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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.