One day, early on in the UK’s version of pandemic lock-down when we were still shocked that we could grow things in our homes amidst that furious uncertainty and loss, I noticed one particular bean shoot began to twist back upon itself. Unfurling towards the neighbours who have more sunflowers in their front garden than teeth in their mouths, it found no support so twisted downward. The zucchini seeds pushed monster heads through the soil so we sent them outside to live in a wheelbarrow. Their fruits are now apparently longer than my sister’s arm.
We say we grew them but really we just gave them space, light and water. In a podcast with behavioural ecologist Monica Guigliano (When We Talk About Animals, Spotify) I learn that plants listen and learn, like Pavlov’s dog, like us, to turn toward water and reward. On a Sunday evening I keep the neighbour’s child awake while hammering some pallets into the semblance of a vegetable box. A perfect bed for a fox to shit in, it turns out. On other days we lifted up the paving and stuffed the cracks with soil, coaxing wildflower seeds into bloom. This tiny London wild is mesmerizing. Now that the winter is here this tiny London wild is dormant again.
Now in Cornwall, I’ve turned my eye to a wider wild than that kitchen could hold. It is a wild I can bring into my mouth with nettles, mackerel, cockles, lobsters, samphire, and razor clams.
We set up on the Durgan rocks with a kelly kettle in the wind. A flood scooped out the land a few years ago and trees lean into the Helford estuary. I’m drying my hair in the smoke and warming my back on the slate. The slate is sharp enough to cut my apple into thin, cool slivers.
He comes out of the water holding a deep blue and red gnarly looking creature and shows me a bloody knick on his left forefinger. The lobster has two muscular pincers: a cruncher shaped like a tractor’s limb and a blade-like slicer. We’ll have lobster for dinner, he says holding a small blue ruler against its torso to check that it’s longer than the 90mm foraging limit.
In the pot of salted boiling water it turns bright red almost instantly. Alive it was deep blue and green with red seams. This flush to red seems like a warning, a portent, for what I’m not sure. The outer shell is made up of two types of proteins: crustacyanin and carotenoid astaxanthin, which usually reflects an intense red and yellow colour (Ciani M, 2002). Lobsters absorb astaxanthin from plankton in their diet and the crustacyanin already present in the lobster shell folds and twists astaxanthin protein into itself to mask the red hues, making the shell appear blue. When exposed to heat the crustacyanin relaxes and releases astaxanthin, turning the shell red.
We crunch a walnut cracker around its joints to release flesh from inside. It slips out, immaculately formed. For something so insectile it holds a huge amount of meat. We eat it with just a squeeze of lemon. The taste is sweet, silken, and a bit nutty. Apparently I ate lobster once before this, in a lethally hot vindaloo curry in Observatory, Cape Town when I was a few years old and a couple of feet tall. But to my mouth, this is my first lobster.
An absurdity: this lobster was privately owned by The Duchy of Cornwall, Prince Charles of Wales who owns the entirety of The Helford River. The cockles we lifted with our toes and the razor clams we coaxed out with salt the week before had also been private property of the Crown. An act of eating as theft.