To Market, To Market

Are we locusts? In telling the “hidden histories of seven natural objects” consumed by humans, Edward Posnett ponders the question in Strange Harvests. True, he puts it in other words, but that’s what it boils down to.

Female Common Eider (Somateria mollissima) with ducklings in Iceland, 2010.

Edible birds nests, civet coffee, sea silk (byssus), vicuna fiber, tagua (“vegetable ivory”), and guano are six of his subjects. (I’ve also written on guano.)

Eiderdown is the first object he tackles. Did you know that female eiders pluck their own belly feathers to line their nests? The down, a remarkable light-weight insulator, is really, really warm. After the breeding season, this eiderdown is gathered by Icelanders. The Russians, who also have a lot of eiders, just wantonly slaughter the birds. The feather-for-filling industry is another horror-show; in addition to filling comforters, some feathers, along with human hair, are turned into a “dough conditioner” called L-cysteine used in garbage-bread manufactures like Dunkin Donuts.

Some Icelandic eider “farmers” have the nests all around their homes; the birds have learned to associate these places with safety from predators — gulls, skuas, foxes. The Arctic fox is actually the only indigenous mammal on the island. The eider-gatherers kill the foxes with abandon.

This is the chaser, as it were, to the seemingly simple story of Icelanders living in harmony with nature, which is actually a component of the international capitalist nexus, where big money is made in pure Icelandic eiderdown — money generally not made by the Icelanders who clean the bird shit out of the down.

The subsistence-gatherer makes little of the ultimate boodle… a story repeated over and over in this book on the global and rapacious reach of the market.

Only seven objects? Well, a book can only be so long. But think too of horseshoe crabs, bled for medical purposes. Or scale insects ground up for red-food dye, lipstick, and Campari. Or the driving to extinction of fresh water mussel species in the U.S. for the button industry.

Our jaws are munching, munching, munching everything in the fields of the planet.

Two more Common Eider, this time in Maine.

2 Responses to “To Market, To Market”

  1. 1 ericka August 25, 2019 at 7:57 am

    thanks, interesting as usual

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