I was recently asked by The Browser to pick my top 5 books about the ocean. Mulling over my choice I returned to a modern classic and re-read that pioneer of single-topic, one-word titled bestsellers – Mark Kurlansky’s Cod.
Mark’s book has been sitting on my shelf since I was an undergraduate zoologist and it played a part in inspiring me to continue my marine science studies and planted a little seed that eventually blossomed into my ambitions to become a writer.
I enjoyed my re-read, soaking up Mark’s style and his crafting of the story, and reminding myself of the various cod war shenanigans.In the end I decided not to choose it as one of my top 5, largely because it it still graces best-seller lists after all these years, having broken beyond an audience of ocean enthusiasts like me. So people know about it already.
But I wanted to share a few of Mark’s words – the ones he chose to finish the book with.
This is how it ends:
There is a big difference between living in a society that hunts whales and living in one that views them. Nature is being reduced to precious demonstrations for entertainment and education, something far less natural than hunting. Are we headed for a world where nothing is left of nature but parks? Whales are mammals, and mammals do not lay a million eggs. We were forced to give up commercial hunting to raise domestic mammals for meat, preserving the wild ones as best we could. It is harder to kill off fish than mammals. But after 1,000 years of hunting the Atlantic cod, we know that it can be done.
Reading these words, I felt at first a little put out as Mark scoffs at the protectionist view of nature, declaring that whale-watching is a silly thing to do and reserves are somehow shameful.
Hunting is natural? Well yes, I suppose it is in the sense that humans hunted wild animals – from whales to oysters – long before we figured out how to grow crops and breed livestock and long, long before we invented money to pay for the chance to stand and stare at a mighty beast swimming through the ocean.
But reading this a second and third time, I realise Mark has subtly showed that while nature parks and eco-tourism may not be ideal options, we’ve brought them on ourselves. Humankind can’t be trusted not to eat all the whales and cod and any other wild animals we develop a taste for. That’s just the way it is.
Will we see the day when nature clings on only inside parks? The way things stand, with only 1.2% of the ocean currently inside marine protected areas, it’ll be a pretty scant depiction of nature’s great riches that we manage to safeguard. And a recent study highlights the inadequacies of nature reserves to do their job of looking after bits of nature for us.
What Mark’s book does so well is reveal what an ancient and messy business our involvement in the oceans has been. Here is a single species that brought settlers to the new world, fueled the slave trade, provoked conflict, made fortunes, lost fortunes, and still today – for some reason that I can’t fathom – is my home nation’s most beloved dish.