By Jim Krosschell
The rocks we perched on still show at high tide. The rising sea has not yet taken them—as a refuge, or a memory, they may last our lifetimes. They peek out above the waves like a little archipelago, dry and safe.
When my daughters, Kate and Emma, were young, we ventured out almost daily, especially in the first blush of vacation. It was an exercise in re-bonding suburban lives fractured by schedules and performances. We could get to the rocks only at low tide, and we would not stay long, for the tide rises quickly on these shores, and the surf is unpredictable, and it would have been a little too adventurous, having to disembark—or embark for that matter—in the wet. No, we climbed up our battlements when the only barrier to access was the slippery rockweed littering our path. The tops of the rocks themselves were weed-free, un-colonized, suitable for timid people from cities south, exciting for two young girls, nine and seven, who liked to pretend they perched on unassailable islands, perfect for their father who knew better but hoped for a different future anyway.
The rockweed presented a problem, though. It looked irredeemably slimy. We stepped around it, in a crooked, almost drunken way, not brave enough to touch by foot and certainly never by hand. “Ewww!”, that totem word of childhood, afflicted my family too. I even warned my girls when we set off down the shore about less obvious dangers: the barnacles that would scrape your skin raw and those black or green mold-like patches on the boulders we negotiated. “Don’t step there,” I said, “especially if it looks wet. It’s very slippery.” Naturally then, I warned them off the rockweed, whose piles appeared bottomless and would suck them in—we were not to test it in our nice sneakers certainly, no matter what live treasures of crab and baby lobster lay all goggle-eyed underneath. In our early pilgrimages we avoided most things organic, which die and rot and stink; our special rocks were dry, clear of processes unknown, safe above the tide.
A few years later, we discovered tidal pools. The three of us had been progressing farther and farther away from home, and about a quarter mile down the shore, past the houses on the bluff and a long stretch of jumbled beach, we found classic Maine pink-granite ledge, smooth and worry-free. The pools were hidden, flooded at high tide, barely accessible at low. But we persisted, older now, less squeamish, contorting our bodies to peer into crevices, where the rewards were hundreds of snails and a score of exotic starfish. I even started combing through the rockweed a bit, lifting it up like great hanks of hair to show Kate and Emma the cute little green crabs hiding in the fronds. I didn’t know at the time that some of those crabs were invasives from the south, pleased to enter the warming waters of the Gulf of Maine and feast on lobster like the rest of us tourists.
We’ve progressed far in fifteen years. The world is hotter, and seems more violent, or at least more instantly connectible to disaster. Maine is now more than a refuge for me, now that my daughters are grown and gone, Kate still on the Atlantic but the wrong side, in Denmark, and Emma just moved to California, an hour from the ocean but the wrong one. Maine is an ark on the floods. This week after Thanksgiving, I sit in the house, staring at water, staring east in fact but both east and west in spirit. The solitude of the shore seems tinged with loneliness today, a place halfway between, and although I give thanks for new lives and exciting independence, I miss my children terribly.
Seaweed is the icon of Maine least likely to star on a blog or a brochure. If you look closely, you might see a frond peeping out at the base of Thunder Hole in Acadia, or a strand or two on the great expanse of Old Orchard Beach, or a discreet pile artfully arranged around a lobster about to be boiled. The photographer or dreamer operates generally at high tide, when seaweed hides, when the lines between surf and stone are clean. Mess doesn’t sell.
But the stuff is everywhere, especially the farther north you go, where the shores wear it thick as an ill-fitting wig, not entirely useless but almost. It is harvested, to be sure, as fertilizer and thickener, and it has achieved a little notoriety as “sea vegetables”—the various kelps, for example, which have long been eaten around the world (the nori of sushi rolls in Japan, dulse as a cocktail party snack in Ireland)—but seaweed is down at the bottom of the roster of marine exploitables. Most Americans like their food familiar, bland, processed by Big Ag; seaweed has a strong taste, and smells of low tide even after drying and processing. The number of evangelists for seaweed, even in Maine with its riches, approaches zero.
When all the fish are gone, perhaps only then we’ll turn to Gouldsboro Bay, where I’ve read of a seventy-year-old man, probably crazy by modern definitions, who cuts kelp by hand, standing in a wetsuit on offshore ledges, buffeted by heavy surf. We’ll believe him when he praises kelp’s effect on his immune system, and we too will pray for the enlightenment of humankind: eat kelp, live long, for it will restore the seawaters whence we came and heal our guts and blood. We’ll believe the research and the analysis, the richness of kelp’s minerals, trace elements, vitamins, enzymes, high-quality proteins, and the ever-sexy phytochemicals, the claims of tumor inhibition and reduction of cholesterol and conquering of viruses. But not until we’re desperate, in the coming dystopia.
Rockweed, however, the most plentiful seaweed, is not very edible, not even by New Age humans, and has been harvested but minimally for fertilizers, advertising no sex appeal whatsoever. Until recently.
It’s one thing to see a man in a skiff scraping rockweed off ledges with a long-handled rake. It’s quite another to see a huge mechanical harvester in your cove. In the new age of peak oil, natural fertilizers look pretty good after all.
Rockweed dominates the intertidal zone of many northern shores. It grows slowly; after a normal life span of ten to fifteen years, its fronds may have reached eight feet long. It survives all but the heaviest of surfs by attaching to rock with sucker-like holdfasts. It sports air-filled bladders along the fronds, to lift it to sunlight at high tide. Scientists say that as many as one hundred fifty species of animals—birds and shellfish and minnows hiding out—rely on rockweed for survival. Thus, Maine’s fishing industry may depend on it. And rockweed protects not only commerce, but the whole shore. Not for nothing is it commonly called knotted wrack, as if to cushion the intertidal zone from the ruin of ocean storms.
I wish that, at the beginning of my years here, those very years while my daughters were growing into their own lights, I had focused us more, found one baby rockweed plant, say, marked its holdfast, and every week crouched at the shore, in the wet, in our old sneakers, to observe its progress to adulthood. That bit of shore would have become precious in an entirely different way.
Stepping back now from that edge, I can at least suggest that “knotted wrack” is a wonderful description of our current dilemmas.
Predictably, every living thing, even weeds, will be exploited eventually. Predictably, environmentalists find a bully pulpit only when the big machines arrive. It’s inevitable that the Rockweed Coalition (“no-cut zones”) will battle the Maine Seaweed Council (“the sustainable use of seaweed”). Our ecological problems are as local as ownership of the intertidal zone in Maine (nobody quite knows who can do what, the law is ancient and not clear); as knotty as livelihoods versus legacies; as intractable as feeding the stomachs and aspirations of seven billion people.
A few years ago in our cove, we could expect to see a moored boat or two almost every summer day. Rakers scoured the sea bottom for sea urchins to satisfy the craze in Japan, and in two years the urchins were wiped out. This past spring the price of elvers, baby eels highly prized in Asia, reached two thousand dollars a pound. I give the fishery maybe five years before it’s gone. An invasive red seaweed from Asia via Europe threatens our New England shores; it suffocates all life in its path, stinks when it dies, and ironically enough, might be controlled by sea urchins. Every day of every year, the U.S. loses five thousand acres of land to development. I listen to my daughters talk about climate change. There’s despair in their voices, a resignation to the inevitable.
The idyll in Maine may last longer than in most places; but we lucky ones have equipped only ourselves to survive, have equipped no descendants to adapt, and we survive mostly by dreaming, sitting on our rocks above the tides.
Rachel Carson, in The Edge of the Sea, called it the underwater forest: “The trees of the forest are the large sea weeds, known as rockweed, or sea wracks, stout of form and rubbery of texture. Here all other life exists within their shelter—a shelter so hospitable to small things needing protection from drying air, from rain, and from the surge of the running tides and the waves, that the life of these shores is incredibly abundant.”
“Small things”: the plainness of prose can sometimes be devastating. The shore still calls out thrillingly, here in Maine especially, but Carson’s simple joy from just sixty years ago echoes today with the terrible probability of its loss. Even the simplest shore will be stripped. I look at it as if some kind of sympathetic pain, some horrible probe from the future is invading our days and fracturing our DNA and our children’s DNA, leaving but a moment or two, here and there, of fullness.
We know we’re failing the forests, yet we continue on raking, year by inevitable year. Which means that the human essence is now failing, which means that I, too, am failing to protect these smallest of things, a minnow, or a weed, or a girl’s touch. It’s so easy to sit by, stunned and timid, just because I can still find a primeval sense of life in Maine, because Maine can offer to my family and to anybody who believes in these words some kind of sanctuary, the way life used to be, a place where blood is still seawater. I respond to the seashore too often just for its beauty, or in fear of its slime, and do little about its exploitation besides manipulate words. And if that’s the legacy I’ve given my daughters….well, I haven’t shown them how to muck, how to see like an animal. We’ve gotten far too used to our lavish city comforts, to our ability to escape in our cars from the cars.
The very nature of our bodies is being altered—that essence of salt water in our veins, those proteins in our brains designed over millions of years to treasure sunshine and open space and the creatures, even the slimiest, of the shore. I wish now that I had taken Kate and Emma squishing and laughing into the forest. I wish we had gone a little crazy in the surf. It might have made these passages a little easier.
JIM KROSSCHELL divides his life into three parts: growing up for twenty-nine years, working in science publishing for twenty-nine years, and now writing in Massachusetts and Maine. His essays are widely published (see his website).