Strange Harvests: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects by Edward Posnett
Penguin Publishing Group: 8/6/19
eBook review copy: 336 pages
Strange Harvests: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects
by Edward Posnett is a very highly recommended, fascinating look at seven uncommon natural products.
In a synthesis of travel writing, history, interviews, and nature writing, Strange Harvests is a captivating, engaging, and thought-provoking adventure. Posnett traces the current and historical use of
seven precious natural objects from their historical origin to their
harvesting for use. These natural items include: eiderdown, swiftlet bird nests, civet coffee, sea silk, vicuña fiber, tagua, and
guano. As Posnett points out, "Each object
served an important purpose in the natural world... yet its removal, its harvest, need not spell
discomfort, mutilation, or death." The book includes notes and an index.
"The eider is
fat seabird, more penguin than duck..." that can be found nesting in
Iceland today where they are a protected species. Eiders don't naturally
nest in large colonies but after years of co-habitation they will
congregate close to humans for shelter and protection when nesting. They
line their nests with eider down, which can then be collected after the
eider's leave. If a harvester cares for the ducks, more will come to
nest, which, in turn, will increase the amount of eider to be harvested.
The coat of a vicuña is another incredibly soft, insulating fiber that is treasured. Vicuñas roam in the Andean puna,which accounts for the development of their coat. After facing extinction, vicuñas are now protected by the communities that have a stake in their survival, with the reserve of Pampas Galeras at the forefront of the efforts.
The black-nest Swiftlet makes nests that are edible and treasured by the Chinese. The nests have been a major export commodity, perhaps as far back as the
T’ang dynasty (618–907). "During breeding
season, both male and female birds begin to retch and chew, excreting
small strands of a thick, gelatinous substance from these modified
salivary glands lying below their tongue. This they spread in arched
form across the cave wall, inserting dark brown or black feathers from
their plumage. After thirty days, the initial arch has grown to form a
shallow cup into which the bird lays one egg." These nests are made on
the roof of caves and harvesting them is a physical challenge. Recently
harvesters have been making birdhouses to attract swiftlets to live in
The story of civet coffee, or kopi
luwak, is as riveting as it is somewhat disgusting. Civet musk has been
collected and sold for years. A more recent development is collecting
coffee beans after they have been eaten and excreted by civets, and selling this as kopi luwak, civet coffee. The digestive
enzymes are supposed to add a distinctive flavor to the coffee. Along
the same excremental lines, guano has been collected off of some eighty
islands off the coast of Peru. These island receive little rain, so the
guano built up and accumulated to vast amounts of organic fertilizer.
The tagua nut is from a palm, Phytelephas, found mostly in northwestern South America. It is creamy white,
dense, and smooth and its cellulose is arranged in concentric
circles. In the
past, it was discovered that the tagua nut could easily be carved into
buttons, figurines, and toys. Plastic has now replaced the market for
tagua buttons, but there is hope among botanists and development experts that if people learned they could make money for the
harvest of “nontimber forest products” (NTFPs), it might induce forest conservation.
Bivalve mollusks, such as mussels, clams,
scallops, and pen shells, produce silken threads known as byssus.
This sea silk or
byssus, is used as an anchor by the mollusks to tether themselves to the seafloor against the
push and pull of the waves. Underwater, the beards look like brown moss, full of
algae and small shells, but when cleaned and combed, they appear to be golden threads, commonly known as sea silk. These
threads have been prized for their shine and strangeness for nearly two thousand years. Harvesting them is now prohibited. Until October, 2016, a weaver in Sardinia who called herself the "Maestro Chiara Vigo" ran the "The Museum of Byssus" and claimed a history of weaving that discounted others. Now that the museum has been closed, other women in Sant’Antioco, the descendants of the weavers from
Italo Diana’s school, are exchange their stories and reclaiming their heritage.
My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Publishing Group.