“The months of the year, from January up to June, are a geometric progression in the abundance of distractions. In January one may follow a skunk track, or search for bands on the chickadees, or see what young pines the deer have browsed, or what muskrat houses the mink have dug, with only the occasional and mild digression into other doings January observation can be almost as simple and peaceful as snow, and almost as continuous as cold. There is time not only to see who has done what, but to speculate why.”
– Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac
Shrimp Boat Projects began as an idea over five years ago, but it wasn’t until last month that we became ‘official’ through the support of the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts (and created this website). Now we measure our work not in years but in days, weeks, months and seasons, and our work is defined less by internal conversations than the myriad public interactions we have on a regular basis.
Our project will soon be defined by the public work we do as shrimpers on Galveston Bay. But January and February will be remembered as the months in which our public interactions were not so much about working the Bay, but looking and listening to the people and places that define the Bay. We’re doing this through visits with shrimpers, teachers, boat builders, scientists, historians and others invested in the Houston region; through a class called “Exploring the Context of Galveston Bay” we are now teaching in the Interdisciplinary Arts program at the University of Houston; through the organizing of public events that will take place this winter and spring (we had our ‘Launch’ event last Wednesday); and through the travels involved in our ongoing quest for a working shrimp boat that will become the physical and spiritual foundation for our project. All of these activities have brought us closer to the regional geography that in many ways is the silent partner in our project.
And so, for the most part, January and February have been about looking and listening. We like to use Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac as a reference for this in our own work. We look and listen in a similar vein to Leopold, but the things we notice and record have little resemblance to the elements he chooses to share. Houston is not Sand County. Our work is grounded in a peculiar form of natural landscape (or perhaps increasingly familiar) that is intensely woven within a complex urban environment and metropolitan region. This natural landscape is cross-cut by freeways, rail lines and pipelines, and ringed by towns and cities of varying sizes, petro-chemical refineries, vast recreational amenities on land and water, diverse tourist destinations, abundant wildlife preserves, and a prolific seafood industry. Everything we do with Shrimp Boat Projects is embedded in this region and a context that is already rich in existing work, knowledge, stories and resources. We’ve been trying to absorb all of these things to make sure that any work that we do can also be a part of this place. Paying proper deference to the people and work that has come before us is a good way to start. So even as we share the intent of our work with others, we are more interested in simply looking, listening and asking plenty of questions.
It’s hard to convey just how pervasive this ethic is in our work. Perhaps it’s is best illustrated by the significant time we’ve spent since early January meeting with individuals whose work in this region precedes us. People like Alecya Galloway, a marine biologist and local historian at the Environmental Institute of Houston who has spent years researching the health of the Galveston Bay shrimp fishery and the communities of shrimpers who know it best, or Dr. Sammy Ray, a renowned oyster pathologist at Texas A&M-Galveston who seems as interested in the biology of oysters as fostering an appreciation for the Bays where oyster habitat thrives. Or perhaps this ethic of looking and listening is best illustrated by the way we’ve chosen to conduct our class this semester at the University of Houston where on each field trip that forms the structure of the class we defer to the guides and experts who know these places best.
Looking and listening could also describe the many interactions we’ve had thus far with shrimp boat captains, shrimp boat owners, seafood wholsesalers, retailers and others working in the Texas shrimping industry all along the Texas coast. Ephemeral as they are, these conversations are an invaluable resource to our work as they help us situate ourselves within the active industry and culture that informs our mission. Sometimes these conversations are scheduled, sometimes they are spontaneous, but they almost always happen (appropriately) on or around the shrimp boats themselves. Right now, we really can’t learn enough about shrimp boats or the people whose lives have been built around them. So to have meetings on boats is no longer a novelty but actually an important way for us to look and listen to the people and things that matter most to bay shrimping.
Looking and listening might be integral to the act of bay shrimping itself. Of course we won’t really know how this works until we are actively and regularly working the Bay (as shrimpers) but if we learned anything from the shrimping trips that helped us to conceive this project, bay shrimping is as much about strategically situating yourself within a place, as actually catching shrimp. For us, at this point in our project, looking and listening has become the best way of situating ourselves within this place.