Understanding Fish

Images: MIA GOURVITCH

Scanning the program of Everything Under the Sun, one point catches my eye: Understanding Fish. Things usually aren’t about fish but about the system, a very well-known mechanism. The thought of being able to take the fishes’ side for once was thrilling, libertarian.

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Everything Under the Sun was a course hosted by the Agora Collective in Berlin over the past two months. The mentors and participants were artists and chefs in the broadest sense from all around the world. Global warming was the theme, and as would become apparent, one that affects everything.

We met Roderick Sloan at Agora at 5 AM on a Tuesday. To a certain extent we were trying to understand this Roderick Sloan – after all, every Tuesday at this time he is already out at sea for hours. “I hate Tuesdays,” he said. But he loves them, too, because he gets to do what makes his life so special: diving. Sloan dives for clams and sea urchins and supplies the world-famous restaurant Noma. His sea treasures are highly coveted, invaluable in fact, as they are hand-picked, carefully selected piece by piece like fresh peaches straight from the ocean floor.

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Three hours and seven coffees later, after an extensive, highly undogmatic discussion about various fishing methods the sun rose, when the difference between diving and fishing hit me like a flash. It’s marvelous that diving neither ruins the ocean floor nor unnecessarily reduces the fish population by unintentionally catching “unusable” fish. But what makes all the difference for me is the fact that the diver is with the fish. Among them. In their home. Like a hunter and deer. Like a farmer and his cows. The diver knows what’s going on with the fish. He sees changes and the traces he leaves. The farmer would never slaughter all his cows at once because there wouldn’t be any left. On a reef the diver only picks sea urchins six years old or more and doesn’t return to the same reef for a few years.

IMG_6768(by T.P.)

Roderick smoked a cigarette, looking like a lone ranger. Cool in a way, and yet a bit lost. I bet he’s a Pisces. Everyone knows that Pisces can’t be understood. But Pisces do understand rather well. Everyone knows that too. What was certain was that Roderick had seen something we all hadn’t. “My work is like going to the moon every day.” That must be so beautiful! But I continued to wonder what it means to understand fish. And instead I understood what it means not to understand fish. In the last century we have gone out of our way to to ignore the environment we inhabit, its language, its signs. But what about the environment we don’t live in – water?

Then we went to the aquarium. The aquarium at Bahnhof Zoo, where I, ages ago, had so often been. Nose to the glass, transporting myself mentally into the pool, I always understood with compassion, with complicity. But Roderick shook things up a bit. This time I wasn’t meant to understand fish but to eat them. We had the task of choosing the fish we wanted to prepare for our Nordic dinner two days later. I walked through the aquarium as if I had never been there, my mouth full of foreign flavors and the most out-there textures, as if from the moon.

The dinner was a triumph. It tasted amazing. And there was much more. Roderick’s intern, William, smuggled freshly picked sea urchins and clams in a suitcase back to Berlin. The transaction happened that afternoon at the airport. Outside we grilled mackerel over an open fire. We ate regional mushrooms and salt-crusted cod. Roderick: “The forest and the ocean go together very well.” Our dinner guests wondered where we were. We had carried them off to another world for an evening. (Says Bpigs.)

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The next day the sun was shining on the golden leaves of Berlin. Then the fog rolled in. Roderick walked into the fog and never came back out. He didn’t say goodbye to anyone.

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Fortunately, Everything Under the Sun wasn’t over yet. In the two weeks that followed we were introduced to phenology and met Kultivator. Two weeks in which I saw things I had never seen. When’s the last time I saw something for the first time?

Phenology is the study of periodic events in nature. What happens when and why. Ultimately, it looks at interconnection. Farmers back in the day knew of these connections, still understood nature’s language. Then we forgot it. But now there’s phenology, which explains the old country wisdom scientifically. For example, when cows hold up their muzzles it’s going to rain. This is due to low air pressure and high humidity close to the earth’s surface. Some things, however, are still inexplicable: “If stinging nettle has holes in its leaves in spring it will hail in the summer.” That’s true in fact. But we don’t know why. We stopped taking famers seriously and now we have global warming. We need their knowledge again in order to deal with climate change, or at least to be able to observe it.

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A few days later Malin and Mathieu of Kultivator, told us about mass calf deaths in Sweden over the past years – until farmers figured out that fresh spring grass grows earlier now than it used to. It grows before the calves are born. Without the vitamins from the young grass they cannot survive. Now even earlier preparations are needed in autumn. Phenology at its finest.

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We were also working on a dinner for refugees with Kultivator. Malin and Mathieu are artists and activists. Being an activist means being active – I am more aware of that than ever, and I’m extremely thankful to Malin and Mathieu for getting me to move my ass. We talk a lot about refugees here in Berlin, but I must confess standing in front of one feels like meeting a pop star. Faduma from Somalia is for banning the word “refugees” and using “newcomers” instead. She talks and laughs a lot, and her voice is warm when she says “newcomers.” “We don’t need money. We need love.” When she says that it’s not sentimental. It’s pure urgency.

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With the second dinner, Table of Plenty, the first module of Everything Under the Sun came to an end. I didn’t sign up for the second module. A shame really, I realized especially after meeting the artist and course instructor for the second module, Tue Greenfort.

The first half of the course was an intense month with lots of encounters that broadened participants’ horizons. Thanks to Agora for this time, for all the new people, for the knowledge and experience, and for all the happenstance dinners in your kitchen after long days of class. As Caique, who co-founded Agora with Taina Morena and co-curated the course with Ece Pazarbasi put it, “We just wanted to create… the perfect place for a perfect community.” Cheesy perhaps. But they’re very close to such a utopia.

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