My hands dripped mud as we counted out ten thousand tiny oysters for seeding, but it was not the slime that disturbed me, rather it was my fear of losing count. James anxiously scooped the plastic pail into the mother vat of shells and held it to the light to check if his measure was at the right level. The bright sun shone through the sides of the container as he squinted to avoid the direct beams.
My friend Lee lives on the North Fork of Long Island. Her home in Greenport backs onto a small bay that belongs to her property. When she had suggested growing her own oysters, the chance to have a hand in their cultivation had caught me off-guard with delight.
From Lee’s house on a sunny day, one can see the whole of the inlet stretching up and down the coast. On the beach, three plastic kayaks sit under the sea wall, tucked in next to six steps that lead back up from the sand to the lawn. A cabaña sits on the right, while a short pier runs out to the left where a small tethered boat strains as the dock arches and relaxes on the swells. Just out from shore, a spit of land rises to form a bay before the estuary on the other side opens out into a broad shimmering channel. Ferries go back and forth to Shelter Island so close by that the people on board can be seen lounging on their cars and chatting, while along the coast to the north the vague sight of the town and marina promises the action of bars and the comfort of trinket shops.
One first seeds the harvest with tiny oysters called spat, which are layered flat in cages ready to submerge in the sea. We worked with her brother Fidele, a fisherman who knows the water all along the coast and understands of the tides. The plan for the oysters was to divide the spat, place them in cages and then tie them to buoys in the water, but first we needed to count the spat to make sure we had the ten thousand promised in the purchase. We decided to find a hundred, see how high that measured on the insides of a plastic pail and then repeat the operation. The spat must be just around the size of a dime, just bigger than a thumbtack to pass muster. They are sharp and slimy. One wears a glove to scoop them up, but still the mud gets under your nails and up your arms. The counting hand needs to be free and dexterous. As I pushed my hair back from the sweat on my forehead, the mud and some thin shreds of seaweed wreathed my brow and soon I was covered in spat slime. The counting took place on the lawn by the sea while the sprinklers sprayed silently over the soft grass. The sun dries the residual spat mud on the skin and deepens the smell of the salty residue. When the mud grew too much to bear, I threw myself under the icy water and rubbed the grainy slime from my arms and legs. Refreshed, I’d continue.
Oysters like the motion of the flowing water. When the water flows over them it both cleans them and they thrive as it brings them a constant source of nutrients. Once counted, with great difficulty, we put the spat into mesh sacks and then laid the sacks into cages to take out into sea currents where the water always runs. We filled several dozen of the cages, perhaps more, working as a team to portion the baby oysters for their best growth. We piled cages in the shade behind the Cabana, ready to drop into the bay.
After an outdoor lunch, we drove into town to buy the extra buoys we needed to mark out the sea boundary of the property and moor the cages. The store, half indoors and half outdoors, was full of nautical hardware, some of which was easily recognizable such as a windshields and bow lights, but less familiar were the gauges, chocks, cleats, spotlights, cutwaters, rub rail, gas caps, hatch handles and step pad frames piled high in every corner. There were anchors the size of cars and chains that looked like wrestler’s arms along the aisles next to boxes of rusty nails and delicate fish hooks. The man who ran the store marshaled his crew of helpers as if they were at sea as they pulled out ropes and odd brass fittings to reveal a half a dozen large, pink plastic buoys. Fidele decided he would take them and loaded them into the back of the pickup to bring back to the beach.
“What do you think we should call the oysters?” asked Lee, as we arrived back at the house. “Widow’s Hole Oysters is already taken.”
“I don’t know. Does your bay even have a name?”
“No, we could name the bay first.”
The scope of naming a bay and its oysters threw us again, as we realized that the name might be added to maps, which seemed to bring the weight of history to the decision. We considered how it would gather meaning as fish vendors sang it across fish markets, how restaurateurs would lovingly write it onto their menus, it would be mispronounced abroad by air-delivery men and cited by local kids as if it had always been there. The task would need discussions over dinners, over books, while buying green groceries and for the moment escaped resolution.
The bay and the oysters remain unnamed, but they are not nameless. At some point, I suspect the oysters will name themselves as their presence gently slips into our daily lives as “Lee’s Oysters,” at “Lee’s Bay,” or some such other simple mistake of habit. Like the mud, it will slip under the skin and hang in the air, as the place tells us its name. For now, their name lies in the running water with the seeds of their story growing and gathering strength. This summer I will listen hard.