Rotational Harvest for Alaria Isn’t Necessary
When it comes to harvesting alaria esculenta (the Pacific cousin is Japanese wakame), alaria divides into two zones: the shallow zone is almost exposed at low tide, and subject to the ravages of sun bleaching, surf damage, and winter freezing. These plants don’t survive for more than a year. The deeper zone remains covered at all times, and it doesn’t freeze out. These deeper plants develop sturdy midribs and large sporophyll petals at their base that regenerate the upper zone that is annually erased from existence. I harvest the shallow “annual” zone, knowing that they are all going to disappear anyway, and I don’t touch the deeper “perennial” zone. The only pest that used to disturb the perennial zone was sea urchins, but once sea urchins became monetized as holiday food for the Japanese, it only took the draggers and divers seven years to wipe out the resource. The human carnivores have come and gone. I remain like an herbivore, working at the bottom of the food chain, in niches where no one else can go. Even the snails that are herbivores cannot manage to hang on to alaria that lives in constant turbulence and surf. But just think about if for a moment: What are the qualities of a plant that thrives in surf? Tenacity. Flexibility. Joy in the moment. Watch a crew harvesting alaria. They are developing these same traits. It’s no wonder that I don’t ever want to see alaria become “domesticated” via aquaculture. Something will be lost in translation if this ever happens. Nina and I joke about people who want all of their food to be “doh-mess-tah-kyted” and “raised inside the fence, inside the box”. They begin to lose their natural ability to think and live “outside the box”.
I remember once when a reporter from the Washington Post went out with me on an alaria harvest, and the day was rough and windy. He watched me row my little punt through breaking surf, landing on ledges that were barely uncovered. On the way home, I had to stop and bail the boats a couple of times, motoring against a stiff northwest chop. The reporter went back to Washington to write, and he headlined the article, “Hanson Harvests Seaweed, But How Long Can He Last?” He included a photo of me in my wetsuit, leaning back like a man in a tug of war, hauling a long hank of alaria out of the surf. Well, that was 30 years ago, and I’m still here, at age 69, enjoying the work, and enjoying the storytelling, too.
Here’s a poem I wrote in 1988 that was inspired by rowing in breaking surf:
I like to play with waves, in my work, because it's such a good metaphor of life. I could write pages about it, because I've done it so many times, and it's constantly changing. Often, I sit outside rows of waves, in a little boat, watching them move toward shore, moving toward the alaria zone, and then breaking on the ledges. A steep wave, with a lot of energy, may break before it gets to the ledges. A small wave, with not much energy, may not carry me far enough in toward shore. I try to catch the rhythm, I try to let the rhythms seep into my unconscious. Then, when I choose a wave, ALL of me will do the choosing. I want a wave that won't break before it reaches the shore. It's like that, when one picks a marriage partner. You want one who won't break, before you reach the shore. And, if you're an inexperienced judge of waves, and you find yourself on a breaking wave, short of the ledge, then you must row, and row very hard, to save your ass. Or, as I often do, just take the tumble, and come back up again, gasping, laughing, floating, wet, and loving. -0-
In many ways, that poem embodies the flexibility, tenacity and primitive vitality of alaria.
In my mind, every ledge within a five mile radius of home that grows alaria is named by its characteristics. If you grew up reading Winnie-the-Pooh, perhaps you remember that there was a map of the Hundred Acres Woods inside the cover of the book. In my brain, there is also a map of the Hundred Acres Seaweed Beds, and it’s all underwater on the high tide, just barely within reach on the low tide. I transmit this map to my apprentices, one place at a time. Sometimes the apprentices will name a ledge as a warning to those who will come after, as they did one day when they named the ledge at the tip of Dyer Neck “Ankle Twister”! It is just one crevice after another, ending finally in a drop-off. “Watch that last step! It’s a doozie!” Sometimes a ledge will have multiple names: “Haystack” is next to “Cliff Rock” in “The Three Sisters”. (None of these names may be found on a nautical chart where they are simply lumped together and labeled “foul”.) “Haystack” is also called “20 Bushel Rock” because it always gives us 20 bushels of alaria, without fail, and sometimes 22 bushels if we’re thorough in our work. In my mind, the alaria ledges are like a wild underwater field of herbs, and the same herbs will invariably come back in the same places year after year, provided I stay mindful of how they grow and regenerate,—and don’t harvest the deeper zone! There is one exception to the rule: the sporophylls of the plants in the deeper zone may have great value to cancer patients because they have a higher concentration of fucoidan and other beneficial compounds. Harvesting sporophylls is a labor-intensive labor of love. When we have a little time, and the sporophylls are literally waving at us, saying “pick me,” we manage to dry out a few pounds for those who will write a personal letter to us and inevitably ask for them over the course of the year. We remain that connected to our customers.
Alaria harvesting requires a minus tide, that is, there is an average low tide mark, and anything below that mark is considered to be a minus tide. Minus tides occur just after the new and full moons. Annual alaria looks like small glassy threads in April. By mid-May, it has enough bulk to warrant commercial harvesting. During June, it can grow more than a foot a week, and by the end of June, it is becoming more damaged by abrasion in the surf (“rat tails”) and more coated with secondary epiphytic growths (“red tail” and “zebra stripe”), and the harvest is soon over. My skill is the ability to locate plants in good condition throughout June, and often we are able to trim off the ragged and discolored tails, greatly improving the quality of the harvest as late as the first week in July. In practical terms, this means that we leave off kelp harvesting to go alaria harvesting, perhaps 10 times during the May-June season. It’s a small window of opportunity, and a respectable day’s harvest for a crew of two or three people is 30 bushels which will dry out to 150 dry pounds. In an average year, we dry out a little over a thousand pounds. Some of it will be sold in packages, some will go to the mill for soup mix blends. As with kelp, one individual should be assigned to each particular ledge which qualifies as “a day’s work” (say, 30 bushels) and that individual should be held accountable for the annual harvest, that is, the deeper zone should remain untouched, and the annual yield from the upper zone should remain pretty much constant. It would be utter chaos, in my business, to set out in the morning for an alaria ledge, only to discover that the ledge has already been harvested by another harvester. Life’s too short for that kind of nonsense.
Attitudes that have Developed during the Alaria Harvest Season
In the mid 1990’s, I felt that my father’s spirit was close to me, especially when I was on the water. I spent a lot of time chanting on the water. I prayed to him, “You had a short life, dying at 39. See the world through my eyes. Guide me.” One day a sensitive healer placed his hands on my body and he said, “Your energy goes all the way through you, right out the top. There is no obstruction. I don’t feel many bodies like this.” The chanting was beginning to have some effect. After all, sitting for an hour on my way to the islands with an outboard motor as drone, I had time on my hands. Why not open up? Why not enjoy the resonance of voice/heart? “Ho” is the sound of calling down our ancestors. Native Americans intuit this. “Ah” is the sound we make as we open our hearts, becoming more receptive. Tibetans intuit this. I was using both sounds as I chanted, asking my father to guide me while at the same time opening my heart to become more receptive to his spirit. What happened next was mathematically impossible. Within a period of six months, six people who all had the same birthday as my mother (May 4th) came into my life and supported me in very tangible ways. No one could explain it except the astrologers: “May 4th is The Day of Nourishing Support. Your father is sending you a megadose of your mother’s energy from the original mix that created you.” Here’s who came into my life:
Candace Austin, a gifted elementary school teacher, helped me raise my two sons.
Roger Collins, a retired locomotive engineer, came to a seaweed presentation I was giving in Chicago, and afterwards said to me, “I’m going to come and work for you.” He came, and he installed all the plumbing in the house I was building.
Gair Crutcher, a Buddhist publisher, sent me a book that explained how a dolphin sleeps, resting its outer shell muscles (one hemisphere of the brain is asleep) while the other hemisphere is “on watch”. The dolphin uses core muscles along the spine to gently come to surface for a breath, then sinks again. The hemispheres alternate roles. Since I’m a structural bodyworker, I distinguish core and shell muscles in my own body, and I learned how to sleep like a dolphin, in alpha, while remaining alert to my surroundings. This greatly helps me during the spring harvest season when I don’t get much sleep (4 hours a day, and sometimes not all in a row! I’m a master at taking a cat nap while lying on the rockweed in my wetsuit, waiting for the tide to flow into the cove so I can bring the boats up to the dock). Males, especially, can easily lose their grounding in open heart/core, getting snookered into defining themselves in terms of “What do you DO?” rather than “What do you BE?”—and then their lives get stressed and shortened. (If you don’t know how to drop into your core, come find me, and I’ll help you discover it. As a structural bodyworker, I help enlarge awareness of the body map.)
Pat Sharp offered to collaborate with me as an artist, creating children’s books. When she pulled out her portfolio, I looked at a photo of an underwater mural she had painted on the wall of an autistic boy’s bedroom. The parents had commissioned the work because they thought it would help him settle down. In one corner of the mural, there was a seal, diving to bottom. I said to Pat, “That reminds me of a seal I saw in the seal tank at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. I wrote about the experience for my customers when I sent out a newsletter.” Pat replied, “Well, when I was working on that mural, I went to Golden Gate Park and used those seals as my models.” That year, the synchronicities were flying at me, thick and fast. Here’s what I had written. (Pardon all the commas. I used them on purpose, to help the reader slow down, settling to bottom.)
Sabbath. Sitting in sauna, looking out at garden, through round window. Settling to bottom. What a blessing this day has been. Friends came, today, to sit with me, in sauna, And we all settled to bottom, together. I remember, vividly, one Sabbath, in Golden Gate Park, going to my favorite seal tank. Look in, from the outside, and you could watch them, circling and diving, Go downstairs, into a dark room, and you could look directly into the tank, through a glass wall, and watch them under water. This particular Sabbath, I was in the dark room, and the seals were circling and gliding gracefully. Then I noticed, in one corner, a seal who was settling to bottom, motionless. I went toward that corner, in the dark room, and stood, watching. I started visualizing, in my mind's eye, all the seals and favorite ledges that I knew from my work in Maine: Pups in the "nursery" on Eastern Island, Herd of 60, sunning on Bonney Chess Ledge, Old bulls bobbing in the water, eyeballing me, Then SLAP! and diving under for a minute, Only to surface in another place, and stare at me again.... Then I noticed that the other seals were gravitating toward that corner, and settling to bottom! That was Sunday church, Sunday communion. Today, after morning sauna, I walked in the woods, cooked simply from the garden, and wrote this. Settling to bottom. I want to be clear, empty, and receptive. Then I begin to notice, all around me, the still voices of the plants, anchored to bottom. -0-
Another of the group of six with May 4th birthdays was an apprentice named Carrie Grossman. Carrie told me she had gone to Brown University. “What did you study?” I asked. “Applied Spirituality. I wrote my own Independent Study Plan.” Carrie would go into Ellsworth and volunteer at the homeless shelter. She was a very helpful apprentice.
Check out her album of chants, Soma-Bandhu, Friend of the Moon, available at Amazon. Her artist’s bio reads, “Carrie never formally studied music; she only knows that her heart has songs inside. When she first traveled to India over a decade ago, something happened: The sacred sounds of India’s ancient scriptures snuck into her soul and never left. It wasn’t long before she became a closet chanter, singing for hours in the woods and the rain, the kitchen and the car. She never intended to make a recording, but this album came like an unplanned pregnancy after going steady with the Beloved for many years. In the quiet of the Berkshire Mountains, the melodies that once lived invisibly inside of her took form, and nine months later Soma-Bandhu was born. Carrie thinks life is a crazy mystery and hopes her music inspires you to rest in the limitless love that you are.”
The sixth May 4th person was Jane Teas, a cancer researcher. Jane had a hunch that the reason Japanese women have lower rates of breast cancer is because they eat seaweed, and she wanted to run a nutrition experiment on a group of post-menopausal breast cancer survivors, to see how it affected their immune systems. She brought an herbalist with her when she visited me. She said, “I’m a scientist. I don’t necessarily have the intuitive part, so I brought an herbalist who is intuitive. We’d like to suit up and go out in the boats with you. We’ll put our heads together and select a seaweed for use in the study.” I think they did more than put their heads together. They listened to their hearts as well. They selected alaria which is the Atlantic cousin of Pacific wakame, popular in Japan for making miso soup. After Jane ran the study and did the blood work and the urinalyses, she sent me a letter informing me that the alaria had indeed strengthened the immune systems of the women in the study. “Keep up the good work. By the way, I had some leftover capsules from the study, and I sent them on to a doctor friend in Africa to try out on AIDS and ebola patients.” “Well,” I thought, “that says something!”
Finally, Candace asked for samples of all the seaweeds I harvest, and she said, “There’s a group of healers that gets together in Harrington once a month. They don’t know you, but I want to see what they have to say about the energetics of the seaweeds you harvest.” When Candace came back from the meeting, I asked her what had happened. “Oh, nothing much……” And then she smirked. “So TELL me,” I pleaded. “Well,” Candace replied, “nothing much, until the alaria was placed in the center of the circle. There was a medical intuitive, a psychic healer, and she asked, ‘Does Larch have a father who died of cancer when he was a boy?’ I said yes, and she said, ‘Well, I feel moved to say that Larch’s father’s spirit is guiding the group tonight, and he would like Larch to know that the alaria he harvests would have helped to heal his cancer.'”
I thought about that for a moment, letting the words sink in. Then I said, “Well, I guess I’ll stay at the work.”
Tibetans understand that it is possible for one human being to transmit his/her mind essence to another person who is closely linked at the heart. Since that time, now that it has become obvious to so many people that I have this link with my father, other channels have come up to me with messages from my father. Once I was on the phone, talking to a new customer in New Mexico. We had only been talking for a few minutes, and I thought the talk was solely about seaweed, when suddenly she just blurted it out at me: “Your father and your grandfather are encouraging you to write your book.” In that moment, I realized that she was channeling from the other side of the veil. The effect it had on me was like “OK, I’m on it! OK! OK! Just let me work!” (So here I am, typing away.)
If I could create a composite of all the channels who have relayed messages from my father, it would sound something like this: “Your father wants you to know that he never left you. You are just beginning to realize the depth of that mind/heart that he is. What a gift! Looking into his eyes the night he died, his mind essence was transmitted to you. He has his own evolutionary path, but you can consult with him whenever you wish. Just ask a direct question, and then be willing to shut up and listen. Because he is evolving, just like you, don’t expect the same kind of answer each time. Expect that he will continue to challenge you to grow, as you play this game of cosmic leap frog with each other, life after life. He’s on the ground, once again, this time working in Tibet. It is good work, and it’s dangerous. The Tibetan culture, based upon emptiness, clarity, compassion and light, is worth fighting for, worth preserving.”
Sometimes when I’m talking to a young computer nerd, I’ll describe my experience with my father like this: “Chanting AH and opening my heart, chanting HO and asking my father to guide me, I downloaded an app called The Father Legacy. It’s on the Cosmic Internet, and it’s constantly being upgraded, even as we speak. Try it yourself. See what happens when you affirm your father’s deepest heart, and don’t resist his love as it develops and co-arises with your own love. ‘Co-arise’ is a Buddhist term. It means, for instance, that the willingness of your father to apologize co-arises with your willingness to forgive. The mantra, when healing your relationship with your father, is ‘My father gave me the gift of life. My father did the best he could.’ If your father has died, he is on the other side of the veil between life and death. The veil is permeable. Souls on the other side of the veil have seven times as much clarity as when they were on this side of the veil. Expect that your father has evolved and has much wisdom and clarity to share with you. It’s up to you, to work on becoming quiet and receptive to that wisdom/clarity.”
The ledges at the mouth of my bay are uniquely abundant with alaria. Looking back on my life, I see that I was unaware of my father’s guidance for many years. I needed to open some more. Sometimes I would get his voice inside me. Looking back on my life, I definitely feel that he was guiding me when I chose the land and the bay where I now work. I say he’s the real CEO, the WW2 navy navigator who once guided a ship to the South Pacific, now steering me through a lifetime of work on the coast of Maine.