Off the Menu

August Kleinzahler · Farewell to Molluscs

I went down to the corner bar last night with a few of my neighbourhood friends. We get together every few weeks down there. It’s a bit young, noisy and yup for my taste – I prefer the old man slob bar across the street – but it’s become our custom to meet there and catch up. I don’t know if twentysomethings are more screen-stunned and clueless these days than twentysomethings used to be or whether I’m just turning into a miserable old bastard, but watching them cluster for drinks at the bar three deep and bonding, and then considering the notion of them, over time, breeding didn’t fill me with optimism about the prospects for the ‘humonkey’ species.

Neither did my friend across the table, David Liittschwager. David is a nature photographer, a very good one. In 2007 he won the World Press Photo Award for Best Nature Story, a photo essay on marine microfauna that appeared in National Geographic, specifically zooplankton off the Kona coast in the lee of Hawaii’s big island. A book he co-authored entitled Archipelago about the marine life and coral reefs of Hawaii’s northwestern island chain contributed, in the opinion of many who seem to know about such things, to the designation of that area as a national monument by that unlikeliest of eco-warriors, President George W. Bush. David was even invited to the White House for a ceremony. Suzie, who’s sitting next to me, David’s partner, went along too.

The bar, also a restaurant, had a number of specials that evening, which included three kinds of oysters: Marin Miyagi, Hama Hama and Chesapeake. They were also serving that evening Pacific Mussels Provençal and, if I’m not mistaken, linguine in white clam sauce. According to David, you may want to load up on your molluscs right now because things aren’t looking too good for them down the road.

David isn’t a talker. He tends to be the quiet, listener sort. Suzie tells the stories. But tonight David was talking. He’s always worth listening to, even when the news isn’t very good. David travels the world photographing circumscribed ecosystems: Tahiti, the cloud forests of Costa Rica, Cape Town, or just north of it – I forget what it was he was after on that run – or just down the road from here in the Sequoia National Forest, you name it. He always seems to be either coming or going. His commissions tend to have him photographing creatures on the edge of extinction, endangered species: large mammals as well as the tiny marine variety. He uses the term ‘manageable’ with regard to their prospects for survival or even the consequences of their inadvertent eradication, the latter tragic but not necessarily catastrophic for the larger ecosystem. In other words, timely human intervention, in his view, can usually make a significant difference. But what’s ‘really freaking me out at the moment’, he says, is ocean acidification from CO2.

The ocean is a huge carbon sink, as David describes it, and when CO2 is absorbed by ocean water it apparently creates carbonic acid, which, in turn, changes the saturation level of aragonite and calcium carbonate. Now, I was about halfway through my second martini when David decides to lay all this on us and chemistry has never been my strong suit but, as I understood it, the carbonic acid increases the acidity of the water so that it’s more difficult for creatures like molluscs and coral to absorb the calcium carbonate and aragonite they need to build their shells and skeletons; ergo, knocking at least one starter and three main courses off the menu.

‘It’s not like loosing the grizzly bear,’ David says. ‘It’s like taking all the mammals out of the system.’ (There goes what’s left of the menu...) ‘Vast communities of creatures will disappear or be altered.’

‘Well,’ I say, quoting my former, now deceased, bartender Bruno in his older age, ‘I’m glad I’m on the two-yard line.’

‘No,’ Suzie volunteers cheerfully, ‘in our lifetimes.’ None of us at the table is young. Which would probably be around the time, I reckon, these squealing and barking shitheads-from-outer-space agitating at the bar, by now middle-aged and having gone back to from whatever backwaters they came, would be sitting down at their local Red Lobster franchises, adolescent issue in tow, hoping to tuck into piles of Maine lobster tails, steamed ‘snow crab legs’ and clam strips.

‘It’s already happening,’ David adds. Only a couple of years ago the scientific models suggested we might have until the end of this century before the more calamitous changes started taking place. Now with the polar ice sheets melting and CO2 production increasing annually at 2 per cent, even in the teeth of a severe economic recession, the problem of ocean acidity is accelerating. Systems have begun appearing in a net loss state.’

‘So, can anything be done?’

‘Where did I put the cell phone, Suzie? See if you can’t find Mr CHANGE YOU CAN BELIEVE IN before he gets on that plane to Copenhagen.’


  • 7 December 2009 at 3:30am
    tonyseb says:
    No hurry on the plane to Copenhagen. Deal's been made. Health care first. Great blog from the inimitable August(us) Kleinzahler.