Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 6: Jamie Etheridge, Oysterless Bay


Eleven miles across, averaging 10 feet deep, the bay looks nothing like the blue mirror my mom grew up admiring. Muddy, silt-thick water from the five rivers delta converges at its mouth, America’s own Amazon. On the western shore, Mobile office buildings compete with the reflection of lights from fishing boats floating across the broad expanse of water. My mother remembers neither its flow nor flood, but seafood banquets cooked by her father. Her favorite: oysters raw or stewed or fried. Oysters tonged from the bay’s shallows just for her. I wonder, would she love oysters so much if she hadn’t grown up on a bay teeming with them?

The bay is a story sad and brackish: Native civilizations dating back thousands of years erased by first Spanish, then French explorers. Their oyster middens dismantled, their cultures destroyed. The last slave ship, the Clotilde, scuttled to the slimy bottom to avoid prosecution just before the Civil War. Mobile Bay drowns its bloody history in the murk. But eventually, all stories return to the light, divers retrieve what can never be forgotten. My grandfather – young and wild – would cook Momma shrimp and crawfish, grouper and redfin but it was the oysters she loved. Raw, on the half shell, pearly meat glistening, doused with lemon juice and served with saltine crackers and spicy cocktail sauce. 

In the 1950s, when my mom was a girl, Mobile Bay’s oyster harvest averaged a million pounds of meat a year. That’s just the meat: thick, juicy flesh. Not the bivalve shells. Not the millions of pounds of calcium carbonate, magnesium, sodium and bits of copper iron. These were abandoned on the edges of canneries where children as young as nine shucked oysters for pennies all day or later dredged for highway construction. 

My mom grew up, married and moved away, coming home every few years, another new baby in tow. By the early 2000s, the oyster harvest had plummeted to a few thousand pounds a year; the reefs destroyed by the dredging schemes, disastrous oil spills and decades of overharvesting. The canneries shuttered and disappeared and fishing fleets shifted to shrimping in the Gulf. Pretty soon Mobile Bay oysters were a bedtime story no one remembered, only a handful of restaurants even sold oysters on the half shell anymore. 

When she had seven children and then her husband died, my mom packed up and came home. By then, oysters in the bay, now foul and poisoned, were mostly gone. Oysters are natural filtration systems, you see, and with millions removed, the beds destroyed, there remained no natural defense against upriver agricultural runoff, sewage, pollution and bacteria growth. No one understood what they had lost until it was long gone. 

My mother never speaks of bereavement: Dead husband and seven pairs of eyes turned to her—a woman who hadn’t worked in 18 years and didn’t know how she would feed her children. I imagine her, down by the bay where she eventually found a low-wage secretarial job, watching a film of oil rainbow across its surface. Did she contemplate the barren bottom devoid of the wild oysters she once loved? Did she wonder what life she might build now for herself and her children?

In recent years, environmentalists, scientists and residents of the bay’s littoral have come together to restore the oysters. In Bayou La Batre, Dauphin Island and Murder Point, farmers hang wire cages packed with seedling oysters from docks. Washed by the briny water, these babes in arms are the region’s best chance at reviving the once-flourishing commercial oyster aquaculture. But farmed oysters are sterile. They will never rewild the bay. 

Rewilding requires a different kind of courage. A belief in a future we agree to safeguard. I am no scientist nor fisherwoman but if I could, I would gather hundreds of oyster seedlings in my arms, fill the basket of my shirtfront to overflowing. Then I’d wade out into the shallows of the bay and plant the future, oyster a reef of possibility, and restore my mother’s sullied hope. 


I am drawn to Blair Braverman’s essay "Useless Bay" by the sparse yet lush prose juxtaposed against the precise imagery of the bay and the people and marine life that once populated it. 

Mobile Bay served as an important backdrop in my mom’s childhood and a place that I’ve always loved so the Braverman essay spoke to me on myriad levels. 

Climate change and the environmental changes that have impacted Useless Bay are global in scope and though not, perhaps, the exact same litany of issues that have destroyed the oyster reefs in Mobile Bay, there are parallels that resonate with me both because of climate change and human behavior. 

I wanted to cover this essay but also layer in this issue of Mobile Bay’s decimated oyster reefs - and the human behavior that caused their destruction. Bringing this into focus in as many ways as possible feels to me urgently important. 

I also appreciate the deeper metaphor at work, the life we give to the world around us, to the sea and to the earth, is given back to us. 


Jamie Etheridge is CNF editorial assistant for CRAFT. She won the 2022 Fractured Lit Anthology II Prize, judged by Deesha Philyaw, for her flash fiction, "Ways of Karst." She was also a finalist for the Kenyon Review Developmental Editing Fellowship 2021 for CNF. Her writing can be found in Anti-Heroin Chic, Bending Genres, Essay Daily, Identity Theory, JMWW Journal, Reckon Review, X-R-A-Y Lit, and other publications. She tweets at LeScribbler. 

1 comment:

  1. In "Useless Bay," Blair Braverman writes about the decline of oysters in Mobile Bay, Alabama and the efforts to restore them. The bay was once home to thriving oyster populations, but overharvesting, pollution, and other factors have led to their decline. Braverman reflects on her own family's history with the bay and the impact that the loss of oysters has had on the local community. She also discusses the efforts to restore the oyster population through aquaculture, but notes that these farmed oysters are sterile and will not be able to rewild the bay. Braverman advocates for the importance of protecting and preserving natural environments and the species that inhabit them.