Freewheeling iridescence of the abalone

Port Orford author Ann Vileisis has been nominated for an Oregon Book Award for her nonfiction work on the Northern California shellfish

Port Orford author Ann Vileisis is a 2021 Oregon Book Award finalist in general nonfiction for Abalone, The Remarkable History and Uncertain Future of California’s Iconic Shellfish, published last year by Oregon State University Press. Vileisis, an independent scholar, is intrigued by environmental history; her other books are Kitchen Literacy and Discovering the Unknown Landscape, A History of America’s Wetlands. We talked with Vileisis about the coast, her book, and the marine gastropod; her comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you land in Port Orford?

Vileisis: My husband, Tim (Palmer), and I were exploring the coast. He was working on his book, Pacific High, and we came through Port Orford and recognized it as a neat place. We came back years later and just fell in love with the area. One thing led to another. We’ve been here for 20 years; I can’t believe it.

Until she ran across one on the beach at Big Sur, Ann Vileisis says her experience with abalone was limited to a shell her family used as an ashtray.

Does living in such a small town (population 954) far from metro areas make it easier or harder for you as a writer?

It makes it harder. When you are part of a little community, you have to pitch in. The life I ended up weaving together includes writing, conservation activism, and independent scholar — researching and trying to figure things out. It all weaves together really well.

Tell us how you came to write about abalone.

It was one of those pivotal moments in my life. It was just a glorious day.… I was walking on the beach in Big Sur, jumping from rock to rock, and on this little patch of beach was this brilliant, beautiful little shell. It was glimmery with the iridescence of the abalone. I couldn’t believe that an animal could make such a beautiful thing. At that moment, I didn’t really know much about abalone. I was vaguely aware that abalone had been a seafood, but I don’t really know much about them. Because I had a background in history and food history, it got me really interested to know more about that animal. I asked around and most people thought the history of abalone was the story of a fishery that was once really big and was lost. When I dug deeper, I realized there is a much bigger ecological context and deeper history to understand.

Had you seen an abalone before?

I think we had one in my house when I grew up that we used as an ashtray, but I’d never found one in its natural habitat. It’s very exciting. It set me on a path. I did further research and it opened my eyes in a fresh way to an animal whose story I felt needed to be told. Before I started doing research, I had the completely wrong idea that it would be a simple topic to write about. I thought, “Oh, I’ll write this book about this one animal.” Little did I know it was hitched to so many other things.  To do it right, I had to learn about marine biology, cultural history, science, and weave all those stories together. It actually took me 10 years to write.

What was the most fascinating thing you learned?

One thing really intriguing was to learn about iridescence. I talked to a scientist who used a scanning electron microscope. The iridescence of the abalone shell is kind of freewheeling. It’s compelling because it changes all the time, and yet its microstructure is highly ordered little tiles of calcium aragonite. The microstructure of shells, how they evolved through time — I found that very interesting.

Ann Vileisis's book, "Abalone, The Remarkable History and Uncertain Future of California’s Iconic Shellfish," has been nominated for an Oregon Book Award

What is the biggest factor contributing to the demise of abalone?

At this point, in addition to overfishing, a series of environmental stressors piled on. When you try to single out one thing, you don’t see all these things that contribute. If you are only focused on one thing, you miss that it’s different things that erode the capacity of an animal we use as wild food to sustain itself.

Where was abalone found in the U.S.? 

Up until about 2013, you could find abalone in Northern California and Southern Oregon, but especially in Northern California. They managed the abalone fishery as a breath-hold-only fishery. People could dive for abalone, hold their breath, go down, pop it open, and bring it to shore.  It limited the number people could take; people couldn’t go too deep. In 2013, we had a series of environmental stressors. The fishery closed in 2017. Now, there is no place to get wild abalone on the West Coast.

How did you learn you made the Book Awards short list and how does that feel?

I was delighted. It always feels good to know people value and appreciate your writing. For books that came out this year, it was a hard path. Bookstores closed; even Amazon stopped shipping books. A lot of the reviewing media skipped books, so a lot of us who had books come out fell into a hole. I’m really grateful for the added attention and that Literary Arts is interested in helping to promote the culture of books and reading books in our state. Anything that promotes books is good.

What do you hope readers will take away from this?

I hope people just enjoy reading an epic story, but also understand how important history is to understanding broader perspectives, environmental issues. One other thing that the book has led me to realize is that marine life is far more vulnerable than many of us had realized. Recent history has shown us that. I think those are all takeaways.

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Winners of the Oregon Book Awards will be announced at 7 p.m. May 2 on The Archive Project on OBP Radio.

About the author

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pups Luna and Monkey.

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