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Caviar and Heather

The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar, and the Geography of Desire, by Richard Adams Carey ’73 (Counterpoint, $26) is a captivatingly written chronicle of a fast disappearing fish with a mysterious history and an uncertain future. Carey begins by remembering a classmate he calls Heather. “She was hard to figure out and impossible not to desire. Men stopped and stared at her in the street. I never stopped staring myself.”

One afternoon later that year I happened to meet her on the sidewalk outside a delicatessen near Harvard Square. She had bought a small tin of caviar, and she was eating it right there on the sidewalk with crackers. Or maybe not, because I also remember that she scooped the eggs out of the container and into her mouth with her fingers. The caviar lay as smooth and dark in its tin as blackberry jam, except where her fingers, or a cracker, had gone in. She told me she came here every once in a while when she was in the mood for caviar. She asked me if I wanted some.

Well, I wasn’t sure. I had never seen caviar before, though I had my prejudices and received notions….In any event, I declined….

I continued to visit with Heather throughout our years in school, though less and less as time went on. She had several boyfriends, one after another, all more glamorous than I….

The caviar that Heather offered me some 30 years ago almost certainly came from the Caspian, the waters of either the Soviet Union or Iran. Today five squabbling nations ring that sea, and the sturgeon harvest is largely given over to organized crime. International initiatives in conservation and law enforcement seek to stop the slaughter while scientists scramble to understand the ancient fish’s biology and behavior before it’s too late. As the Caspian populations wane, more attention accrues to sturgeons surviving elsewhere in the world, particularly in American waters. The black market has found these fish as well, and today the caviar marketplace in the United States is a kaleidoscopic bazaar of money, politics, and intrigue. In this instance, less supply will not make the hunters go away. The sturgeon’s legendary egg will become only a more compelling object of desire.

I think back to a time before such circumstances, to my refusal to dip my fingers into Heather’s tin of caviar in Cambridge, and see in that moment a microcosm of my relationship with her. I was, after all, being offered just a taste, but it was a taste of something rich and strange and rare. I stood before that tin of eggs, and before that extraordinary girl, like J. Alfred Prufrock confronted by a peach. I remember watching her smile, clamp the tin shut, and disappear into the throng on the sidewalk. There was something in the way she moved, and through many rainy days afterward I wondered what might have happened instead.

….There was never anything from her in the Harvard/Radcliffe class reports until recently. She wrote that she had become a clinical psychologist in private practice in a city on the West Coast, and also a political activist. She spoke out against the sort of oppression commonly exerted against people of minority races, but that had also attacked her in her own identity, she said, as a woman and a lesbian. For exercise she went ocean kayaking….

I have no idea whether she still snacks on caviar. But I know that if she ever takes her kayak near the mouths of the Columbia or the Fraser rivers, and if she does that in the spring, then not only are Pacific salmon coursing beneath her paddles, surging upriver to spawn, but sturgeon as well, white sturgeon, Acipenser transmontanus. Some of them bear eggs, a blackberry jam of tiny globes, each of them bursting with a flavor I know now to be the distilled essence of wildness and the sea, with sparkling connotations of money and beauty and style and adventure — and also with a wonderful natural undertone, I think, of peach.