I drew a shallow, tepid bath, and dropped the tough, dry Alaria into it. This had been cast aside as we sorted through the harvest, for its age. The fronds had weathered tide and harsh surf against angular ledges in the outer bay, this showed in so many tears along the blades. Not good for eating. But wonderful for painting.
Alaria is a macroalgae who grows well in the less protected waters of Maine's island and peninsula spattered coastal waters. On rocks that are only fully exposed at the lowest of low tides. I had recently come back from an adventure in Penobscot Bay, with my friend Micah, owner of the Atlantic Holdfast Seaweed Company. Over a few days on a remote island he showed me how to harvest this seaweed for food. As the summer sun was just rising over the ocean, around 5:30 am we were in wetsuits, among bobbing, curious seals, rowing a dory from small boat to exposed ledge.
We gathered up great armfuls of the stuff in this moment that they were all combed straight by the receding water. I watched Micah cut low, but above the wings, and then with a twirl of his arm, twist the six foot skein of seaweed around and back on itself, and toss it neatly into a mesh basket. It took all my focus just to keep my footing in the slippery salad of writhing mermaid hair, pulled and pushed and battered by the incoming tide, wave after wave after wave. And that twirl and toss required all the arm strength I could muster by the third or fourth bunch. Grace is hard earned, in this work.
The Alaria that rehydrated in this bathtub, back on the mainland, was like a relic of the wild, living ones I met at open ocean's edge. So placid. And I was grounded, feet on the edge of the tub, contemplating the finer details of the algae from the comfort of a chair I'd dragged in. Taking my time to dab some colors around on my palette. I wondered if any painter of algae had attempted to work where her subject lived and grew, perched on a ledge with a pencil and salty, sopping paper as the tide came in. Or if, like me, she brought the seaweed into stillness to paint a portrait.
Alaria esculenta is the full scientific name of this elegant being. Other names are Atlantic Wakame, Dabberlocks, Láracha, and Winged Kelp. The "wings" are actually sporophylls, or reproductive structures. That's why Micah cuts above them: to ensure that the community of Alaria will continue to reproduce and thrive even with his harvests. Ideally, his cutting away enhances the health of that colony, as mowing a pasture can open habitat to sunlight and air for fresher, more robust grass. The stem-like structure on seaweed is called a stipe, and when the stipe is central to the blade (leaf-like part), it is called a midrib. The structure at the bottom, analogous to a plant's root, is called a holdfast. Easy to remember, when you imagine how the holdfast grabs the ledge so tightly that even the powerful spring-tide waves don't dislodge the entire frond.
As seaweed comes back into popularity again as a food, small harvesting operations like Micah's are becoming increasingly important. Harvesters who are working closely with seaweed, observing and handling it daily, are well positioned to advocate for the wise and careful stewardship of an indispensable marine habitat. Ocean algae produces some 90 percent of the world's oxygen, and store huge quantities of carbon. Seaweeds create nurseries and feeding ground for many, even most, of the planet's fish. Shorebirds depend on the proximity of these habitats to the coast for their food supply. Seaweed forests protect gastropods and arthropods like periwinkles, shrimp and crabs. Humans depend on the seaweed forests to provide a foundation to our own wobbly, unsteady fisheries. We must make sure that they are not just surviving, but thriving as we consider our methods, quantity and frequency of harvest.
I love Alaria as a food! In soups and as a salad, particularly. Seaweeds contain most all the minerals and trace elements a human body needs to thrive and has been a traditional human food all over the world reaching far back into our species' story. I recognize that many humans who eat, or want to start eating, from these marine gardens, may have little to no relationship with the sea. And I urge you to search for a harvester whose practices are to the mutual benefit of your body and of the coastal habitat to which she is connecting you.
For more seaweed paintings that came from adventures with Micah, go on to my Instagram feed, or peruse The Shop. We also spent time on the island talking about Irish Moss, Bladderwrack, Dulse, Fingered Kelp and Sugar Kelp. The originals of many are available, framed, and I've made several into greeting card sets. May the work invite you into this beautiful, dynamic, and little seen world offshore.