The Living Shore

“Rowan Jacobsen breathes fresh life into our views of the current vitality of our coasts, bays, and estuaries, as he tells elegant parables of their degradation and subsequent restoration. To simply call this book “important” would allow some to dismiss it as a polemic, but it is so heartbreakingly beautiful that it deserves to be read by everyone who loves to eat, swim, fish, float, or imagine a healed world.” —Gary Nabhan, MacArthur Fellow, founder of Renewing America’s Food Traditions Alliance

The Living Shore book cover

In 2008, Rowan Jacobsen accompanied a team of marine scientists on an expedition to the remote coast of British Columbia to find the last pristine beds of Ostrea conchaphila, the Olympia oyster. The only oyster native to the Pacific coast of North America, the Olympia once carpeted the shore from California to Alaska and was a staple food of Native Americans. But decades of overharvesting and pollution nearly wiped it out.

The Living Shore explains how the decimation of oysters and other shellfish is a loss for everyone who depends on the health of the seas. Shellfish are the lynchpins of coastal ecosystems, the coral reefs of the temperate world. By filtering water, stabilizing shorelines, and providing complex habitat, they make estuaries the most productive environments on earth. Yet few healthy oyster reefs remain, and the race is on to protect the last ones.

What begins as a quest to find rare oysters becomes an exploration of our ancient connection to that “living shore.” New archaeology from British Columbia to South Africa reveals how the coast has supported our development and well-being, from our modern origins 164,000 years ago to our colonization of North America. There are reasons we feel such a profound connection to the shore. When we became estranged from that world, we also lost touch with a fundamental part of being human.

But all is not lost. The Living Shore profiles the extraordinary efforts underway to reestablish native shellfish populations and reverse the decline of the seas, and shows the promise-as the scientists on the expedition discover-of the return of a world so vital to our physical and spiritual sustenance.

“It is no small achievement to take a quest for a rare, relatively unknown oyster and spin it into a delightful and never didactic instruction on marine conservation from the Chesapeake to Puget Sound… [a] slim and superb reminder of these simple creatures’ vital importance to the grand scheme of life on land and sea.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Jacobsen tells a compelling story about why saving the environment does not translate into re-creating it as a mythic Eden, but rather appreciating how humans and nature have interacted for eons and still can…A revelatory page-turner about shellfish and so much more by a wonderful writer.” –Booklist

“A gorgeous little book.” –Amanda Bensen, Smithsonian

“A science-rich yet lambent investigation into the fate of the Olympia oyster…. Jacobsen is an artful storyteller, giving the oyster’s story an aching bite. He is also a fine explicator, drawing clearly the pivotal role of the oyster in estuarine health… Lovely science writing, and a smart look into where the work of ecological restoration is headed.” –Kirkus Reviews

“What too many of us so simply regard as the oyster, Rowan Jacobsen reveals as living gold—as currency of coastal cultures, engineer of ecosystems, the champagne toast of societies through the ages. Through Jacobsen’s admiring eyes, we see the mystery and the magic in the humble oyster; we see the omen in a creature quietly disappearing from waters that once gave life to us all.” —William Stolzenburg, author of Where the Wild Things Were

“Rowan Jacobsen’s last book, Fruitless Fall, on collapsing honeybee populations and the plight of pollinators generally, was first-rate science journalism. (Terrifying, too, for those of who like to eat and hope to continue doing so.) With The Living Shore, Jacobsen’s prose is similarly engaging, while offering profound questions about imperiled native oysters, healthy ecosystems, and the prospects for a future world where humans again understand that the living earth is what we eat—and wildness must persist if nature’s banquet is to remain on the table.” —Tom Butler, author of Wildlands Philanthropy: The Great American Tradition

The Living Shore is a jewel, a small enlightening book that moves gracefully from the last gasps of the world’s smallest oyster to the coastal origins of mankind. Rowan Jacobsen’s engaging style makes it all possible and somehow leaves the reader both alarmed and inspired.” —Jim Lynch, author of The Highest Tide

Download the Introduction (PDF)