. If you’re getting oysters right out of the ocean, and eating them that day or the next (or maybe even the one after that — I understand barnacles can hang on for quite a while) you won’t have the problem.

    And, as for the rarity of posting, I can only sigh and say sorry. I’d like to spend more time here, but I have this pesky need to make a living.

    Magpie — I’m thankful that we don’t leave our boat in the water, because scraping barnacles off oysters pretty much fills my limit of barnacle-scraping. (Although I understand there are bottom paints for boats that help keep off all kinds of marine hangers-on.)

    Henry — You will do nothing of the kind. In fact, when your children are just a little older, we will have to have a chat about the character-building effects of manual labor …

  6. “Nothing takes the romance out of farming like actually farming.” I love that quote. I’m going to use it for my little, raggedy homestead’s mission statement (with attribution, of course).

  7. Good morning! I’m a long time reader, and love your stories! Just thought I’d mention that it’s November.. 😉
    What have you been up to? Any fishing? Did you go get your deer? Doing anything interesting for Thanksgiving?

    Throw us a bone out here!


    Marcia Gohman

  8. I do like Darwin! But yeah, I probably share your “enthusiasm” for barnacles. I’d rather have clean oysters than barnacle-encrusted ones.

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