What is it to Take Care of Each Other?

Oyster Tecture, Companion Species, and Decolonial Animality

HUMN 4008

Uncanny Animals

Close up of oysters.
Ada Bierling

The world as we know it is changing. Climate change and globalized monoculture are affecting the earth’s inhabitants in unprecedented, sometimes catastrophic, ways. It is at a time like this when we must pave new ways of thinking, listen to the wisdom from the past, and forge better ways of being with all living things. Kate Orff and her collaborators through SCAPE Landscape Architecture are looking to make these better ways of being with the Eastern Oyster in the project Oyster Tecture.1 Oyster Tecture merges ecology and architecture to create a series of breakwaters in the New York City harbor through a process called biomimicry. The architects will mimic naturally occurring reefs by planting textured blocks into the harbor and then seeding communities of oysters onto them. Oysters affect their environment at large, creating barriers that lessen the damage done by large waves, and act as natural filters of pollutants in the water. Is Oyster Tecture truly a companionable, symbiotic, and ethical project? To contextualize the purpose of Oyster Tecture, we will first learn about the history of the New York harbour and the ways in which it was negatively affected by colonial human activity. Next we will tackle the question of companion species, and using Donna Haraway’s methodology of understanding species interdependence through respect, response, and paying attention while analyzing Oyster Tecture’s social infrastructures, I will show that Oyster Tecture has the potential to be a truly companionable relationship if certain programming is removed. Lastly, we will look to the future and find that to ensure Oyster Tecture continues to be an equitable collaboration between human and oyster, we will need a restructuring of our understanding of human/animal relations through decolonial thought.

Before Oyster Tecture: How did we get here?

In 1609 the Dutch first landed on what is now known as New York. The place was originally named Lenapehoking by the indigenous Lenape, and there was thriving waterlife in the harbor. Waterfowl, fish, and shellfish were in abundance, oysters being “twice as large as today’s.”2 Beds of oysters were so plentiful that one could walk along the shore and pick them out of the water. This makes it clear that the Lenape practised sustainable caretaking of the land and water they lived with.

After stewardship of the land was taken from the Lenape, oysters became a staple food for those who lived in New York City. Not only were they in abundance and financially accessible, they were also a high source of protein, iron, and various vitamins. This made it an easy choice for folks of all classes to eat. Colonist fishers and business people picked up on their popularity and began farming them in greater numbers over the years. There were attempts to regulate overharvesting as early as 1658, but the demand only kept growing. It was also discovered that oyster shells could be used as a building material when ground and turned into mortar paste- this negatively affected the regeneration of oyster beds as the shells weren’t able to decompose in the water, which is integral to the regrowth of an oyster community.

Ultimately, it wasn’t overfarming that led to the demise of the oyster population in the harbour, but pollution. Heavy metals, sewage, and other harmful city waste was flooded into the water and in 1927 New York’s last commercial oyster bed was closed due to toxicity. An overabundance of silt covering the oysters in the bay halted new growth. The harbour went from being home to 220,000 acres of oyster reefs in the 17th century to being largely lifeless by the 20th century.

Anthropocentric, colonial, capitalist actions reshaped this ecosystem, and today the water is contaminated while sea levels are rising. After Hurricane Sandy hit Staten Island in 2012, it became obvious that this changed environment would affect the inhabitants of the city more than they had ever imagined. Oysters are not only natural filters and healthy players in a diverse ecosystem, they also provide natural breakwaters which protect land from being flooded. With natural disasters becoming more common due to climate change, the people of New York are under threat of damage done by more hurricanes like Sandy. This is where Oyster Tecture comes in. Created by Kate Orff and a team from SCAPE Architecture, it is a project which plans to create a system of oyster reefs which mimic naturally occuring waterscapes in order to A) improve water quality in the harbour; B) protect the city from storm surges; and C) protect the city from rising sea levels. On the surface, this seems like a healthy and balanced example of a companion species relationship, but what about in practice? How is the human and the oyster positioned in this project? Does Oyster Tecture truly care about the oyster? Who benefits? Let’s dive deeper.

Oyster Tecture As Companion Species, and Revealing a Symbiotic View of Life

When thinking about the human/oyster relationship, it would be easy to think about humanmade oyster culture. The glitz of a decadent oyster bar, the cocktails, the tabasco and lemon, the sensuality of slurping the slimy muscle between your lips… the creators of Oyster Tecture believe in the importance of cultural connections with waterlife, and have visualized a different kind of social infrastructure to surround human/oyster culture in New York. Through a network of soft structures of knitted ropes which oysters grow on and ‘flupsies,’ floating rafts which host oyster nurseries below, they envision a blue-green park in which people will be able to commune with the life by the shore. Kate Orff calls it a “new amphibious public space.”3 Educational programs geared towards children and teens are also planned, such as scuba diving and other activities which aid in the growth and monitoring of the oysters. These would allow children to come into intimate contact with the sealife. There would be oyster farming on the shores to provide food for the local community. Lastly, Orff envisions a Flupsy Parade, a public event where people join to cheer on the flupsies as they float down the canal to bring the oyster spats to be seeded on the reef.

In When Species Meet, Donna Haraway explores the intricacies of relationships between members of different species, which she calls ‘companion species.’ Haraway’s writing is a helpful starting point to think through how to build ethical interspecies relations. She writes: “Species interdependence is the name of the worlding game on earth, and that game must be one of response and respect. That is the play of companion species learning to pay attention.”4 She names a number of things that are important to consider when engaging in inter species relationship: acknowledgement of interdependence, response, respect, and learning to pay attention to the other. Species interdependence is integral to Oyster Tecture, and as exhibited through their plans for educational programming, they want other humans to see the important role of the oyster in ecology. The problem with public programming however, is that it is made for humans. Human action in Oyster Tecture plays an important role, since settlers were and are the ones to create such a mess, it is our responsibility to try and care for the world as it is now. However, we cannot let self-centredness blind us from truly seeing those we are attempting to work with. In the spirit of companion species, we must build this relationship of respect and response by being continuously curious not about what an oyster is like, but what it is. So, let’s take a moment to answer the question, what is an oyster, really?

The oyster is a keystone species, meaning that it has the ability to affect its environment in substantial ways. When oysters are in abundance, they create reefs which act as a rich habitat for a variety of animals, including anchovies, herring, shrimp, speckled trout, blue crab, stone crab, striped bass, and the seabirds who eat them. Through an intricate internal system, oysters filter the water they live in, creating a healthier habitat for all who live with them. In order for oysters to grow, they need textured surfaces to attach to and water consisting of a balanced level of nutrients and silt. The essay A Symbiotic View of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals by Scott F Gilbert, Jan Sapp, and Alfred I Tauber helps build an understanding of the entangled existence revealed here. Building on the theories advanced by Lynn Margolis, the authors describe living beings not as independent of each other, but as intrinsically tied together. We may think that a cow can digest grass, they detail, but in actuality it is the bacterium, protists, and fungi in the cow's stomach that enable it to digest.5 In a symbiotic view of life, the very idea of individuals cannot exist since every living being depends on the others around them to live.

This is echoed in the oyster’s relationship with its environment; it is not simply the oysters living, but is the oysters and other beings continually interacting with what is around them, creating a more livable environment for all. In extension, in Oyster Tecture, humans are responding to the history of oysters, making structures for them to live on, and the oysters respond to the human action and continue to interact with the others surrounding them. Humanmade oyster culture takes oysters away from their original context.

In the glam of an oyster bar or the quaint stall of a seaside buck-a-shuck, a person doesn’t see the dynamic dance of oyster and ecology that goes on underneath the surface. The danger of social infrastructure in Oyster Tecture is the potential to forget the oyster. Certain plans, the community oyster farming and educational programs, are fruitful because of their focus of learning and working with the oyster. In the moment that a child touches a living oyster, the abstract idea of ‘relationship’ with another species becomes concrete. Haraway writes; “Our kind of capacity for perception and sensual pleasure ties us to the lives of our [non-human] kin.”6 It is this grounding in bodily senses that creates strong bonds between species that impact how they relate to each other moving forward. There are schools engaging in oyster regrowth initiatives in New York, similar to those engaged by Oyster Tecture, which show how beneficial these programs can be,

  • A group of seniors was helping Mr. Malinowski install a series of tanks and pumps [...] where oysters are being raised in harbor water. [...] “Here I am, talking about salinity, turbidity and nitrates,” said Janique Moore, 18, who [...] is contemplating becoming an environmental lawyer or a marine biologist. “But I’ll admit that when I was little, I didn’t think there were animals living in these waters. I didn’t even think of New York as a harbor-y kind of city.”7

Through being integrated into the process of caretaking oysters, this student has gone from being unaware of the dynamic life in the harbor to having thorough knowledge about this companion, and has plans to pursue education with the hope to collaborate with them further. This is becoming-with: grounded collaborations that inspire future trajectories of deeper connection.

The aspects of social infrastructure that I am against is that which centres the human: namely, the Flupsy Parade. It sounds fun and flashy, however, this celebration is set up by and for the human audience. Oysters don’t have any conception of parades, I assume they don’t care about being cheered down a canal. What results is a self-congratulatory event which envisions the human as the sole saviour, possibly even the creator, of oyster ecology in the New York harbor. The work of the oyster is forgotten. For these reasons, I propose that Oyster Tecture’s educational programs and initiatives that engage direct contact between humans and oysters be kept intact, while the Flupsy Parade and plans which remove connection from the oyster be removed.

Back to the Future: Oyster Tecture and Decolonial Thought

Today only pilot projects of Oyster Tecture have been attempted due to low funding. I am excited for the potential of interspecies love in Oyster Tecture and hope that these projects continue; however I am anxious that once the oysters become edible and plentiful, it will be turned into a business model in the efforts to gain profit by selling oysters as delicacies to humans. In the process, we may forget about the importance of symbiotic relationships and find the land back in environmental crisis. As seen in the history of the New York harbor, and the present-day struggles between land defenders and big business, it is all too easy for anthropocentrism and money to be chosen over the health of the earth. In Billy-Ray Belcourt’s Animal Bodies Colonial Subjects: (Re)locating Animality in Decolonial Thought, the author proposes that anthropocentrism is a key logic of white sumpremicist ideology, and that “animal domestication, speciesism, and other [negative] modern human-animal interactions are only possible because of and through the historic and ongoing erasure of Indigenous bodies and the emptying of Indigenous lands for settler-colonial expansion.”8 Belcourt contends that “settler-colonial life-ways are already Indigenous death-ways.”9 If we truly want to create a livable future for all life, a total rethinking and rejection of colonial thought must be undertaken. Belcourt goes on to explore Mi'kmaq cosmologies in which “animals are portrayed as our siblings”10- an expression of humans and animals as equals. These teachings which centre “learning from animals [...] can present enormous cosmological instability for those trained in westernized traditions,”11 according to Amba J Sepie. However, these cosmologies hold valuable truths and lessons concerning how to live well with the earth. This is the exact instability we need to push us towards a different way of life.

It was saddening to find that despite the healthy ecosystem witnessed directly after European contact with Lenapehoking, no implication of the Lenape's workable practices of living with the land in Oyster Tecture. Nor could I find evidence of communication between the team behind Oyster Tecture and Lenape people. In taking care with interspecies relations, we must also take seriously true decoloniality: repatriation of land to Indigenous communities. At the very least, consultation with Lenape must be pursued and centred in upcoming forms of Oyster Tecture.

Conclusion: Towards Moving Away From Business as Usual

Oyster Tecture presents a viable example of an ethical companionable species relationship that benefits both humans and animals, however, companion species are not enough. To truly care for the world and its inhabitants we must reject colonial patterns of expansion, monoculturalism, and production for profit, and instead engage decolonial thought. This is anchored in relationships of response and respect, but also of “reverence, responsibility, reciprocity”12 which Sepie details as being “evident in traditional and indigenous life ways.”13 These coming years need sensitivity and willingness to adapt to what the earth is telling us it needs. Listen to the oyster and its symbiotic life; it lives so that those around it may live. Why? “Because it’s there.”14

Ada Bierling

Ada M Bierling is an artist, writer, social worker, and curator living in Tkaronto (Toronto ON). They are currently studying at OCAD U, pursuing a BFA in CRCP and a minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Their work explores relationships of desire, freakishness, cross-species love, and queered kin making.

  1. Bart Chezar, Hydroqual Engineering, MTWTF, New York Harbor School, NY/ NJ Baykeeper, Paul Mankiewicz, and Phil Simmons. https://www.scapestudio.com/projects/
  2. Ralph W Tiner. In Search of Swampland: A Wetland Sourcebook and Field Guide. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 99.
  3. Kate Orff. Reviving New York’s rivers - with oysters! December 2010, TEDWomen 2010, Washington DC, USA, 7:40.
  4. Donna J Haraway. When Species Meet. (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 19.
  5. Scott F Gilbert et al. “A Symbiotic View of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals.” In The Quarterly Review of Biology 87, no. 4 (2012), 327.
  6. Donna J Haraway, When Species Meet, 6.
  7. David Kamp. “At the New York Harbor School, Growing Oysters for Credit.” The New York Times, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/30/dining/30harbor.html?pagewanted=all.
  8. Billy-Ray Belcourt. “Animal Bodies Colonial Subjects: (Re)locating Animality in Decolonial Thought.” In
    Societies 5, 1 (2015): 3.
  9. Belcourt, “Animal Bodies Colonial Subjects: (Re)locating Animality in Decolonial Thought.” 2.
  10. Ibid, 8.
  11. Amba J Sepie. “More than Stories, More than Myths: Animal/Human/Nature(s) in Traditional Ecological Worldviews.” In Humanities 6, no. 4 (2017): 5.
  12. Sepie, “More than Stories, More than Myths: Animal/Human/Nature(s) in Traditional Ecological Worldviews,” 3.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Scott F Gilbert et al. “A Symbiotic View of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals,” 336.

Header Photo: Toan Chu, 2019