THE OYSTER MANUAL:
AN ACCIDENTAL OYSTER FARMER'S GUIDE TO SURVIVAL
(BOOK IN PROGRESS)
A lot of people dream about abandoning it all. Maybe moving to Maine. Starting a farm. I am not one of those people. Living in Paris and trading stocks from my computer, I had it pretty good. And I knew it.
But when my personal life got messy, my professional life got even messier. And I found myself back home in Maine with a nascent oyster farm on my hands. What does an ivy-educated, 1%-er who dislikes oysters and gets seasick do with an oyster farm? This one took her father's advice: I bought a pair of waders and cowboy'ed up. Then I held on for dear life.
Each chapter of my proposed Oyster Manual offers tips for "survival" based on lessons I've learned, usually the hard way (“Create a Gun Policy,” “Never Shag the Staff,” “Nip Predation in the Bud”).
Farming, food, and the environment are a big part of my story, but this is also a story about coming home to America, about work and class, about Maine’s oyster gold rush and the reality of today's American dream. The cast of characters I've met along the way puts any red-state, blue-state stereotypes to shame.
The landscape tells the story of our oyster. With every tide, the environment on our farm changes. High tide flushes our farm with cold super-briny Atlantic Ocean water, and at low tide a much warmer, more brackish water rushes down from the marsh further inland, bringing with it different algae and sea grass. This give and take of brine, sweet fresher water and sea grass plays out in the taste of our oyster as well as its aesthetic.
When we’ve shipped oysters off to the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station, arguably the oyster mecca of the United States, I am aware that I’m sending not just our fingerprints, because we’ve touched each oyster several times before it’s taken to market. We’re sending traces of the local water, the algae, the crabs, fish, air, sun, grass, dirt, mosquitoes—everything that interacts with our site. We are shipping a little bit of our Maine farm, our exact place in the universe, to someone in New York City. The oyster eater gets to taste our Scarborough waters, feel our ripples, look at our color green, and smell our scent. And then, from the same plate of oysters, he can taste an oyster from another region, up the coast or across the country, and without moving he gets to experience that unique place in the universe. Oysters are travel for epicures.
The irony that I am offering the experience of home to people in faraway places is not lost on me as I’ve spent my whole life moving from place to place. Growing up in Maine, I always felt unsettled. I kept a pocket Rand McNally atlas my parents had given me for Christmas on my nightstand and I would study maps and dream of far-away places like Asia and Africa. In the back of the book, there was an index of countries and I’d linger on statistics: population, life expectancy, exports. If I moved to the Congo would I die as young as they do? I’d wonder. How much would I reflect the local environment?
My desire to move around was frenetic. In high school, I studied at a French boarding school and then in Paris. Then I went to college in New York City, but I studied abroad in Ecuador, Spain, and France again. Then I worked in France before enrolling as a graduate student in international affairs, which took me to Cuba, then back to France. Then work took me to back to Paris yet again, and from there I worked in Poland and Germany and then I popped back and forth from New York City to Paris. And I travelled in between.
Every time I’d begin to get a bit settled, with a job or a lover, I’d sever my ties and uproot before I got too stuck.
But for the last six years, my whole life has been focused on these few acres in the Scarborough estuary. I’ve stopped going sideways, and started going deeper, deeper than I’ve ever gone before. I’ve worked harder, pushed my body, my finances, my emotions, myself, beyond what I ever thought I was capable of. I have sunk every bit of myself into my farm and let the river shape me.
“Ce ne serait pas parfait pour un marriage?” D had asked me ten months before as we entered one of the great rooms of his exclusive clubhouse in Paris. We’d just returned from a vacation in Maine and his patience was waning. I’d now missed three deadlines, the last being Labor Day weekend, two weeks earlier. He’d never formally asked me to marry him. D wasn’t the type to take the risk of buying a ring and getting on a knee; too much uncertainty. Furthermore, such demonstrative behavior would have been pedestrian in his eyes, so American. Instead, for about a year the broader and yet more specific question had been asked, “When are we getting married?” At first the question was delivered with a hint of irony, almost like he wasn’t serious. Now he asked with exasperation.
In fairness to myself, E came into my life the way a mussel infestation hits an oyster farm, with abandon and intent. I didn’t see him coming, and then he was everywhere, parasitically clinging to me, and every aspect of my life, in order to compete for the same resources: attention and my money.
The same way one seemingly inconsequential mussel thrusts its byssal threads into a group of maturing oysters, forcing their shells closed to prevent them from drinking, and snuffing them out, E entangled himself deeper and deeper in my life, tightening his grasp, asserting himself into my social world and slowly cutting me off from the people I loved. My oxygen.
Mussels are cunning, sly creatures. They can be completely outnumbered, a handful literally mixed into our floating nursery bins with tens of thousands of oysters, and somehow, within hours, they will have migrated to the top of the pile, where the freest flowing water only fortifies them with its nutrients and reinforces their dominance. Mussels don’t have teeth or claws; they seem benign and inconsequential.
But don’t be fooled. Mussels are sociopaths.
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The Accidental Oyster Farmer:
"Get Your Hands Dirty"
Before accidentally becoming a Maine oyster farmer, Abigail worked in finance and in numerous start-ups, in industries ranging from telecoms to fashion.
Abigail speaks French and Spanish and has lived, worked, and/or studied in several countries in Europe and Latin America, including over 12 years in France. She has a Master's Degree in International Affairs from Columbia University and an undergraduate degree in French and Spanish literature from Barnard College.
Abigail's publishing credits include The Telegraph (UK daily), This City Paris Magazine, and most recently The Portland Press Herald.
She serves on the board of Friends of Scarborough Marsh, Biddeford Shellfish Conservation Commission, World Affairs Council of Maine, and, despite her tendancy to get sea sick in the open ocean, she is Rear Commodore of the Biddeford Pool Yacht Club.