The Seawrack Gatherer

'They can teach us how to live: how to form strong communities, how to learn to become more flexible as a species and also how to nourish ourselves in a healthy way'. In our third post for our mobile Dark Kitchen this month we catch the North Atlantic springtide, as artist Miek Zwamborn takes us into the slippery world of seaweed foraging as a grower and cook on the Isle of Mull.
is an author and artist. For the last few years her practice focusses on the shoreline and Celtic rainforest at the Scottish Isle of Mull where she studies the environment via poetry, drawings, photography and cooking. She has published novels, a poetry pamphlet, artist books and the anthology The Seaweed Collector’s Handbook i(2020, Profile). Miek co-runs the creative art/literature hub KNOCKvologan on Mull.

February 2022

Yesterday we visited the crofter to ask if he could provide us with a load of seaweed in exchange for cleaning out his barn before lambing time, as we did last year. By this afternoon he is already here, pulling a fully topped-up trailer behind his tractor. He opens the flap, and it slides down in a smooth movement. Within seconds, a huge heap of beached seaweed has risen next to the gate. We measure the amount, hand over four bottles of home-brewed beer and laugh. This will do. The seaweed looks firm and lustrous. It will take at least 90 wheelbarrow  journeys to spread out over the garden. If I don’t postpone it we are just in time to get ready for the growing season.

I will try to write this essay about seaweed in between scattering the wrack. Let’s see if that could shape my thoughts about this sturdy and sensitive plant that has become such an important part of my daily life.

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Seaweed is a wonder of anti-evolution. Since the brown seaweeds appeared a billion years ago after the red and green seaweeds, they have  not changed. No new family evolved, they continued growing, through geological disasters and mass-extinctions. They are a group of plants built out of inornate flexible cells that are able to sense what is needed. I am convinced that they can teach us how to live: how to form strong communities, how to learn to become more flexible as a species and also how to nourish ourselves in a healthy way. 

The mantle of seaweed that encircles Mull has been directing me from the day I arrived five years ago. Walking to the Scottish peninsula of Erraid at ebb tide, I came across an immense chunk of kelp beached at the tidal flat. Its dark leaves and stems contrasted strongly with the pale sand. The seaweed looked lively and spiralled like an Archimedean screw. The outgoing tide had tugged the leaves open wide. A sturdy stem emerged from a large gold-studded ball; not round but flat and wide, bordered with amber-coloured ruffles. The stem became smoother as it progressed and ended in a leathery leaf that was split into 21 long, ragged strips, each pointing in a different direction. The seaweed plant seemed to be filled with a strange force. It appeared boundless. 

This deep encounter at the bottom of the sea was like a call, an invitation to another universe that I didn’t know anything about.

Small colony of sugarkelp plaited by the sea (photo: Miek Zwamborn)

This deep encounter at the bottom of the sea was like a call, an invitation to another universe that I didn’t know anything about. In the year that followed I collected seaweed in all sorts: green, red and brown varieties and every colour that lies in between spotted, perforated, translucent, albino. I cut blades and receptacles of seaweed from the rocks, plucked them from the surf or picked them up along the tideline. I submerged shrivelled seaweed underwater until it unfolded and revived like roses of Jericho. This was how it began. I had found something to hold fast to.

 

08.02

The first stretch I cover with seaweed is the asparagus bed which was established from seed. Fertilising the garden with seaweed, foraging seaweed down the shoreline, identifying seaweed, cooking seaweed, preserving seaweed by drying and drawing. For me, these have become all very closely-related and equally important.

From the rocks above the beach, you can see clearly how the dark border of sea shrubbery is a hinge between land and ocean. In the tidal zone, the solid and liquid element meet. These two opposing principles collide, and their friction produces creatures with resilient bodies. They can handle the perpetual wild tempered ocean and the harsh, impermeable rock, endure storms, penetrating sunlight, acidification and some of them even drying out at low tide. Algae are the sensors of the current and tide: ‘the thought of the tide,’ as essayist Arjen Mulder once described them..

Freshly foraged seaweed tingles on my tongue and causes something to sparkle inside me when I look and try to understand what and who they are. Seaweed must have been part of the human diet from the very beginning, and used for its medical properties too. Once dried, seaweed has a long storage life and in this form is light in weight and easy to transport. When I think of hunter-gatherers and early migrants, I always imagine them carrying a package of seaweed close to their body to pull them through the harder days. Moving to another place will obviously change your diet, even within Europe, as it did for me when I moved from Amsterdam. Living on an island, I became very selective. 

Covering last year’s potato bed with beached seaweed (photo: Miek Zwamborn)

The wide choice of products available on the mainland had vanished and I started to become really fond of the many ingredients that we could catch, forage and harvest. Their non-manipulated tastes and shapes are a treat. They have character. I feel a deeper connection with everything I eat by knowing where it lives. Cooking here means improvisation, finding new ways of preparing local food. I can’t go into a supermarket any more without feeling that most of the products are poisonous to our bodies. But instead of feeling alien myself, and angry as I did in the beginning, I began to understand that I could at least speak about my concerns, not only by talking or writing about them, but via the senses – by cooking for our guests and by inviting people to join during seaweed foraging.

 

09.02

Six wheelbarrows for the berries: black, red and white currants, gooseberries, honey berries, josta berries and wolfberries. The youngest hen and her brother come to pick out the worms and tiny shells. Still ten more loads to go today, but a gale picks up, and the wind blows from the wrong direction. I work in slow motion like  the folk in Man of Aran, an Irish documentary directed by Robert J. Flaherty in 1934. Halfway through the film, seaweed is harvested, not on a calm day, but in the middle of a storm. With superhuman effort, a field is laid on one of the bare cliffs. People scratch earth out of the grooves between the rocks, where the seaweed and stones, crushed with a heavy hammer, are raked into long thin beds. It is a scene that exaggerates reality, but the devotion with which new land is won, the striving to make something grow there, moves me.

Here you have to eat well to be able to keep chain-sawing, splitting wood, moving sand, soil, compost, digging trenches, planting trees and foraging on ground that is not easy to walk on, or very cold seawater.

In a place like this, many days are spent in the open under harsh weather conditions. Here you have to eat well to be able to keep chain-sawing, splitting wood, moving sand, soil, compost, digging trenches, planting trees and foraging on ground that is not easy to walk on, or very cold seawater. We often experience a lack of fuel in the middle of a task. It is like running on an empty engine tank: from one moment to the next it seems impossible to lift the spade and your legs can not make another step before you have eaten something. You can literally see what your body  burns up. A few metres in the garden, five timber trees, or the crossing of the moorland. There is a real need to eat and because there is not a huge choice you quickly learn what you can count on. The fresh egg from our hens for example that we eat for lunch becomes something eternal, as if we keep eating that same egg.

Moving the load of seaweed to fertilise the garden (photo: Rutger Emmelkamp)

10.02

The path in the garden gets muddier from the rotating wheel and my footsteps. It is challenging to move slippery seaweed over a slippery path. I have to push with all my weight to get the loads up the hill to the new beds. One load already tipped over. A theory which was recently tested out on a BBC programme is that Neolithic people on the Orkney Islands used seaweed to slide giant stones from the sea to build their circles and henges. It is such a beautiful scene; a broad ribbon made out of stranded seaweed to get those heavy stones on a specific place. A luminous idea from our ancestors to collaborate with plants that are tuned to the moon, for lining stones to catch the sun.

It is the garden and shoreline together which offer ideas. Cooking starts in the morning when I walk to the hen coop and look at the beds and juvenile edible forest to see what is out, in bloom, ripe or almost on its end. From that moment on, the menu finds its direction. The same happens when I return to the rock pools, where there are always new discoveries, though it is the tide that defines what I am allowed to take. As with land plants, seaweed follows the seasons. At the moment in late winter you can find serrated wrack, bladderwrack, channel wrack, sea oak, laver, pepper dulse and Irish moss. Small bright green blades of sea lettuce announce an upcoming spring, but no forked straps of sea spaghetti yet.

 

11.02

I prick the sharp teeth of the muck fork in the pile, which is still huge. Every time it needs a half turn to wind the longer strings of bladderwrack and knot weed around the tool before I can smash the seaweeds into the wheelbarrow. The thick stipes of kelp get stuck all the time, so I pull them out first and bend them till they snap. It feels right to spend hours and hours doing this job. Seeing the pile slowly dwindle. Meanwhile, I imagine how the soil will become lighter again this year by mixing in seaweed, shells and sand. Moving the wrack I think about the creatures I encountered in the kelp forest last summer like the sea gooseberries and moon jellyfish which find shelter and multiply in seaweed. As the now slimy brown mass  sways and swirls, it is beautiful knowing how this flexibility and movements will continue within the growing vegetables.

Blades of a kelp forest at low tide at Knockvologan beach (photo: Rutger Emmelkamp)

I come across some winged kelp, also called dabberlocks (which have a distinct midrib) and am reminded of a story about another kelp, the sea palm (Postelsia palmiformis) whose strength and flexibility were highly valued  by the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast. In precolonial  times, the Pacheedaht (‘peoples of the sea foam’) made a salve from the strips of the brown seaweed by drying them in the summer, then burning them, powdering the charcoal, and mixing it with raccoon bone marrow. New born babies who were predestined by birth, or inheritance, to be whale hunters would have their backbones rubbed with the charcoal from the burnt sea palm to make them strong and resilient. This was said to make the child strong and as tough as the sea palm, which is able to withstand the continuous pounding of the open North Pacific surf.

 

12.02

The first year I lived alone at the bay of Knockvologan and found company at the splash, upper- middle, lower- and sub tidal zones. Seeing the communities of different seaweed deepened the understanding of my own connections and disconnections. But I had not found anybody to share these insights with until I subscribed to a wild harvest course at Glengorm Estate in the northwest corner of the island. A young woman guided a group of five newcomers over the rocks. She talked with great enthusiasm, pointing out which seaweeds were edible, (all are but some are less tasty or just too chewy), how to cut them and which one we needed for the sea meal she would cook for us.

We ate thong weed with pickled egg wrack capers, a squashed gut weed salad, triangles of sourdough loaf marbled with wire weed and a tuft of dulse pesto on top

After an hour exploring we searched for shelter from a heavy shower under a large overhanging boulder. and she started to cook on a field stove that she had hidden that morning before we came. It was such a joy, to watch her preparing the seaweeds, which changed their colours from olive brown to deep green, and while stirring the pans she handed out grilled sugar kelp crisps. We ate thong weed with pickled egg wrack capers, a squashed gut weed salad, triangles of sourdough loaf marbled with wire weed and a tuft of dulse pesto on top. There is something very special about a picnic at the shore; leaning with your back to a rock, warming your hands around a cup filled from your flask, smelling the briny air, looking at a horizon which splits turbulent skies and sea in the far distance.

Back in front of  the heap, the wind comes from the west and blows most of the seaweed away so I have to hurry to not lose it. Although there is plenty of the same material at the beach this pile feels precious. Among the heap I find a white disposable knife and many green ends of rope from the repairing of the fishnets. It starts to rain but I cannot stop.

*

In the middle of the gale I try to move like the kelp strips. It must be like this in strong currents. Being swept back and forth as a continuous condition without letting go.

Rituals

13.02

In the end storm Eunice did not hit the island and Saturday morning started wind-still and sunny. I walked down for a swim knowing that I probably would not see much seaweed in the tremendous tossed-up sea at spring tide. But at the back of Oystercatcher Nest Rock I did get a glimpse: a few entangled strips of oarweed between millions of liberated grains of sand. The plaited bunch made me think of mourning jewellery I once saw in an exhibition in the Grünes Haus Museum, in Reutte, Austria. Rings, bracelets and brooches made of complex interlaced strands of human hair made and worn to commemorate deceased loved ones. 

On most of my swims, I am filled with awe about sea life, but today was different. The vivid seaweed bundle triggered my own sadness about what we all have lost and are losing minute by minute. The rays of sunlight breaking the turbid water made the drama complete as if the disaster was put in floodlight.

 

15.02

A ritual for the sea I  once witnessed came to mind, too. It must have been in the mid-80’s in La Rochelle in France. My parents, sister and I were keen to join a blessing of the sea by the fisherman fleet. At least 30 vessels sailed out, decorated with flowers and loaded with people. There was one boat with a priest on board and after a prayer we could not hear numberless flowers were thrown in the ocean. I did not understand at the time how you could thank the inhabitants of the sea with bright paper flowers.

Maybe now we need to come up with new rituals. We should sing a hymn or at least hum, and greet the sea every time when we come and go, or perhaps better still stay silent and listen to the sea. A Scottish myth tells that on the day of Saint Columba, at night time, people from Lewis (Hebrides) poured libations and invoked the sea deity Shony (Seonaigh in Gaelic) to ensure a good harvest of seaweed:

Shony, I give you this cup of ale hoping that you will be so kind as to give us plenty of seaware for enriching our ground next year.

 

Preparing a recipe from ‘The Seaweed Collector’s Handbook’: Plaice in golden kelp coat (photo: Rutger Emmelkamp)

Dark seaweed dish

20.02

But finally, how to cook with seaweed? For Marguerite Duras cooking and writing were equal. She said that she considered her kitchen and writing room as places to create and connect with people, but that she also could feel extremely alone in both of them. What does a meal or story contribute when you cannot share it?

You don’t need to get lost in the pile of recipes with seaweed as a new fancy ingredient. They are easy to use and mix well with soups, salads, curries and pasta. I keep it simple and involve them in whatever is available on the day. Before I covered the potato bed with seaweed this morning I found seven forgotten red sunset potatoes and two onions ready to eat. So for tonight I wrap each potato in strips of oar weed. You can even weave a little basket if you cut thinner strips. Then I remove the tops of the onions and take out their centre to fill the bulbs with some chopped black olives, smoked garlic, grilled hazelnuts and flavour with some burned kelp. You put both the seaweed packages and stuffed onions in a 180 degree C oven and bake them for 25 minutes. Serve with a raw gut weed salad seasoned with olive oil, apple cider vinegar and some roasted sunflower seeds, and enjoy! 

Drying seaweed in the garden (photo: Miek Zwamborn)

Foraging – preserving

If you decide to forage for seaweed around your own coasts these points below are good to bear in mind:  

  • Do be wary of where you forage from in terms of water quality, as seaweed has a knack of absorbing toxins and heavy metals.
  • Work out when the tide drops and plan your foraging trips accordingly to avoid getting trapped by an incoming tide. 
  • Wear hiking shoes or gumboots with a good tread as you will almost certainly need to clamber over rocks at some stage. Wet seaweed covered rocks are tricky and treacherous.
  • Bring a small bucket or net bag and tie it around your waist. Never take much because you will only use a little seaweed when you want to cook. 
  • Take a blunt pair of scissors with you to cut the seaweed. Cut fronds or blades well above the point of growth and always leave the holdfast attached to the rock bed. Collect less than 1/3 of an individual plant to allow for growth.
  • Avoid or minimalist trampling and avoid taking ‘by catch’.
  • Always wash sand out with seawater, and try to keep the different seaweeds apart, otherwise you will end up sorting out in the kitchen for a long time.
  • You can either eat seaweed the same day or put it in the fridge for a few days or dry it in the wind to store it in a glass jar for later use.

 

For more infornation about The Seaweed Collector’s Handbook and KNOCKvologan residency and study hub for art, literature, field research and nature preservation: knockvologan.net

 

 

Drying  dabberlocks, laver and sea lettuce in the bathroom

Recommended reading:

Seaweeds of Britain and Ireland by Francis STP. D. Bunker, Juliet A. Brodie, Christine A. Maggs and Anne R. Bunker

Cooking with seaweed 101+ ways by Marcus Harrison

Seaweed in the Kitchen by Fiona Bird

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 21

Our Spring 2022 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that revolves around the theme of confluence

 

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