Orphan – or, The One That Got Away 2014
Mixed media. Length (of manatee): 14.9 cm
Sculpture produced for the show Power of the Sea at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol
Accompanying article first published on the blog The Weeds and the Wilderness, June 2014
Fish Tea and Terra Preta
“Jamaica has been overfished for so long that the island has a unique speciality dish developed to over-come the processing problems that attend small-bodied fish: fish “tea”. Simply throw the fish into the pot whole and boil for several hours. Sieve out bones, scales, and fins, and enjoy the refreshing protein broth that remains.”
Callum Roberts, “The Unnatural History of the Sea” Octopus books, 2007
Roberts’ book is in essence a catalogue of the serial depletion of fish and other marine stocks over the past 700 years. Over and over, from the demise of giant sturgeon in mediaeval European rivers to the obliteration of Orange ruddy from the 21st century Australasian Sea-mounts, Roberts finds the same pattern repeated, the steady elimination of stocks from the largest predator species in the most accessible places, down through the trophic levels and successively rougher environments to the smallest and remotest populations, with catch levels dropping sharply after each incursion into virgin fisheries, and then barely maintained at their reduced level through rapid expansion of fishing technologies and range.
The book makes bleak reading, and yet beneath the relentless lament plays another, altogether different strain, a triumphant and irrepressible symphony of wonder at the sheer exuberant wealth of the waters and oceans in their undisturbed states. Pioneer accounts, archaeological records, trade records and ships’ logs furnish us with an almost unimaginable picture of plenty. European rivers once harboured fish larger than a man, whales were hunted from the Channel coasts in rowing boats, herds of sea cows grazed Pacific coastal plains in a spectacle to rival the Serengeti. Large fish across the world spawned in shoals so thick they were a navigational hazard to ships. Lost sailors could find they way back to the Caribbean by following the sound of migrating turtle flocks. And though populations are depleted and exhausted in site after site across the globe, the actual number of known extinctions is still relatively small – the domino wave of terrestrial extinctions has not yet [quite] hit the seas, and so ultimately the book, for all its tragedy, seems to offer after all a note of hope. After a 345 page marine obituary I have come the final chapters, where Roberts proposes a model for sustainable fishing and a brighter future for people and fish.
As well as an ode to lost fish, Roberts’ book is a lesson in shifting baselines – the invisible creep (or slide) of expectations from generation to generation that leaves us blind to the effect of our actions, and almost incapable of believing the evidence of what has passed. This theme recalls for me another astonishing book about shifting baselines – Charles Mann’s “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” (Knopf, 2005). Drawing from contemporary historic accounts and new research in many disciplines, Mann pieces together an outline map of likely human population levels in the Americas at the time of the arrival of Columbus and emerges with a picture vastly different from the textbook vision of wild vistas and empty frontiers. Large parts of the continent were heavily populated, agriculturally and technologically developed, with populations in some areas that probably exceeded their European counterparts in Paris, London and Rome. The Amazon shows signs of being the product of large-scale forest management, with species distribution reflecting human activities, and large areas of anthropogenic soil – Terra Preta – made by the mass production of burnt ceramics and compost. The nomadic slash-and-burn cultures we think of as primordial are in many places probably the refugee descendants of forgotten civil societies, torn apart by European diseases.
Funnily enough, contemporary accounts by the first European visitors describe the cities and farms of native peoples, their culture, values and politics, their numbers and good health, in straightforward terms. However the impact of the colonial encounter left such a vastly different scene in its wake that later historians were unable to believe what they read and dismissed the accounts as fantasy and propaganda. Yet again the shifting baselines distort our sense of perspective and pervert our understanding of the ecological and cultural landscapes we inhabit and destroy. Like the monitor on a treadmill, progress measured against a receding baseline gives the illusion of movement when in truth it merely measures the energy expended to get nowhere. In an economy that counts the circulation of currency as a gauge of productivity this can sustain the appearance of progression, but in real terms we are moving backward, and inexorably picking up speed.
Columbus, arriving in the Caribbean, found manatees, alligators, and turtles “so numerous it seemed that the ships would run aground on them”. He also met skilful, intelligent and generous native people, keystone participants in a healthy, managed environment. His arrival meant the beginning of the end for the communities – human and ecological – who shaped and defined the landscape of the America he ‘discovered’. Yet Mann concludes his book with a lesson from the native peoples of the Americas – past and present. “If [modern nations] want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its state in 1491, they will have to create the world’s largest gardens.”
And this, too, is the conclusion to which Roberts seems to be leading – that the solution lies in carefully managed semi-wild, semi-cultivated landscapes in which nature’s wild bounty is inhabited and enriched by a respectful human presence.
Footnote: Native American societies and their impacts on the environment have varied widely across the continent and the millennia. Not all were sustainable, or humane. Perhaps we can learn from both the triumphs and the tragedies.