Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Strange Harvests

Strange Harvests: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects by Edward Posnett
Penguin Publishing Group: 8/6/19
eBook review copy: 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399562792 

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 a 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 buildings.

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.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Publishing Group.

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