Saturday, May 02, 2009

Wild Foods

A short thought about life and living on others’ lives:

In sixth grade, we got to do an overnight field trip to a camp on the shores of Chesapeake Bay. The days were programmed with various things that entailed us heading in groups from one set of outbuildings to another along trails through the woods. I loved it.

Uncharacteristically, though, as the co-cabined students I was a part of headed over to the dining hall one afternoon, I ducked out of the group and headed toward the wooded shore, down the hill and a couple of dozen yards away. The others faded from sight and sound, and I was alone on the shore of an estuary, at low tide. Sheets of tightly closed black mussel shells glistened iridescent blue in the sunlight. What possessed me, I have no idea, as I’d never eaten shellfish before, let alone a mussel, but I pulled three of them away from their bearded moorings, built a tiny campfire of twigs, and laid the mussels on the top. As the heat grew, the mussels opened to me, and I ate shellfish for the first time in my life. The mussels, unseasoned by anything other than their own liquor, were perfect.

In later school years, some of my favorite books were written by Euell Gibbons, generally on wild foods. It was from him, if I remember correctly, that I learned to identify what was for many years my favorite wild food: the Indian cucumber (Medeola virginiana). But that’s just an aside. I first discovered Euell Gibbons in a National Geographic article that tells of a couple of weeks he spent on an island off the coast of Maine. It was intended as a bit of an austere retreat, but I recall him describing it as a failure, as far as retreats go, since he spent so much time gathering and feasting on the bounty he found at the edge of the ocean.

For reasons I haven’t discerned, I’ve been thinking recently about visiting the coast of Maine. I’d like to spend a few days doing what I imagined Euell Gibbons doing there, though I’m not sure I’d ever be able to persuade my family to join me in such an endeavor. But even if I did, I wonder whether I can justify harvesting life from nature for my own benefit.

Have I become so hide-bound in a vegetarian lifestyle that I wouldn’t want to eat oysters and clams and mussels? I find seafood delicious, but I want to live in a world brimming with life. Is there an ethic for one of 6.7 billion persons other than vegetarianism? Is a world devoid of blue crabs any worse than one devoid of Indian cucumbers?

I have a lingering sense that I’m missing something as I think about this – that there’s a different way of being that would show this question in a different light. But I can’t seem to get to the right angle of light to see it.