Strange Harvests: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects

Strange Harvests: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects

by Edward Posnett

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"[Strange Harvests is] an impressive addition to the modern travelogue, painting some of the world's most remote terrain in visceral and sometimes breathtaking prose . . . an engrossing read." --NPR

An original and magical map of our world and its riches, formed of the stories of the small-scale harvests of seven natural objects

In this beguiling book, Edward Posnett journeys to some of the most far-flung locales on the planet to bring us seven wonders of the natural world--eiderdown, vicuña fiber, sea silk, vegetable ivory, civet coffee, guano, and edible birds' nests--that promise ways of using nature without damaging it. To the rest of the world these materials are mere commodities, but to their harvesters they are imbued with myth, tradition, folklore, and ritual, and form part of a shared identity and history.

Strange Harvests follows the journeys of these uncommon products from some of the most remote areas of the world to its most populated urban centers, drawing on the voices of the people and little-known communities who harvest, process, and trade them. Blending history, travel writing, and interviews, Posnett sets these human stories against our changing economic and ecological landscape. What do they tell us about capitalism, global market forces, and overharvesting? How do local microeconomies survive in a hyperconnected world? Is it possible for us to live together with different species? Strange Harvests makes us see the world with wonder, curiosity, and new concern.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399562815
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/06/2019
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 449,657
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Edward Posnett was born in London. After a spell working in financial services, he started writing about nature, markets, and trade. His fascination with the Icelandic tradition of eiderdown harvesting led him to write “Eiderdown,” winner of the Bodley Head/Financial Times Essay Prize, and sparked this first book. He lives in Philadelphia.

Read an Excerpt



In Ísafjörður, the capital of Iceland's remote Westfjords region, a Lutheran pastor compared eiderdown to cocaine. "I sometimes think that we are like the coca farmers in Colombia," he said. "We [the down harvesters] get a fraction of the price when the product hits the streets of Tokyo. This is the finest down in the world and we are exporting it in black garbage bags."
It is difficult to describe the weight of eiderdown in a language in which the epitome of lightness is a feather. Unlike a feather's ordered barbs arranged around a solid shaft, under a microscope eiderdown offers a portrait of chaos: hundreds of soft threads branch out from a single point, twisting around one another. Upon each thread are countless small hooks, which allow the down to cling to itself, trapping pockets of air and warmth.
When I returned from Iceland, I asked my wife to close her eyes and put her hands out. After placing a duck-size clump of down in her hands, I asked her what she felt. "Heat," she said. She opened her eyes to find the down, a ghostly gray form, hovering above her palms, and pulled it apart, releasing the hooks. It crackled as if electrified, emitting a mild smell that reminded me of burned hair. She scrunched her hands, and the down disappeared in her fingers, compressed into a ball smaller than a duckling's bill.
Over centuries eiderdown has been treasured by those who shared their lands with the eider. The Vikings apparently filled their bedding with eiderdown, medieval tax collectors accepted it as a means of payment, and it's possible that the Romanov czars, whose dominions were home to some of the largest eider populations in the world, had a taste for the material. Today, its buyers are the global superrich. In Iceland I heard stories about Gulf royals who sleep under eiderdown in the desert, and Russian politicians whose hearts can be warmed with the gift of an eiderdown duvet.
The properties of eiderdown-extreme lightness and insulation-make sense when you consider the life of its owner. The eider is a fat seabird, more penguin than duck, and many of them spend most of their lives in the Arctic Circle. Visit the Icelandic coast and you will see hundreds, bobbing gregariously in the sea. Brash creatures, their boldness inspires admiration in the Icelanders. "The eider is an unsung hero, far braver than any bird of prey, which it is known to attack to protect its offspring," one local told me.
The story of how most feathers come to fill our bedding is anything but comforting. According to trade bodies, most feathers are a by-product of the meat industry. Less fortunate birds may have their plumage ripped out while they are still alive, a practice known as live-plucking (and reported to be common in China and Hungary, both major exporters of down).
As I held a clump of eiderdown in my hand, one Icelander told me something that seems to offer an alternative to this unsettling relationship between humans and birds. He said that the eider it once belonged to is probably still alive. Not in some dark barn, or even in an open-air enclosure, but in the wilds of the Arctic Circle.
In a café in Ísafjörður, the pastor explained how he harvests eiderdown. As part of his parish duties, he runs a small farm, a throwback to earlier times when pastors in remote areas would survive off the land. Even now, life here can be unpredictable, especially in winter, when the weather turns violent. In 1995 two towns in the Westfjords were buried by avalanches, killing thirty-four people. Parish ministers were among the first to reach one of the villages and offer comfort to the survivors.
Every June, he said, about five hundred ducks arrive from the sea and waddle to his farm. Eiders do not naturally nest in such large colonies, but will congregate close to human settlements to seek shelter and protection. The ducks nest anywhere: in tires, doorways, and even houses. "I always take a lot of flags with me and I put a flag beside each nest so I will be able to find it again. Because they are incredibly camouflaged, these ducks. You can almost step on them."
At night the pastor guards the flock of eiders from their predators: seagulls, foxes, and mink. "I was quite lucky in that I got interested in guns when I was just a little over twenty," he said. "It was before I started studying theology." If he were to fall asleep, a fox would have a feast of sitting ducks. "It's more than a financial loss, it's also like they are depending on me. So I don't want to let them down. I used to be a night watchman so I have a little bit of experience staying awake."
In the Middle Ages, pelicans were thought to pierce their own breast to draw blood to feed their young. The mythical act was known as vulning, a Christlike act of self-sacrifice.
On the pastor's land the eider, too, makes herself vulnerable for her offspring, though it is down, not blood, that she draws from her breast. From this down she builds a nest for her eggs; her own bare skin, freshly revealed, covers them with warmth. She sits on her eggs for some twenty-eight days, during which she may lose a third of her body weight; some mothers may starve to death.
After incubation, the eggs hatch, the mothers waddle back to the sea with their offspring, and the pastor gathers their down, his protection fee. "I never collect the down until they are gone," he said. "Some of the farmers say they like to take a little bit of the down [while the ducks are still nesting]. I just like to leave them, not to disturb them in any way. . . . If you frighten them, they jump up and shit all over the nest." The "shit" he describes is not in fact excrement, but a brown oily liquid with an odor similar to that of frying liver. "[It is] so strong," recorded one Belgian eider enthusiast, "that an egg touched with it is refused and even discarded by the hungriest dog."
The scene described by the pastor has been a common sight in Iceland for centuries. Down has been collected here probably since the arrival of Norse settlers in the ninth century. The sight of thousands of tame eiders close to human settlements astounded early European travelers in Iceland. C. W. Shepherd, an Englishman who visited the island of Vigur in the Westfjords in 1862, described a farm besieged by eiders: "The earthen walls that surrounded it, and the window embrasures, were occupied by ducks. On the ground, the house was fringed with ducks. On the turf slopes of the roof, we could see ducks; and a duck sat in the scraper. . . . A windmill was infested; and so were all the outhouses, mounds, rocks, and crevices. The ducks were everywhere."
Environmentalists, economists, and ornithologists have all fallen in love with Icelandic harvesting. There is an irresistible simplicity to the relationship between the harvesters and the eiders. If a harvester cares for the ducks, more and more will come to nest, increasing the amount of down that can be gathered. At times, the relationship can be tested. As the pastor told me, some harvesters cannot resist collecting the down while it is still fresh, removing a portion of an eider's nest before her eggs have hatched and replacing it with straw. It is not pleasant to watch nesting eiders being disturbed, but they quickly return to their nests and apparently do not hold grudges; the same ducks return year after year.
In 1914, Charles Wendell Townsend, a physician and amateur ornithologist from Massachusetts, became obsessed by the Icelandic method while investigating the declining numbers of eiders in Labrador, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia. Dismayed by the practice of duck hunting in North America, he proposed the introduction of eider reservations where down could be harvested for profit. He had read about Icelandic harvesting in travelers' accounts and dreamed of introducing a utopia of ecology and commerce along the coast of the United States and Canada. "The cooing notes, so long few or absent in many places, would again resound over the waters," Townsend wrote in "A Plea for the Conservation of the Eider" (1914). "And best of all, to the practical minded, the birds would pay well for their protection by gifts of eggs and of valuable eider-down."
I wondered how fragile the relationship is between Icelanders and the ducks, and whether the drive for profit might somehow kill the golden goose. If demand for down reaches the level of that for rhino horn, bear gallbladders, or elephant ivory, could the eider be driven to extinction? Might Icelanders have to develop intensive farming techniques to increase the supply of down, possibly to reduce illegal hunting?
These possibilities seem remote in Iceland, where eiders have been respected for centuries. I saw this firsthand on the remote island of Vigur, which looks out into the Arctic Circle. I met a sixteen-year-old boy whose family has inhabited a farm on the island since the nineteenth century. On his forearms I noticed dozens of small scars from wounds inflicted by puffins, which he catches, midflight, with a vast butterfly net. He was happy to snap hundreds of puffins' necks to kill them for their meat, but the eider was untouchable, a sacred bird. His uncle later explained that eiderdown accounts for more than a third of the family's income.
If the Icelanders' relationship with the ducks does change, then it may be for different reasons. The Norwegians once harvested down all along their coastline, but in the 1960s they discovered a far more profitable natural resource-oil-and began to move away from remote coastal areas. "The eiders tried to move with them because they felt protected by humans," explained one harvester. "The ducks would rather live with cats and dogs than seagulls."
Iceland has not yet struck oil, but it does have untapped reserves of hydroelectric and geothermal power, which the government is looking to exploit and export. (It is considering plans to lay a submarine cable between Iceland and Scotland that would provide electricity for European homes.)
The future of Iceland's renewable energy sources rouses strong feelings in the country, where large swaths of pristine landscape have already been flooded, or "drowned," to create the conditions required for hydroelectric power generation. If the Icelanders choose to develop their country's renewable energy sources to the full and export electricity as the Norwegians export oil, eiderdown harvesting may begin to seem an outdated tradition.
In the cycle of a natural resource, it is generally its extraction that is its most unpleasant and destructive stage. To win rights to an oil block in a developing country, an oil company may slip a sweetener into an official's pocket. To increase the production of feathers, a goose farmer may find it profitable to wrench them from a bird while it is still alive. The story of down harvesting is so different from these narratives of compromise and degradation. Once down is traded and marketed, however, it becomes just like any other commodity.
"What looks like a nice, peaceful, old-fashioned small trade from the outside is actually an octopus of monopoly and manipulations," said Jón Sveinsson, an Icelandic businessman. "Scratch the surface, follow the money, and the picture quickly changes from idyllic hobby to cutthroat exploitation."
A former naval officer, Sveinsson has devoted his life to eiderdown. Unlike many harvesters, he is involved in all stages of its life cycle, from the duck's nest to an oligarch's bedding. Since childhood, he has harvested down on his family's farm in the Westfjords, later investing hundreds of thousands of euros developing his own machinery to dry and clean it. Above all, he is a marketing man. An avid reader of Edgar Allan Poe, he compared his marketing efforts to detective work, "looking for traces of potential clients, finding what spots they frequent, like a hunter tracks a rare game to its watering hole."
Sveinsson explained that to produce a single kilo of refined down takes a colossal amount of work. About sixty nests must be collected, dried, and cleaned to remove dirt, seaweed, and vegetation. This process was mechanized in the 1950s when Icelanders developed their own drying and cleaning technology. Despite all this labor, the value of the down produced and refined in Iceland is only a fraction of its retail price. Intermediaries, such as Japanese and European wholesalers, buy in bulk after it has been processed. It is then stuffed into pillows, duvets, and clothing sold in Japan, China, Germany, and Russia. The Icelanders receive about $3.4 million for the three metric tons of down that-give or take-they export each year, but according to Sveinsson, its retail value may be ten times this amount. "The harvesters actually get a lower percentage of the retail value than an African coffee grower," he says.
His words reminded me of what the writer Rebecca Solnit called (in a 2008 essay for Harper's Magazine) Iceland's "fairy tale told backward," in which its people "had been dispossessed of their great gifts and birthrights." It began, she argues, about three decades ago, when Iceland privatized the right to fish and introduced quotas that could be traded and accumulated. Today large firms predominantly control the fishing industry. Then in 2006 a remote highland wilderness in eastern Iceland was flooded to create a huge reservoir as a power source for an aluminum smelter. The cost of the hydropower project was about $2 billion, much of it borrowed from international banks. Critics of the plan claim that the environmental and financial price was too high for the several hundred jobs it created.
Eiderdown, sold off cheaply, seemed to be just another chapter in this story. The writer Andri Snær Magnason points out that the Icelandic word for "windfall" is hvalreki, literally a beached whale. While a windfall in English evokes falling fruit, its Icelandic translation is a stranded sea mammal, a gift of free meat.
When explaining why the Icelanders are getting such a raw deal from down, Sveinsson pointed to Iceland's historical relationship with its largest export, fish. "Abundant fishing grounds have been a resource that have shaped the Icelandic economy as well as our mentality, a blessing and a curse in one," he said. "A kind of hand-to-mouth attitude developed-there was always the knowledge that one day the weather would calm down and the boat could set off for another good catch."
In myths, fables, and hagiographies, one often reads of the ability of individuals to tame wild creatures, burnishing their reputation for virtue, sensitivity, or holiness. It is said that Saint Cuthbert, the seventh-century missionary who settled on the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast, protected and tamed eiders. (Today in Northumberland the eider is sometimes called Saint Cuthbert's or Cuddy duck). Many of these stories were built upon embellishment or pure fantasy, but in Iceland, travelers' accounts repeatedly confirmed the existence of this strange relationship between Icelanders and the ducks. Writing in 1875, the English explorer Richard Burton commented that the eider was a "barn door" bird as "tame as horse-pond geese." "No salute must be fired at Reykjavik," he wrote, "for fear of frightening 'somateria mollissima.'"

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