Patty Somlo reviews THE OYSTER WAR by Summer Brennan

April 15, 2016 0 Comments Book Review 3678 Views

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What We Mean When We Say Wilderness: A Review by Patty Somlo 

Summer Brennan. THE OYSTER WAR: THE TRUE STORY OF A SMALL FARM, BIG POLITICS, AND THE FUTURE OF WILDERNESS IN AMERICA. Counterpoint Press: Berkley, CA, 2015. 256 pp. $18.95, Paperback. $10.99, Kindle e-book. ISBN 9781619025271. 

All too often, debates over the environment fall into two overly simplistic camps, either for preservation, which opponents assume means a loss of jobs, or for saving jobs, which too frequently are code words for environmental destruction. The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America by Summer Brennan illustrates that the issues surrounding wilderness preservation are much more complex and nuanced.

The book tells the story of the recent fight to keep open a small, struggling oyster farm, the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm in Point Reyes National Seashore, about 50 miles north of San Francisco. Unlike many environmental battles, this one divided a community of mostly progressive people, who were interested in both preserving the glorious Point Reyes park and its iconic Drakes Estero and supporting locally-raised food.

As with many such fights, this one was characterized by public relations efforts, along with dubious claims, governmental errors, and scientific uncertainty, causing many people to choose sides. What Brennan does so well is to sift through the data and claims, searching for the truth, and along the way introduces readers to the people involved, thereby helping us see the issue from all sides. Before leaving for a time in New York, Brennan grew up in Point Reyes and knows the area well. She returned after accepting a job as a reporter for the local paper, the Point Reyes Light, launching the beginning of her work on the oyster farm story. 

Point Reyes National Seashore is a stunning national park, with miles of trails through forests, alongside bays and esteros, and overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There are no entrance gates or fees, and century-old, working cattle ranches and dairy farms are spread throughout the park. Its proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area makes Point Reyes one of the most visited of America’s national parks. Wildlife that can be seen in the park, and in its waters offshore, include elephant and harbor seals, Tule Elk, Great Blue Herons, egrets, and deer. During the migration season, one can catch a glimpse, from the piece of land that juts furthest out into the Pacific, where an historic lighthouse sits, of spouting Humpback whales.

I do not live far from Point Reyes National Park, and it has been one of my favorite hiking places for more than 30 years. As Brennan notes, anyone who spends time in Point Reyes knows that it “is a little bit magic.” In trying to describe the magic, Brennan writes, “Spend enough time out there and you will very likely begin to feel as if the trees are talking to you . . . .”

Like Brennan and many others who live in the area and frequent the park, I chose a side in the fight over the oyster farm. Reading The Oyster War, I discovered that I knew very little about the park or the actual facts of this dispute.

The most important fact is that in 1976, the Point Reyes Wilderness Act was passed, and it was to include a marine sanctuary, the Drakes Estero, as “potential wilderness.” In 2005, the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm, which had been in existence for more than 80 years under a different name and had been accused of harming the environment, was given notice by the National Parks Service that its lease on the property, due to expire in 2012, would not be renewed. According to the park service, the privately owned and run farm, which raised planted oysters in Drakes Estero, was incompatible with the designation of the estero as ‘potential wilderness’. The oyster farm included buildings on the shore and oysters and apparatus in the waters of Drakes Estero. Kenny Lunny, a local rancher who bought the farm in 2005, decided to fight the park service’s decision.

The Oyster War tells the story of what occurred, not only after the park service issued its notice, but long before the area had been deemed a national park. It is a fascinating and an important look into how environmentally significant places are preserved and also how fragile and tenuous that preservation can be. While extensively researched and documented, the book is both engaging and accessible, making it hard to put down at times. Brennan gives the reader all sides of the story, which not only makes it more reflective of the reality, but also lifts this conflict beyond local interest to a national one.

Reading the book, I found myself asking many of the questions Brennan and this battle raise. What constitutes wilderness and is wilderness even possible anymore, especially in a park just on the edge of a major metropolitan area? Is “potential wilderness” more important than locally raised food? Aren’t the jobs of low-income workers worth preserving? While I had taken the position prior to reading The Oyster War that the oyster farm should remain open, I found both support for that view and arguments against it. Food activist Michael Pollan argued that the Drakes Bay oysters were an integral part of the local sustainable food community. Scientists and environmentalists, however, claimed that there had never been a native population of oysters in Drakes Estero.

By the time the fight ended, politicians; local chefs, such as Alice Waters; food activists, including Michael Pollan; scientists; environmentalists; and the conservative law firm, the Pacific Legal Foundation, had gotten involved. Hand-painted signs that read “Save Our Drakes Bay Oyster Farm” appeared everywhere – on sides of businesses and in people’s yards. Regardless of which side one chose, the precedent-setting implications of the final results were apparent. If a wilderness designation could be set aside for a privately-owned oyster farm, it could be set aside on all lands protected by the Wilderness Act.

Near the end of the book, Brennan admits that the story she wrote was “not the story I thought I would find when I set out to write it.” As with many people in the area, Brennan was “wholly sympathetic” to one side in the conflict but her research failed to support that view.

I admit that my opinion had shifted to the park service’s position that the oyster farm should be closed by the time I finished this book. I will also admit that changing a strongly-held opinion as a result of reading a book doesn’t happen to me very often.

About the Author


Summer Brennan was born to parents living in a houseboat on the San Francisco Bay. She has written for magazines and newspapers throughout the country and works regularly with the United Nations in New York on issues related to decolonization, disarmament, human rights and the environment. As an undergraduate at Bennington College she studied poetry with Mary Oliver. Later she took her master’s from the New York University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences where her work focused on media, journalism and the Middle East. The Oyster War is her first book.Read more about Summer Brennan here.

Photo & bio courtesy of the author’s webpage.

About the Book

BUY THE BOOK: Indiebound, Powell’s , Barnes & Noble, Amazon,

Praise for The Oyster War:

“Every story is freighted with backstory, with multiple and intersecting histories. The great value of Brennan’s book, even if it gets, as she writes, only “as close to the truth as I could reasonably be expected to come,” is her deeply probing effort to understand and craft as full and complex an account as possible.”—Los Angeles Review of Books

“In The Oyster War, Brennan writes with clarity and grace about an environmental conflict centered on an oyster farm in one of the most beautiful preserves in America, the Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California, as the forces of history, culture, and politics converge to decide the farm’s fate. Her saga raises the question: How far can one go to return a land to ‘wilderness,’ when throughout its history it supported all manner of human endeavor? It’s a compelling and evocative read for anyone who, like me, shares Brennan’s belief that this territory is, in fact, ’a little bit magic.’”—Erik Larson, New York Times bestselling author of Devil in the White City and Dead Wake

“Brennan is a lyrical and lovely writer.” —Reason Magazine

“An absorbing account of the clash between environmentalists and oyster farmers in the coastal towns north of San Francisco. . . [Brennan] confronts the ambiguities of the conflicting arguments and motives of the key players . . . Well-written and superbly reported.”—Kirkus Starred Review

“In a lyrical narrative Brennan explores a legal case with potential implications for the future of wilderness legislation and administration for decades to come, presenting a complex matter with thorough and deliberate care.” —Publishers Weekly Spring 2015 Announcements

“This book invites the reader to consider the oyster in an entirely new way. More than a delicacy best enjoyed with Champagne, the prized bivalve is metaphor for the intersection of environment and commerce. The Oyster War is a must read for anyone who cares about the poetry and politics of the plate. It’s a local story that asks questions with national implications: when commerce and the environment meet, what does it mean to protect something wild?”—Anne Zimmerman, author of An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher

Notable Links:

The Leonard Lopate Show: The Big Politics of a Small Oyster Farm

Other Publications:

Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, The Believer Logger, Pacific Standard Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, Fitness Magazine, Ryot News, and other publications.

About the reviewer:

Patty Somlo has received four Pushcart Prize nominations, been nominated for storySouth’s Million Writers Award and had an essay selected as a Notable Essay of 2013 for Best American Essays 2014. A portion of Somlo’s forthcoming memoir from WiDo Publishing, Even When Trapped Behind Clouds, is set along Drakes Estero in Point Reyes National Seashore. Find her at or follow on Twitter @PattySomlo.

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