What Does an Oyster Listen to? – Nautilus

Listening to Oyster Shores in Virginia: A Journey Through Time and Culture

Oyster Shells and Their Surrounding Environment

In Oyster, Virginia, mailboxes and their posts are covered in oyster shells. Oyster shells have been tossed in the sandy dirt along driveways and piled around the bases of the pines. Oysters’ existence was intertwined with the southernmost portion of the Delmarva peninsula, a substantial spit of coastal plain that juts down from Delaware and Maryland, hugging the Chesapeake Bay like a thick arm. The brackish oyster would hear the rhythm of the tides like breath, or a heartbeat.

Personification of the Oceans

R. Murray Schafer, a soundscape ecologist, writes in The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World that the ocean possesses equal energy across the entire audible spectrum when it is worked into anger. However, as one moves back to the shoreline, power gives way to regular beating. In a miraculous manner, the sea begins to suggest its opposite – rhythmic order.

Oysters’ Sensory Organs

Oysters don’t have auditory organs, but with small tentacles at the edge of their fleshy mantle, they are able to sense light, the salinity, and temperature of the water—and vibration. In this way, they “listen” to the conditions of their environment and sense the world around them. They look like congregations of ears, huddling along the shores, in bays and estuaries, near where people live.

Early Evolution and Migration

Life first came to form beneath the ocean’s surface. Within the deeps, the first ears listened. Some animals crawled out of that wash of sound and evolved inland, on soil, sounding through the air. The ocean still contains most of life on the planet, but us creatures with lungs can’t live there now. We have to live rooted, terrestrial.

Oyster Reefs and Their Significance

Amitav Ghosh writes in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable that, through much of human history, people regarded the ocean with great wariness. Even when they made their living from the sea, through fishing or trade, they generally did not build large settlements on the water’s edge. London, Lisbon, and Europe’s other great port cities “are all protected from the open ocean by bays, estuaries, or deltaic river systems.” The places where oysters live. Oyster reefs were historically part of the reason that bays and estuaries were protected from the sea’s brute power.

Cultural Significance of Oysters

Archaeologists have long called these shell-heaps “middens,” which means literally “dungheap.” But more recent studies suggest that the middens were more like temples. Nearly all records of early pottery throughout the Southeast, for example, are found with the midden-temples. The shells were used to temper pots that served as vessels for feasting. It’s now thought that both the shells and pots, concave in shape, womblike, signified abundance. So whereas anthropologists once thought oysters were “starvation food,” they now recognize them as “feasting food,” a delicacy in celebrations such as marriages and in rituals like burials. The anthropologist Cheryl Claassen writes that they were symbols of both fertility and renewal: everlasting life.1 Cultural meanings of the oyster transcend specific shores.

Industrialization of Oystering

By the 1850s, settlers industrialized the oystering that was once done by hand. As the century accelerated, dredging boats dragged great metal claws through the Chesapeake’s oyster beds, feeding commercial canning operations and decimating the reefs. Before settlers came, the Powhatan conducted oystering as a ritual activity; now it became an intensive industry in the burgeoning capitalist nation. Suddenly oysters did not symbolize biological fecundity but industrial development and economic affluence.

The Significance of Preservation

Scholar Jonathan Sterne writes in The Audible Past that the sound-recording technology that arose in the late 1800s was touted as a way to preserve “the voices of the dead.” The “culture of preservation” from which the phonograph arose and gained popularity was a culture that had recently learned to embalm bodies, and to can food. The mass production of tin cans enabled the large-scale distribution of industrially canned foods. Sterne writes that canned foods were “an early artifact of…

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