State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

‘Oysters, Pearls of Long Island Sound’ at The Bruce Museum

Three Mute Swans in an icy Long Island Sound. March, 2014.

My train rolls from the station, running smooth as a zipper along snow-dusted tracks. It races northward out of Manhattan, abandoning the city for the coast of Long Island Sound. I press my forehead against the cool glass of the windowpane, and watch the frozen landscape slip past. Icy streams and forest stands give way to sleepy New England towns, tucked just beyond the trees.

* * *

Last Sunday afternoon, I rode the rails on a mission, heading to The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science in Greenwich, Conn., to learn all about oysters. March is the final month to catch The Bruce’s exhibition on the oysters in our local waters—and trust me, it was worth the trip. “Oysters, Pearls of Long Island Sound” is both informative and visually engaging. Running until March 23, the exhibition introduces the ecology and evolutionary history of these mollusks, but that’s not all. True to a museum of both art and science, The Bruce has drawn in local history as well, displaying oystermen’s tools, vintage oyster advertisements, and even an early American Impressionist painting. This exhibit highlights the tremendous impact that oysters have had on New England, both ecologically and culturally.

From the ecological perspective, oysters are indicator species, meaning that their health can reflect the overall health of their environment. “Oysters are filter feeders. What they do is they bring in water, they pull things out of that water, and then they push clean water back out,” explained Kathleen D’Aquila, manager of school and tour services at The Bruce Museum, and a co-curator of the oyster exhibition. “[Oysters] are in a sense like natural water filters.”

This filter-feeding lifestyle makes oysters proverbial canaries in the coal mine. When they’re full of toxins—like the kind that give people food poisoning, for example—it’s because they’ve filtered those poisons out of the water, absorbing them into their own bodies. If the oysters are sick, the whole ecosystem is sick.

The Bruce Museum in winter.

Culturally, oyster fishing has been an important industry in New England for hundreds of years, supporting Native Americans, European settlers, and present-day communities along the coast. In the early 20th century, the rise of the oyster industry coincided with rapid industrial development. Industrialization caused water pollution, which unfortunately contaminated Long Island Sound. As people pumped pollutants into the water, the oysters began to absorb toxic chemicals, and developed a reputation for causing illness. The industry was devastated by pollution until the Clean Water Act of 1972 brought tangible gains in water quality. Since then, oysters have bounced back, but past mistakes serve as an important reminder that economic development cannot come at the cost of environmental health.

The New England oyster fishery also had a hand in the rise of early American Impressionism. “A lot of the American impressionism really began here in Connecticut,” explained Karen Schwarz, interim director of marketing and communications at The Bruce. “The artists were in New York City, but it was easy to get to Connecticut by train, so they came out here for relaxation on the weekends. A lot of them had lofts and cottages along the water. So many of the oyster fishing sloops ended up in these American impressionists’ paintings. Oyster fishing was a big part of that because it was such a huge part of the culture and industry out here on Long Island Sound.”

Oyster Sloop, Cos Cob (1902), on display now at The Bruce. Painting courtesy of The National Gallery, Washington DC.

Illustrating this point is Childe Hassam’s striking “Oyster Sloop, Cos Cob” (1902), an oil painting prominently displayed in The Bruce’s exhibition, on loan from the collection of The National Gallery of Art. The piece is a striking example of early American Impressionism, depicting a lone oysterman on the waters of the sound.

If you can tear your eyes from Hassam’s luminous painting (no easy task), there are a multitude of oyster-related artifacts on display. See Native American tools, gaze through the lens of a microscope at the developmental stages of tiny, baby oysters (called larvae), or play with oyster-shaped wooden flash cards, to brush up on your oyster trivia. Fun fact: Oysters are all born male, but become female after about three years. “Just like married men” said some dads at the exhibit, chuckling heartily to themselves.

The importance of oysters in New England is undeniable, but their significance to the area isn’t the only reason to see this exhibition. The Bruce Museum itself is a delight—a renovated mansion, originally built in 1853. It sits atop a singularly dignified hill, and looks out over Long Island Sound. Unfortunately, highway I-95 was built insultingly close to the mansion, and condominiums now block a direct view of the water. But the house on the hill has retained its dignity, and now seems to stand in quiet defiance of the encroachment of modern life.

The interior of The Bruce still has the intimacy of a private home. But The Bruce boasts pieces on loan from The National Gallery of Art, with past exhibitions coming from as far as The Rijksmuseum and The Louvre.

Interior of “Oysters.” Photos: A. McDermott.

On my Sunday visit, an easygoing air permeated the museum. Young children were well behaved, and parents held hands as they ushered little ones to and fro. The coatroom had hooks at child-height, so kids could hang their own sweaters, and Larry Corney, a security guard at The Bruce, offered me a folding chair so I could take notes on the oyster exhibit comfortably. There was consideration apparent in even the smallest details of the museum, and everyone seemed to be smiling. Coming from the city, I found the experience surreal and delightful. When, if ever, have you been to a major museum in Manhattan without witnessing (or personally experiencing) total family meltdown? It’s not the most pleasant thing to behold beside the great masterworks of our species.

Back on the train, riding home to Manhattan, I once again pressed my forehead to the cool of the windowpane. As the frozen world slid past, I thought about the generations of people who have lived and died in New England—about the development of a society dependent on the ocean. For urbanites living in the concrete frenzy of New York City, it can be easy to lose sight of that history. “Oysters, Pearls of Long Island Sound” is at once an escape from the city, and a reminder of our ties to the non-human environment. It is a breath of fresh, salty air, offering an afternoon of art and science, of peace and quiet, in an old mansion beside the sea.

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