Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/December 1874/The Natural History of the Oyster II
By Rev. SAMUEL LOCKWOOD, Ph. D.
IN the former article, attention was given chiefly to what might be called structural and industrial considerations of our bivalve. We are now to note some matters in the life of the oyster of a natal character. Its friends and enemies must be looked after. Its dietetics and geographical range must be dealt with. It must also be viewed in certain geological and ethnological aspects; for we may find even the oyster holding a singular relation to the American autocthonic man.
The Oyster's Birth and Growth.—According to the popular notion, which, in the main, is correct, the spawning-season of the oyster embraces those months which have no r in their spelling, namely, May, June, July, and August, the four warm months of the year. The fact is, that oysters generally do their spawning during these four months; but a few are liable to spawn whenever the water is warm enough, and large numbers pass through the year without spawning; and these, were it not for the difficulty of assorting them, would be available for food at any time. But the prejudice is universal against
Fiq. 1.—Groups of European Oysters, of Different Ages, on a Stick of Wood.
their use during the r-less months. That they are not in as good condition then as during the cooler months, is reasonable to suppose; but that they are all necessarily unwholesome in the warm months, is far from being proved. In business phrase, oysters in spawning-time are said to be "milky." This means the presence of an opaline fluid in considerable abundance, and which has to do with the wants of its young—perhaps, remotely, a sort of fluid amnion. Our bivalve, however, does not spawn after the manner of mollusks generally. It is in its own way viviparous. It does not emit eggs; hut, at the proper time, sends forth its young alive. The eggs are dislodged from the ovaries, and committed to the nursing care of the gill and mantel. At first, each egg seems to he inclosed in a capsule. It is of a yellowish color; hut, as incubation or development progresses, the color changes, first to a gray, then to a brown, afterward to a violet. This is a sign that the time of eviction is at hand; for Nature now issues her writ to that effect. And wonderful little beings they are when the writ arrives to vacate the homestead; for whole troops of them can go gracefully, and without jostling, through the maziest evolutions in that tiniest sphere—a drop of water. As cited by F. W. Fellowes, in the American Naturalist, says M. Davaine: "Nothing is more curious than to see, under the microscope, these little mollusks travel in a drop of water, in vast numbers, mutually avoiding one another, crossing each other's track in every direction, with a wonderful rapidity, never touching, and never meeting." The parent-oyster has, indeed, a prodigious family to turn out upon the world. But when this time does come, though winter be near, her actions are summary, and the wee bairns are every one ordered from home. They are spit forth, or ejected from the shell. Filled with water, the valves are suddenly snapped together. Every snap emits a small, whitish cloud. Though a little of the milky fluid be in it, this whitish cloud is composed chiefly of the tiny fry; for, individually, they are almost invisible. Indeed, who shall count the oyster's offspring? Science, by her own methods,
Fig. 2.—The Spat.—Oysters just born, highly magnified.
has made the computation; and so she gives us the astounding assurance that a single oyster, during one spawning-season, emits two million embryos! Each one, though scarcely larger than a pin-point, is a lively little affair; and such an odd little fellow, too! In fact, it lias scarcely any resemblance to its parent, either in external form or internal anatomy; while, in habit, it differs as widely as does the flying bird from the burrowing mole. Let us look a moment at Fig. 2. These are young oysters just sent into the world. They are not so large, by a good deal, as an ordinary pin's-head. How angular the shell is! And the internal organization is, as yet, very simple. And what a strange, brush-like appendage! That fleshy pad is its locomotive organ; and a very funny, but quite pretty contrivance it is. The projected pad is encircled by a frill of cilia, or fleshy hairs, arranged much as the frill is around the large pin-cushion which occupies a place before the mirror of a lady's boudoir. As these cilia play together, the illusion is produced of a revolving wheel; and, in fact, it is the uni-cycle velocipede of this baby-voyager, with which it must do some traveling in quest of a home, or permanent settlement for life. This frilled organ can be projected and withdrawn in rapid alternations. While being projected, the circular frill expands, thus achieving a very efficient propulsion. And, while being withdrawn, it contracts, or is involved within itself, in this way presenting the least possible resistance to the water. This mechanism, as I understand it, is as remarkable as it is beautiful. It fulfills perfectly, or certainly to a remarkable degree, the conditions of perhaps the most perplexing of the unsolved practical problems in naval science—the attainment in union of the maximum power of propulsion and the minimum resistance from back-water.
If we examine a snail, or conch, as typical of the univalve mollusks, or shell-fish, we shall find the organs of sense, mouth, tentacles, and eyes, so arranged together as to entitle the object to be known as a cephalate mollusk, that is, one which has a head. The bivalves are not so highly organized, and are acephalate, or headless. It is a curious fact, however, that in the larval state many of these bivalves have eyes, though they lose them as growth proceeds. Although we think it probable, it has not yet been proved, that the larval oyster has eyes. To witness the merry high time of these juveniles, it would seem that they both have eyes and are bound to use them, too, in seeing something of the world; for, as if eviction entailed neither disgrace nor inconvenience—as with certain bipedal juveniles under pupilage—off they go in the wildest glee imaginable. But the gay frolic is soon over. A few settle down, like the old folks, to a sober life. Alas! it is with the rollicking young oysters as with many other young people—this wild-oat sowing yields a fruitful but perilous harvest. Of each million that enter upon this dissipation, but a few hundreds, at the most, survive. Many have been devoured by hungry enemies lying in wait, and many went to sea, and, unable to return, perished miserably. The survivors attach themselves to any thing that offers an anchorage; and these are called "spat." Fig. 1 contains five groups of oysters of as many different ages, all of which, by a professional oysterman, would be called "spat," excepting the three largest at the top. The attachment is made at the lower valve. And, now having wound up its giddy career, what was done with the velocipede? In plainer words, what is to become of the locomotive pad, for which it has no further use? It begins to disappear—not by atrophy, however, nor is it sloughed off in any way. Herein appears one of Nature's economic processes; for the pad is absorbed, literally consumed, and the baby-oyster in this way gets a start that secures it a rapid growth—for it should be borne in mind that this is a critical period in the life of this diminutive thing. It is just now that it has to draw so largely on its small capital of vital resources, by directing the growth-force to the one object—a sure anchorage. Thus the secretions labor on the cementation of the lower valve to some solid object. Then comes the general shell-growth, which is very rapid, and at the same time the accelerated internal development; all which amounts to an entire reconstruction.
If, now, to this triple draft, occasioned by the anchoring, the shell-growth, and the development of the internal organs, one should add the necessity of procuring food in the usual amount, and by the usual means, would not the combined demand be exhaustive beyond the little creature's powers and resources? It should be observed, too, that now the food-necessity is more urgent than at any other period of its existence. It is also observable that the banquet prepared is ampler than at any other time. This is surely a striking instance in lowly quarters of a wise conservation of material and force. I am aware that this pad is differently disposed of by some naturalists; that it is said to drop off, and to be wasted; but, as I have witnessed a similar utilization of an otherwise useless member in other larval forms, I believe that observation will establish this view. And how remarkable this internal change, so rapidly progressing in the little oyster! It is a series of almost magic transformations. The eyes—if it had any—are gone. The external cilia, which served it for locomotive and breathing organs, disappear, and within appear true branchiæ, like those of its mother. A stomach, too, is now built up, and the labial fingers are provided. And that tiny, true heart appears, to the music of whose beating the little creature begins in earnest its lifework, as a perfect oyster, although hardly yet larger than the head of a pin. When a month old, it equals a large pea in size; at six months, it is an inch or more in length; at four years, it is large and amply ready for market, or even at three years, if the conditions of growth have been favorable.
The Oyster's Companions.—For raising the seed, that is, the young oysters intended to be planted, a hard bottom, with plenty of shells, or objects for attachment of the spat, is desirable. But such a location would not be the place for growing and fattening the adult. A bottom with two or three inches of organic mud, and a hard pan beneath, and that in an estuary, or somewhere commanding a current, and receiving the river-flow, is the best. In this flocculent organic mud is much of the food of the oyster, and this food is in lively motion upon its surface. The algæ, or sea-weeds, often anchor to the shell, and adorn it with fronds of olive, and ruby, and the most exquisite emerald, while the sporules which rain from them are the true manna of the oyster. The elegant red sponge, with its clustered lobes, almost like chalina, is sometimes found perched on the upper valve, like a great showy cockade. When, many years ago, before the Southern oyster was planted North, they used to take up the rich "naturals" around Bedloe's Island, this beautiful native sponge was often found in great tufts as large as a peck-measure. The oystermen called it "red-beard;" and often might be seen, at the door of an oyster-saloon in New York, a heap of these choice oysters, surmounted by a grand specimen of this red sponge. Even yet, at Craney Island, where the Elizabeth River and Hampton Roads meet, are acres of this pretty sponge. This sponge often renders a singular service to some fine old bivalve sinking with the weight of years into the rich organic ooze. It actually buoys it up, and rocks it, so that the under valve becomes white and bright with the gentle friction. In the crevices made by the lapping shoots on the upper valve, like tiles on a roof, are often found tiny univalves, sharing in the crumbs of the banquet on which the occupant of the great house feasts. We have often with
Fig. 3.—Flustra Foliacea.—A Community of Bryozoa growing on Oysters and other Objects.
a penknife pried them out of their hiding-cracks, although much smaller than a grain of rice. Often, too, if examined closely, an oyster-shell may be found partly coated with a delicate network, as if some fine Valenciennes lace had been cemented thereon. These are the skeletal cells of the Bryozoa, or animate moss; for, though like moss somewhat, the little builders are living creatures, and, under the microscope, a bit of a live bryozoan-patch would look like a bed of living daisies, for these flower-forms are in lively motion in every part. Sometimes these communities of moss-like animals, such as are known under the generic name Flustra, build their structures up like plants, and literally embower the oyster in the most exquisite of fairy groves. The cut Flustra foliacea, Fig. 3, represents a European species. Its fronds, so to speak, are flat, and spatula-formed. With its gracefully-spreading lobes, like fronds, it has often been mistaken for an alga, or sea-plant. If you will only look closely at this cut of Flustra foliacea, Fig. 3, it will be seen to be full of minute cells. A look at Fig. 4, 1, will make this plainer, while in Fig. 5, 1, by greatly magnifying, the form of these little chambers in one of the species is shown. The naturalist, speaking of the entire establishment of one of these communities, calls it Cœnœcium, which means the common house of all the individuals
Fig. 4.—1. Fragment of Flustra Truncata, Natural Size; 2. A single polypide of Valkeria magnified to show its crown of tentacles; 3. A polypide of Lophapus crystallinus, a fresh-water polyzoon highly magnified, showing its horseshoe-shaped crown of tentacles.
collectively; for each one of these little crypts, or chambers, is the exclusive apartment of one zooid, or individual member of the community. At the portal of this little crypt the occupant, when hungry, presents itself, and retires at its pleasure. When it does show itself, with tentacles spread, some idea of its individual beauty may be got by looking at the magnified tufts, like floral crowns, as shown in Figs. 4 and 5. When an entire community, or even a considerable part, is out airing, could one but see it, the sight would be very fine, for the smallest fragment in the microscope looks like a bed of daisies. The oyster is often literally embowered in a substance that looks like diminutive trees. Its color varies from a reddish to a very pale brown, almost gray. The oystermen call it "gray-beard." visitors often pick up tufts on the beach, and press them for sea-weeds. They are really the skeleton structures of a remarkable zoophyte, the Sertularia. We have an elegant species that grows upon the oyster, named Sertularia argentea, because it is often so white and glittering that it looks almost like silver. These I have found sometimes sixteen inches high, making the most exquisite gossamer-tree. But it is no tree or plant proper. Their substance is chiefly lime. They might well be called sea-ferns. When magnified, living specimens show what might be mistaken for little buds. If the microscopist is both skillful and patient, he will see a little starry object like a flower push itself out of one of these buds, which is really its case in which it lives. It may be seen waving its little life-petals about, catching food. I have not forgotten the delight experienced when I found out this fact for myself. Let the reader dwell a moment on Fig. 6. The Sertularia buoys up the oysters, as does the red sponge. And one may readily conceive how the animalcules must swarm in these gossamer-like forests or groves, so that not only the zooids but the oyster also enjoys the richness of the fishing-ground.
Everybody, that has seen any dredging in Long Island Sound, knows that lumps of matter made up entirely of small calcareous tubes abound there. These tubes are often found adhering to the oyster; in fact, these animals build them on the oyster's shell. Its name is Sabellaria vulgaris, so named by Prof. Verrill. The constructor and occupant is a worm, but, for all that, a creature of surpassing beauty. In company with this, another little being builds a tubular home on the oyster. It is a small serpula or serpent-shell, and is called by Verrill, Serpula dianthus, the pink serpula, because, when the little dweller therein projects its tiny florets, in form and color they suggest the pink of our gardens. But there is projected by the side of that pretty little pink, a curious, funnel-shaped process, that looks like the tiniest kind of a trumpet. We have watched those pretty creatures with their floral heads out fishing. Let the slightest jar be given, and the little thing takes alarm and instantly withdraws into its stony tube: first the floral head disappears, then the trumpetlike structure is drawn in, which actually plugs up the entrance. All this will be understood from Fig. 7, which shows a serpula. The spirorbis here figured is really a serpula, a tube coiled into a spiral. I have never seen the spirorbis growing on the oyster-shell, but have taken it from sea-weeds and Bryozoa thence obtained.
This natural plug, or stopper, is not without a smack of drollery. At least it has always impressed me as having in it a taste of the intensely utilitarian. And this reminds me that, in all their beauty, there is also a savor of the comical in the Bryozoa. Please to look at that Avicularlum in Fig. 5, 3. Is it not like the head of an eyeless bird? To see this "bird-head process" at work, one feels irresistibly that it is a real zooid, an individual among the Bryozoa, and Huxley seems disposed to favor such a view. However, I believe all the proof as yet is on the side of its being a process, an organ, so to speak. Now, there are a good many of these bird-heads in the community, and very useful things they are. Let an animalcule too large for prey come fooling around these little Bryozoa, and one of the bird-heads will give it a nip such as to make a second one unnecessary. But these Bryozoa are in danger of being cloyed with dirt. These bird heads, like so many ants, pick off the annoyance. Is not all this
Fig. 5.—Anatomy of a Bryozoon.—1, the skeleton cells; 2. diagram of an individual Bryozoon; a, the region of the mouth surmounted by a crown or tuft of tentacles; 3, an avicularium, or bird's-head process.
pretty? And it is quite ludicrous, too. And why should not Nature like a wee bit of drollery now and then?
If a pile of oysters be examined soon after leaving the water, especially if taken off a pretty clean bottom, a number of specks, about a quarter of an inch in width, may be seen adhering to the oyster, chiefly the upper side. They look like grease-spots, or small lamps of jelly. They are little sea-anemones, collapsed and dead. Alive in the water these are pretty objects, having a disk of a flower-form, with an orifice in the centre which opens into the animal's stomach, and which is really its mouth. (See Fig. 8). Such, then, is something of the oyster's environment. With such surroundings, so much of beauty, with a spice of Nature's humor, just enough to make this beauty true and pure, on the principle that a person is known by the company he keeps, the oyster might be set down as an individual of refined tastes.
Something should be said of the oyster's most intimate and familiar friend, a certain dapper little fellow in a scarlet jacket with trimmings of gold. From its size and form it is sometimes called the pea-crab; but, from the fact that it is only found in the oyster, it is generally known as the oyster-crab. Fishermen have insisted to me that it was the young of the edible crab. No naturalist, not even a tyro, could make this mistake. Naturalists have named this little crab, Pinotheres ostreum. Usually it is the female that one finds in the oyster. The male is much more rarely met with, and is smaller than the female, and of more sombre coloring. A dull brown is the predominant hue, though the legs are white. On the back is a figure remarkably like an anchor, done in white. But the history of the oyster-crab is imperfectly known. For aught that we have been able to learn, this pretty little crab is a harmless commensal. Whether it is always welcome by its entertainer we cannot say, but this is sure, Pinotheres has always been known as the oyster's bosom friend.
There is a story that General Washington was very fond of these oyster-crabs, and that, knowing this fact, a lady admirer, at whose house in New York the general was to dine, had an understanding with the different oystermen of the city, and their combined efforts got together half a pint of these diminutive crabs, which were served up and set before that eminent man, greatly to his surprise and delight. In the season, this little crab is readily obtained put up in half-pint bottles. Now that they have become a staple luxury in the city markets, why do not our epicures call them "Washington crabs?"
The Oyster's Enemies.—The above must be set down as the rosy side of oyster-life, for they are a much-persecuted race. Though a sober people, always leading quiet lives, yet they seem to be regarded on all sides as possessing no rights that others are bound to respect. Let us make a visit to one of these orderly communities in Oysterdom known as a "planting-ground." We are seated in a boat, and, gliding through the phosphorescent sheen, soon near the oyster-bed. It is a moonlight night, about the close of summer. Hark! what singular sound is that? Boom! boom! boom! Almost sepulchral, and, strange to say, it comes up from beneath the waters. One would think they were Nereids' groans. The oystermen, whose capital lies invested there, hear it with sad forebodings of loss, which they cannot well sustain. It is one of a school of visitors who come with marauding purpose. The fishermen call it the big drum. This drum-fish is known among naturalists by the name Pogonias chromis. The acknowledged beat of this scamp is the Gulf Stream, from Cape Cod to Florida; and a terrible fellow is this' Pogonias, for he is recorded as having attained the great weight of eighty pounds. One of twenty-five pounds would be but an ordinary affair. Their mouths are furnished with pavements of hard teeth, a little rounding on the top, and set together exactly as are the cobble-stones of the old city highways. The function of these dental pavements is to crunch the young oysters, which after being crushed are thus swallowed, shells and all. As these monsters come in shoals, they sometimes inflict serious damage on an oyster-bed. Not long ago, at Keyport, New Jersey, a visit of this character cost the oyster-planters some $10,000. Said "an eminent naturalist," "No fish has teeth strong enough to crush oyster-shells." This is certainly a mistake. I believe that oystermen regard a three-year-old oyster as comparatively safe in this respect, and their apprehensions appertain to the younger beds.
Fig. 6.—Sertularia Pinnata.—a, a fragment, natural size; a', small portion magnified; o, shows the case of a male zooid; b, Campanularia neglecta, magnified.
At Long Branch, and in fact pretty much on the entire eastern seaboard, is often found the periwinkle, or great sea-snail (Lunatia heros). These are quite numerous. Oystermen have gravely told me that this animal kills the oyster. It has an operculum, or cover to the mouth of the shell, and they say that with this, as a knife, it opens the oyster. All this one might believe but for two difficulties: first, you could as easily open an oyster with the edge of a lady's visiting-card, for the operculum is of soft horn, and not thicker than a card; secondly, this Lunatia is not lunatic enough to try the experiment, as it is constitutionally a strict vegetarian, living upon the juicy sea-lettuce, and other algæ, so that on dietetic principles it has serious objections to the bivalve.
There is a small univalve, seldom much over an inch in length, which is justly chargeable with murderous assault on the oyster. The watermen very properly call it the drill. The latest name it has received from the conchologists is Urosalpinx cinerea. It is, however, more generally known among scientific men as Buccinum cinereum. It is a very pretty shell. The tongue is set with three rows of teeth like a file; it is, in fact, a tongue-file, or dental band, and is called by conchologists the lingual ribbon. (See Fig. 9.) This tongue-file is perfectly flexible, and with it the Buccinum drills a hole through the hard shell of the oyster. Owing to the fact that, when using this dental ribbon, the broadly-spread pedal disk hides it, the exact method of the operation is concealed. Having with the utmost care witnessed a number of times the creature in the burglarious act, I give the following as my view of the case: With its fleshy disk, called the foot, it secures by adhesion a firm hold on the upper part of the oyster's shell. The dental ribbon is next brought to a curve, and one point of this curve on its convex side is brought to bear directly on the desired spot. At this point the teeth are set perpendicularly, and the curve, resting at this point as on a drill, is made to rotate one circle, or nearly so, when the rotation is reversed; and so the movements are alternated, until, after long and patient labor, a perforation is accomplished. This alternating movement, I think, must act favorably on the teeth, tending to keep them sharp. To understand the precise movement, let the reader crook his forefinger, and, inserting the knuckle in the palm of the opposite hand, give to it, by the action of the wrist, the sort of rotation described. The hole thus effected by the drill is hardly so much as a line in diameter. It is very neatly countersunk. The hole finished, the little burglar inserts its siphon or sucking-tube, and thus feeds upon the occupant of the house into which it has effected a forced entrance. To a mechanic's eye there is something positively beautiful in the symmetry of the bore thus effected—it is so "true;" he could not do it better himself, even with his superior tools and intelligence.
Oystermen also complain of ravages perpetrated by the great conch. But there are two of these conchs, widely distinguished by naturalists. One of them has the upper edge of the whirls ornamented with a projection, with bosses at uniform intervals: this is the keeled conch, and is called, by Conrad, Fulgur carica. The other one has a canal or groove running round the shell, on the top of the whirls: this is the grooved conch, and it has lately been named, by Gill, Sycotypus canaliculatus. The oystermen say that these conchs "rasp the nib of the oysters;" and with their large tongue-files this is not hard to do. It is certainly going a great way for an analogous case; but I have examined numbers of the first-created oysters, fossil oysters, in the New Jersey Cretaceous formation, and have found not a few among them which had received precisely that treatment from certain ancient carnivorous gasteropods.
But the most insidious foe to the life and peace of the poor oyster is the star-fish. The American species, which does the mischief, is the green star-fish (Asterias arenicola). The species obnoxious to the European oyster is the red star-fish (Asterias rubens). (See Fig. 10.) The sea-star does not like water that is too brackish; that is, it loves saltwater. Whenever the Shrewsbury River is affected by the breaking in of the sea, there is danger for its celebrated oysters. On several occasions, at such times, the star-fishes have come up in great numbers, and utterly destroyed the bivalves. At one time so great were their numbers, that they were thrown up on the shore in large, loathsome, squirming balls. Says Verrill, "In one instance within a few years, at Westport, Connecticut, they destroyed about 2,000 bushels of oysters, occupying beds about twenty acres in extent, in a few weeks, during the absence of the proprietor."
It is curious to read the silly stories that are told in the name of Natural History. There is one that says that the star-fish puts its fingers or rays into the oyster's shell, and helps itself. From every point of consideration the thing is ridiculously impossible. A more sober judgment is that given by some naturalists, namely, that the sea-star protrudes its great sac-like stomach, and envelops to a great extent the oyster therein, and so leisurely digests the mollusk out of its unopened shell, much as a codfish does the shells it swallows.
Fig. 7.—Tubicola.—a, Serpula contortuplicata; b, Spirorbis communis.
After having seen young star-fishes eat small specimens (that is, such as were suited to their size) of oysters, mussels, and scollops, which I have fed to them in an aquarium, I give the following as based on a number of observations: Having brought the oval, or stomach orifice, exactly opposite the nib of the oyster, the star embraces the bivalve with its five flexible rays, aided by the hundreds of sucking-disks on the tiny feet. Thus positioned, the star-fish clings firmly, but keeps itself quite still, and waits very patiently. After a while, the instinct of the oyster will be at fault, and it will open, as if no enemy were near. At this moment, as it seems to me, is injected from the oral orifice of the star a baleful "sidereal blast." It is a something that paralyzes the mollusk; because, from that moment the valves of the oyster are opened to their full extent, and the hold of the flexible rays is relaxed. Instantly a singular variation of the performance sets in. The rays are withdrawn and set back to back—the stomach is protruded, and the doubled-up star intrudes itself into the oyster, the evicted stomach leading the way in the movement, and absorbing its victim. If the famous "India-rubber man" could throw backward his arms, legs, and head, and in this position could then infuse himself, stomach-first, into a partially-opened writing-desk, he would rival this feat of the sea-star, without the villainy of injecting chloroform through the key-hole.
But the oyster race has one foe more formidable than all the rest—one who invades their ancient waters with iron implements and hungry fleets—who brings to his service the appliances of a high intelligence, and the impulsion of an imperious necessity—who, after the strictest rulings of the old barbaric cannibals, assigns the adult captives to immediate immolation, and reserves the young to be grown and fed for a future feast. And everybody eats the poor oyster—
prince and peasant—the healthy and the sick; even he who is paying the penalty of long defiance to a stern physical law, and to whom all food is suggestive of torture, thinks he might stand an oyster or two. The rollicking student, brimming full of frolic and swagger, emerging from his day's course on the humanities, fancies that oysters make a good dessert after such dry pabulum. In fact, he holds the bivalves in so high esteem that he informs "Chum," sentimentally, of course, that he thinks oysters should be called pabula amoris, and proposes a dozen each on the half-shell. So the saloon-man prepares for the immolation. With the implement of his calling he taps at the passage-way, "The gate's ajar." Treachery! The iron enters the soul! Chum takes the initiative. The mollusk approaches the lips—and—it is gone! There is a gleam in Chum's eye—a flash ecstatic; it is the light of genius satisfied. "Tom, it is the elixir of the gods solidified! How it went down like a chunk of bliss! Facilis descensus Averni"
It is a pity that candor should compel one to seem to spoil this fine Roman sentiment by quoting Roman practice. But we cannot cover up history; and we are the less willing to do so, because we are about to cite transactions that will prove the great wrongs suffered by Ostrea, for so these Romans called our oyster. The chroniclers tell that the Emperor Vitellius could eat a thousand of these bivalves at a meal. What vitals must this Vitellius have had! Who would dare under-take to victual such a glutton as that? It is said of that gentle wag, Charles Lamb, that, on a certain occasion, the omnibus in which he rode was stopped by a man, who poked in his head and bluffly asked, "All full in there?" To which Lamb meekly made response, "I don't know how it is with the rest—but that last piece of oyster-pie did the business for me!" But this Vitellius was not so easily done
Fig. 9.—Fragment of the Tongue-file, or Lingual Ribbon, of the Whelk (Buccinum undatum), magnified.
for as that comes to. Having engulfed his fill of these ostrean innocents, this royal gourmand would open the sluice-gate of his kingly maw, and cause a slave to tickle the fauces with a peacock's feather. This, acting as an elevator, effected a full discharge of the beastly cargo of that carnal vessel. This done, that ostreaceous appetite would load up afresh. Would not the evertible stomach of a star-fish have been an inestimable blessing to that imperial beast?
Dietetics of the Oyster.—Are oysters good to eat? Said Montaigne, "To be subject to colic, or deny one's self oysters, presents two evils to choose from." This is very fine for Montaigne, but it is a libel for all that. Besides, he was a sickly man at best of times. Says Reveille-Paris: "There is no alimentary substance, not even excepting bread, which does not produce indigestion under given circumstances, but oysters never. We may eat them to-day, to-morrow, eat them always, and in profusion, without fear of indigestion." It is said that the first Napoleon always ate oysters on the eve of his great battles, if they could be got. Says Figuier: "The oyster may thus be said to be the palm and glory of the table. It is considered the very perfection of digestive aliment....The small proportion of nutritive matter explains the extreme digestibility of the oyster." It "is nothing more than water slightly gelatinized." But, if we would have authority the most recent, and thoroughly trustworthy, let us go to that little book in the "International Scientific Series," "Foods," by Edward Smith, M.D. Here we have the dictum of the physiologist: "The oyster is not a food of high nutritive value, but is nevertheless useful to the sick, while its delicacy of flavor leads to its selection when other foods are rejected. The more usual mode is to eat it when uncooked; and it is very doubtful whether cooking increases its digestibility. It is, however, possible that the flavor of scalloped maybe preferred to that of the raw oysters, or that the vinegar which is usually eaten with the latter may be disliked, or may disagree with the stomach, but, with such exceptions, the usual method of eating them raw is to be preferred" (page 116).
Americans, I believe, are the only people who eat the so-called soft-shell crabs; that is, crabs at the time of having cast the skin. It is not at all probable that, at such a time, the animal is wholesome food. And so with oysters, during the spawning-season, it is wiser to abstain, for the reason that one is not sure that the oysters we are eating then are not in a spawning state. In its normal condition the oyster is excellent food; and, if we assign it its rank among the shell-fish, it will be, without dispute, the queen of the bivalves.
Fig. 10.—Asterias Rubens, a European Sea-star, or Star-fish.
Some Facts, Geographical and Ethnological.—Says Figuier, Virginia has 2,000,000 acres of oyster-beds. In many places they grow so thickly that they make immense mounds in the water, the lower oysters being killed by those above. Even mouths of the sea have been closed by them, says Dr. Smith. Certainly in this particular the wealth of Virginia and Maryland is immense. In former times ail the suitable waters of New York and New Jersey abounded in native oysters. There are those yet living who remember the custom of the farmers to go with their wagons to the shore at or near Keyport, New Jersey, to gather "natural" oysters. There is a curious old map in existence which will, we predict, become famous as an authority in the appeals of State diplomacy. It is dedicated to Governor Moore, of the province of New York, by its author, who signs himself "B. Ratzer, Siuv'r in His Majestie's 60th American Reg't." It is a map of the city of New York, and it gives the waters of the entire harbor, with their soundings. Its date is 1767. A large tract of water is marked "The Oyster-Banks." In that area of what was then fine native oysters is now the vast patch of "made-land," laid down by the filling in of the city's refuse, by the New Jersey Central Railroad, and which matter is now in litigation. The time was when the entire waters west of the channel, beginning south of Jersey City, and surrounding Ellis and Bedloe's Islands and Robbins's Reef, and a little way beyond Constable's Point, up the Kill Von Kull, altogether some six miles in a straight line, was a rich bank of native oysters, and supposed to be inexhaustible. It can hardly be questioned that, when the European settled here, that which is now the eastern coastline of the United States contained, by several times, more of these edible bivalves than did all the rest of the world. The very shells left inland in many places, by the aboriginal oyster-eaters, make mounds of vast extent, in some instances thirty feet high. At Fernandina, and other places in Florida, they were used as forts in the late war. As to their antiquity, there can be no doubt that oysters were eaten there thousands of years ago.
Recent ethnological investigations indicate, at least, the strange fact that the people who began those shell-heaps antedated the supposedof the American Indian. Their bones have been discovered, and they show an osteology not known among any of the red-men of to-day, namely, a flattening of the tibia, or shin-bones. The relics of the great mounds have shown the same fact; and so marked is this, that the name platycnemic, or flat-shinned, is proposed for this ante-historic race. Again, the unpleasant fact is also indicated that these same ancient oyster-eaters were cannibals. And those heaps of oyster-shells on the land, in which are mixed relics of the ancient races, extend from Florida to Maine. They are found on islands in Casco Bay. But the oyster is not an inhabitant of these parts to-day. In fact, it is a sort of fossil; so that some great geological change has taken place on our coast since those times in the long ago. This surely points to a great antiquity of these oyster-eating men. And the several facts just enumerated would indicate the extraordinary prevalence of this bivalve on our Eastern coast. The most ancient name of Britain is Albion, with evident allusion to its white cliffs. If this truthfully characterized the Druid-Land, it surely would not have been less appropriate, nor less poetical, had the first adventurer named this Occident shore the Oyster-Land.
So, then, how potent has been the influence of the oyster in the industries, and morals, and convivialities of the ancient and the modern man!