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As we drove into the Sydney Fish Market, the pelicans waddled across the empty car park. We had in fact arrived at the quietest time of the day. At 11 o’clock, the fishermen had left, and the tourists had not yet arrived, and we wandered through the busy market; a visual feast of ice, and fish and shells. I asked the shuckers to fill my white buckets and whilst they worked their magic I yarned with a friend. We shared a leisurely lunch and watched the crowds grow and swell.
The oyster stories, like shells are piling up. They jostle and clamour to be heard.
Oysters; It’s All in the Family!
Cake artist and writer/researcher Margaret McGreal and I visited the Sydney Fish Markets on Tuesday the 27th of August. It was a bustling Tuesday lunch time and we scoured the markets for oyster shuckers and donations of Sydney Rock Oyster shells to our big white buckets. After exploring all the fresh and cooked food options with oysters on ice, in shells, with lemon and parsley, in cardboard containers. We saw piles of oyster shells being shucked at speed. It was busy and chaotic. The sun shone and the birds were aplenty.
At the Fish markets, Margaret shared some of her oyster stories.
I asked her about her first memory of eating an oyster and she started with her earliest memory.
It was 1975, and we were in our red Kingswood, on a family road trip from Melbourne. As we hit the border into NSW, we stopped at a seaside town café. My Dad, who absolutely loves oysters, gave me one of his cherished oysters from his plate. He wanted to share it with me and find out if I shared his passion. I was very young, and I remember trying to work out if I was meant to chew it or swallow it whole. In the end I swallowed it whole. I remember thinking it was slimy, but not disliking the taste. It was father and daughter moment, though I wonder if I let him down by not sharing his love. Thankfully, we were not to know that I was to make up for it a generation later when it turned out that it was my son that was to immediately share his passion. Incidentally, my now 92-year-old father has never lost his love of the oyster, and I have since learnt to chew them!
Every year, my family of in-laws and I go to the Sydney Royal Easter show. A tradition my husband, Paul, has been enjoying for over forty years. One of the highlights is the oyster break where at 4pm we stop for prawns and oysters in one of the pavilions. Before that, the family groups have often divided to enjoy the stands that are specific to their interests, but wherever we have been, we all come together at the oyster stand. We cluster around a tall table telling stories and eating plates and plates of oysters. At the ripe old age of four, my son joined the tradition as he started slurping down those oysters with gusto. Already a connoisseur, my son seems to have inherited his love of oysters from his Pa!
In fact, many a lazy sunny day has been spent with Pa and Jack extolling to the virtues of the oysters they have enjoyed during lunch. Together, they have eaten every type of oyster from Coffin Bay to Sydney Rock, all the way from Margaret River in Western Australia to Batemans Bay in NSW. While he has his Pa have shared many memories together, one of Jack’s favourite oyster memories is sharing a dozen oysters with his auntie Suzie at a prestigious restaurant in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. While the sun shone down, the two of them extolled the virtues of natural oysters versus Kilpatrick and whether one could truly love oysters if they were enjoyed anything but naturally.
Can a love of oysters be genetic?
The oysters lie in my studio, waiting for stories.
I fill them up; fill them to brimming with questions; with searching; with encounter.
I talk to them. In whispers. I talk them. About them. Through them. With them.
I dream them.
And they dream me.
Piled in front of me like glistening sea Country
At times they overwhelm.
Overwhelm me with their volume, their abundance, their noise, their need.
I think through them. With them.
They form piles on the blankets.
I contemplate the inside for I am pearl. I am smooth. I am skin. Flesh.
I trace the outside with my fingers, my thumbs.
I line them up. Stack them.
I count them and find ways to connect them, to reconnect them to each other, to themselves and to me. I try to make them whole.
I wash them; over and over. I turn them. I turn.
I am oyster. I am skin. I am shell; torn and wet.
My hands rub barnacles. I am clinging. Clinging on.
I know where oysters lie.
They lie inside and nourish me and I filter them.
They fill me with song.
I know where oysters lie.
I will be facilitating a Baludarri Reef Making Project during the UNSW Sydney 2019 Diversity Fest that will run over 5 days from Monday 23rd of September to Friday 27th. The reef building will take place each day between 11.30-1.30 for the length of the festival and everyone is welcome to join in!
Each day of the festival a team of volunteers and I will set up in the Quad and the project involves straw bales, Shoalhaven river mud, oyster shells, clay, imagination, creativity and play.
What does the building the reef project involve?
Throughout the festival lunch times I am inviting participants to encounter the clay and oyster shells, to respond to them and to make an art work with me. Students, staff and visitors can engage with the project through making, discussing, photographing and viewing. This event is specifically designed to provide the UNSW Community with the opportunity to engage in co creating a piece of eco-friendly art that honours the Baludarri, the Sydney Rock Oyster, its shell, its histories and its stories. Oysters filter and feed, and together we will filter negativity and feed inclusivity, positivity, integration and well-being.Through the reef I want to affirm the essential role the humble oyster plays in the health of our Sea Country and the well-being of our communities. Time on Country and nature-based play and encounter is an essential aspect of our well-being. Each oyster shell, like each human is unique and in this work each person’s contribution is valued and equal. The clay will sun dry and harden over the five days in an emerging and organic way.
Working with clay can be mediative, it can heal. Art making can lift the spirits and engage the heart in healing and this work is enacted Reconciliation practise where the UNSW Festival community has the opportunity to come together and co create an oyster reef; a reef of hope, a bed of support for each other and our mother earth.
Together, we will build positive ecosystems and manifestations of a healthy community.
I invited UNSW Diversity Festival Director Fergus Grealy into the studio this week to share his festival vision.
Fergus told me that Diversity Fest was week-long celebration at UNSW Sydney from 23 – 27 September 2019 which aims to bring students and staff together to embrace the diversity of the UNSW community and ignite broader conversations on creating an inclusive society, where everyone can participate. He said ‘There will be over 20 events held on campus during the week, including panel discussions, film screenings, concerts, art exhibitions and social gatherings. The events program will highlight the intersectionality of our diverse groups and have a greater emphasis on creating participatory experiences.’
Fergus and I connected over our shared love of creativities and transformations and sat on the blanket art works that I have been preparing for participants to sit on and during the art making on the Quad lawn. As we talked, we moulded clay and began the oyster shell and spat dialogues. Together, we seeded the work and we spoke about the project inclusion into the festival and its deep and embedded approach to fostering health and well being through shared purpose. Hands on, hands with, the human print marks the clay and the shell provides the safe harbour for ideas to grow.
During our studio based conversation and art making, Fergus explained to me ‘It is for these reasons that The Baludarri Bed Making Project has been included in Diversity Fest; the project is primarily informed by Indigenous knowledge and practice, but it also touches on environmental issues, mental well-being and it might even reveal the gender non-conformity of the oyster for a portion of their lifecycle. The project will be formed by community participation and the process will organically allow for this transference of knowledge.’
During NAIDOC Week I observed oysters under a microscope for the first time. Like little time capsules with so much possibility, the oyster can be male or female but never both at the same time. Once the spawning has occurred, eggs and sperm are released into the water to be fertilized. Adult females can release as many as 5 to 8 million eggs at one time. Once the eggs are fertilized in the water, the developing larvae float around until they are ready to attach to a resting spot. At first the oysters move freely and have an eye and a foot. At this point, the oyster searches for a surface and can attach to any hard substrate, including rocks, driftwood and piers. In time, the young oysters (spat) will develop their hard shells for protection and grow in size. In time they will shape and form and filter.
The scale of the oyster spawning plays on my mind.
I think often of the moon.
I eat their milky flesh in the sun.
The shells protect me.
They provide safe harbour for my imaginative self.
I wait for the oysters to grow.
I wait for the reef to form
My shells of understanding emerge.
I am melancholy.
The loss weighs on my mind.
Loss of spawnings.
Loss of wild.
Loss of blue.
The ghostly shapes haunt me and visit my sleep.
Fluttering and seeking, searching with their feet, their eyes.
They seek me out.
Prod me to move.
Prod me to move on and flutter and find my own drift wood, my rock.
I heard them, their clicks and they called me.
Called me from the shore.
Lapped at my consciousness and pricked and clicked my ears, my mind.
For it was under the microscope they came alive.
For it is sitting within the crosshatch
that the oysters lie
There lies my learning.
Last week I visited Worimi Country and worked with my research partner and a group of twenty five pre-school aged children and their educators. As an intergenerational, diverse learning community we committed time to explore our knowing and worlding of the oyster. Together, we developed understandings of the importance of the Baludarri. We played with the shells and storied them as valued and valuable. We sang songs about them and observed them in tanks. We questioned. We pondered. We were curious. We entered an imaginative space of fire and midden.
Laura Parker set up a small tank with some precious oysters within. She introduced them. She described their role as filter feeders and explained to the children that we may see a change occur in the water soon if we took the time to look and listen and learn. She asked children to feed the oysters with algae and to observe them in the water. The children listened and learned deeply. They discussed, questioned and shared.
I gifted each child a shell and a piece of clay and each child created their own unique oyster art work. The children shared their own stories of how they had come to know the Baludarri, They explored the shells with their hands and their play was slow and structured. The oysters were sacred.
We worked outside in the wintery sun and the children worked with clay and shells to build, create and form. Cooperatively we curated an oyster reef on the rocks of their sand pit. Embedded in their nature based play area, on the large rocks we built our reef. Children gathered. They fossicked, pushed, patterned and placed the shells in different configurations. The unfamiliar became familiar as the oysters joined their play.
The oysters are now part of the ongoing play story of the children of the Bay. Hands will scoop, shells will fill with water. Shells will scoop the sand and be worn. They will tell stories of gathering. They will re-story and create opportunity for nature based ocean dialogues and conversations about Sea Country.
I like to think of the oyster reef that we built that day. How will it respond to rain? How will it change? How will it iterate and re-iterate as children flow through the space? What stories will be told? The oysters provide the tools for thinking, for imagining and reimagining.Deep in the sand will shells be lost? Hidden? Taken?
I know where oysters lie.
UNSW Environmental Scientist and science student Jieyu Liu visited Sarah Jane’s studio for the first time in July. Sarah Jane wanted to interview Jieyu in order to gain an understanding of her interface with the Sydney Rock Oyster. Together they wrote this blog ‘Tales from an Environmental Scientist and Sydney Oyster Girl’.
Jieyu brought her first paper back full of carefully cleaned oyster shells in a brown paper bag. It was May and the sun was shining and the shells were handed over like an offering. I was excited. The first donated shells of the project! I was thrilled. I peered in the crumpled bag and carried them to my studio. I laid them out on the bench. I played with them, I made patterns with them and imagined them as carriers fo stories. The oysters had made a journey to me across Sydney. They were a remnant of a celebration, a get together. I imagined the folk that had had eaten them, the hands that had touched them and tracked back, back to the hands that had grown and harvested them. There were many hands. I wanted to harvest the stories of these shells, to mine the connections, to drill down into the reefs, the communities the peoples who consumed them, who cherished them, whose slithery and slippery slide journeyed to me. To my hands. Like a modern midden, the shells are mounting. I like the complexities and the stories associated with their journey to me.
The second time that Jieyu offers up her shells to the project there are hundreds! I am overwhelmed. They make a wonderful sound when Jieyu pours them in and through my open hands. I scurry to my studio. I wash. Sort. Clean. File.
I take a few home in my hand bag. On the way home, I reach down and into my bag to hold one. I make it warm. I give it new life. I carry it with me like a scar.
I wait for Jieyu; for the offerings, the shells.
I wait for her, my oyster girl.
My name is Jieyu Liu, and I am an honours student in the Ferrari Lab from BABS school, UNSW. I am currently working on a bioremediation project at Casey station with Australian Antarctic Division. I got to know Sarah Jane through Sally Crane, one of Ph.D candidates from the Ferrari lab. Sally is a member of the BEES and BABS Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee at UNSW and a passionate supporter of the arts and Sally let me know that Sarah Jane had gained funding to work with an Indigenous scientist and make art works using the Baludarri or Sydney Rock Oyster as a main theme. She let me know that Sarah Jane was trying to find people in the UNSW committee to co create oyster stories with her.
Outside of the lab, I work as a part-time oyster shucker in a company called Sydney Oyster Girls. In the seafood industry, Sydney rock oysters are the icons of Australia.
After learning that Dr. Moore was collecting Sydney Rock Oyster Shells for her art project, I sent her an email to her. I reached out and offered to help her with her art making through collecting the precious oyster shells and bringing them to her at the university. I emailed her and she immediately replied back with some pictures of her amazing art work. Her art work was made with oyster shells and she shared with me that she was working with an Indigenous scientist whose experiments were assisting knowledges about future proofing the Baludarri. I heard that there were many ancient stories about Sydney oysters and from then, I started collecting leftover oyster shells from my hospitality work.
Today, I was invited by Sarah Jane to her oyster studio, which is located in BEES school. As an environmental science student and an oyster lover, I can’t tell you all how happy I am when I see these food “waste” became a part of art that she has made.
From the perspective of my customers, fresh Sydney Rock Oysters are regarded as a luxury. I shuck them in five seconds. Once I open the shell they are still alive and I can’t see them moving. It looks beautiful. The meat is a creamy colour. If it is alive it will be juicy. After I shuck them I cut off the large muscle that connects it to the shell and I flip the meat around so ti shows the plumpest part of the oyster to the customer. I shuck 100 oysters in an hour. I use an oyster shucking sharp knife with a short blade. I squeeze a halved lemon onto the oyster meat and then I serve them. I serve them direct to the customer on a napkin. Some people don’t take a napkin but take the shells in their cupped hand. I giver them the oyster and they slurp it usually in one swallow.
Th customers say to me ‘It tastes beautiful’. They say ‘It tastes so fresh’. Some of the customers, particularly the children do not like the taste and they spit in into the napkin.
Before I met Sarah Jane I thought of the shells as rubbish now I know that they are really valuable and truly beautiful.
Before I moved to Sydney in 2015 I had never tasted an oyster. I am from China and I am from a small inland city. We have rivers but no oysters. I tasted my first oyster in 2018 on my first shift at work. I am now totally hooked. I can eat a dozen oysters in one sitting. I love them. Especially Sydney Rock. They are beautiful. I have tried the Pacific Ocean oysters. They are much bigger, They are huge. They can be as big as my hand but they are not as soft in texture as the Baludarri.
I like my job. It connects me to the people of Sydney. I help people celebrate with the people they love. It is connecting.
Jieyu Liu, July, 2019