Over the late spring and summer of 2016, I logged a few hundred miles driving between organic farms around northeast Georgia. I was shooting portraits and photographs for the newly redesigned website for the Athens Farmers Market.Read More
Back in March, I spent a long day working with organic vegetable and oyster farmer Rafe Rivers on his shellfish lease on the Mud River in McIntosh County, Ga. I first met Rafe two years ago when I wrote this story for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. As I continued to work on "The High Low Tide," my book about oystering in Georgia, Rafe and I kept in touch. This day was the second time I visited Rafe's shellfish lease, and perhaps the third or four time I visited his farm, Canewater.
From bags floating on a trellis made of PVC and rebar, we culled dead oysters and cleaned off barnacles. Able to access the oysters only at low tide, and forced to work with our feet sucked deep into the river bottom by mud, nothing was easy about this work. Rather short myself, each time I walked from boat to oyster trellis and back to the boat, mud reached past my knee.
These oysters, bagged and hung, were given to Rafe to farm as part of University of Georgia-led project attempting to introduce modern oyster aquaculture and husbandry to the small industry. The project, its leaders, and the oystermen are central characters in my book.
Suffice it to say, Rafe and I were both sunburned and exhausted by the end of the day. Not that I need a reminder, but the physicality of tending and harvesting oysters in these Georgia marshlands is strenuous. Happy to only write about the trade, and lend a hand on a busy day now and then. To celebrate, we harvested a bucket of wild oysters from a trio of bivalve mounds known as the Three Sisters.
I've been spending a great deal of my spare time on farms these past few weeks. And while the weather has been cool, it hasn't been entirely pleasant. All around Georgia, summer is wrapping its hot and wet blanket around us.
Recently, I began working on my High Low Tide manuscript from the relative peace of the loft in the shed in my backyard. It may sound like an idyllic space, but, be assured, it is uncooled and therefore a goddamn sweatbox. Both farms and my personal "office" reminded me of a story I wrote for Modern Farmer about how farmworkers deal with intense temperatures during the busy summer season.
In short, stay cool, work hard, and check out these photos:
Published in the Atlanta Constitution in March on 1889, poet and writer Montgomery M. Folsom filed a report titled "Gathering Oysters: A Night on the Waves with the Fishermen of Brunswick." It's one of the few descriptive works about pre-1950s oystering in Georgia that I've been able to find. Folsom focuses on the songs that African-American fishermen sing as they go about their work, using a poet's thesaurus in his work. But there's a strange section in the middle of the story devoted to the fate of a raccoon Folsom must have encountered while traveling with the fisherman.
I've blogged before about the relationship between cluster oyster in the South and raccoons, and I discussed the history of calling cluster oysters "coons."
Raccoons feast on clusters, or so goes the thinking. The other theory is that thin, slim wild oysters resemble a raccoon's paw. In Folsom's story, transcribed with some edits below, the former is the case, but the paw plays a humorous and tragic role as well.
Caught at last!
When the tide is out the raccoon walks the shore in search of a free lunch of oysters on the half shell.
The 'coon is very cunning, and long experience has taught him the danger of falling into the clutches of the oyster, as innocent and dumb as the bivalve appears to be.
When the oysters open their shells and are feeding and the shallow waters are trickling through...and everything is moving along...the raccoon finds it an easy matter to scoop in a jolly supper of oysters without consulting the waiter.
But suddenly he reaches out his paw and makes a scoop at the oyster, lying so quietly in his shell, and he allows that paw to linger a little too long.
He feels the fatal grip of the hard shell on his foot, and he knows that he has met his fate.
With a savage cry of pain and dismay, he turns these great yellow eyes landward for a last look at the sweep of curving shore, where he has lived in peace and quiet so many, many years.
A freshening in the breeze causes him to turn his eyes seaward. The song of the surges is coming nearer. The vast stretch of rushing waters seems to be rushing down upon him, and he shrieks with the agony of mortal fear.
He begins to gnaw at the foot that has been imprisoned. He will hobble out to the shore leaving his foot there rather than be drowned.
...he has just missed the joint. The waters are rising higher and higher. The boom of the billows is in his ears. Still that unyielding shell refuses to give up its prey. He tears the flesh with his teeth. It is nearly separated. One little tendon holds it.
The writer describes the Brunswick fishermen laughing at the raccoon's fate. How did he expect to beat the tide on three legs? Make it through all the mud missing a foot?
It's not entirely clear what happened, as the section is finished only in a patois dialogue, but it's safe to assume the raccoon did not make it.