Lessons From Seaweed

Most Mainers know something about seaweed, some of what they know might even be true.  My mother sang the praises of dulse in her diet, though I recall that she rarely ate it.  My father used what we called rockweed from the shores of Penobscot Bay to enrich his vegetable garden.  R.P.T. Coffin describes the treat of a “…sea-moss farina pudding” in November of his Coast Calendar.  Seaweed is woven into the culture of Maine.

Susan Hand Shetterly really does know a lot about seaweed, and her new book Seaweed Chronicles is captivating, a book every Mainer should read.  Maine has a tradition of engaging fiction writers who interpret life here to the larger world.  When it comes to non-fiction, Maine is linked to two profoundly important writers of the 20th Century, E.B. White and Rachel Carson.  Shetterly’s new work reminds me of both.

In The Elements of Style White admonishes us to “avoid unnecessary words.”  In Seaweed Chronicles every word counts.  There is a sparse, crystalline quality to Shetterly’s writing, evoking the very coastline she describes.  In the tradition of Rachel Carson, Seaweed Chronicles is a cautionary tale.  She weaves stories of the people from Maine’s coastal communities with science that should inform our exploitation of the bounties of nature.  The book is, at the same time, both authentically Maine, and deeply learned.

The book makes me think of the idea of home.  The ancient Greek word for home (or household or family) is Oikos.  This is the root for two English words at the heart of Shetterly’s book, ecology and economics.  Seaweed Chronicles exemplifies both the first law of ecology and the first law of economics:

  • Everything is connected to everything else
  • There is no such thing as a free lunch

In our exploitation of Maine’s seemingly abundant marine resources, we have ignored both of these laws, at our peril.  By viewing the natural world as individual buckets we can draw from (the cod fishery, for example), we ignore the complex interactions of ecosystems with many parts and violate the first law of ecology.  By viewing that same natural world as a gift, available to the first person who figures out how to exploit nature best, we violate the first law of economics.

Seaweed Chronicles makes clear that both of these laws hold, even when we choose to ignore them.  This is a book that is both a delight to read and profoundly important too.  We all need pay attention.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.