Kelp Harvest Season

Attitudes that I have Developed During the Kelp Harvest Season

Kelp beds seem to be populated with plants ranging from short first year plants at bottom that cannot be reached from the surface by a harvester floating in a boat at low tide to four year plants that are very long and easily within reach by boat harvester….even one with short arms! I once applied for work in a woodshop in Cambridge that made butcher block tabletops. The owner said, “Extend your arms from your sides,” and he measured me from fingertips on my left hand all the way across to the tips on my right hand! I asked, “Why are you doing that?” He replied, “People who have long arms are more accurate when they guide boards through the table saw.” He wasn’t kidding me! To tell the truth, I’m the same way. When someone applies to work the kelp season, the person with longer arms is going to have an easier time, both reaching into the water as the tide rises up away from the kelp beds, and hanging the kelp on lines that, to begin with, are stretched at eight feet in the air! They sag, of course, but most of the day is spent reaching, one way or the other. The person who can accept this type of work as an opportunity to do yoga (which is all about elongation and leaving the breath open) while meditating on watching the breath will fare better than the person who thinks that repetitive work is tedious and boring, and that one must talk constantly, to make the monotony bearable. In other words, there are apprentices who have learned to stay present and alert, always observing, not just outside themselves, but inside as well. They have learned how to integrate physical work and spiritual practice.

I find that few people are able to talk and keep their bodies moving in efficient ways at the same time. One day I came upon three young male apprentices who had been set to the task of grading and sorting kelp while at the same time checking to make sure that it was all dry. The lips were flapping in the breeze, but the hands had stopped. Nina said to me, “There’s a yiddish expression for this situation: ‘When you hire a boy, you got a boy. When you hire two boys, you got half a boy. When you hire three boys, you got no boy at all!’ Boys don’t mature as fast as girls, and they have a lot to learn when it comes to staying on task while maintaining simple order.”

Some of my best apprentices have come from homeschooling situations where they became independent learners or they grew up with self-employed parents where it was necessary for everyone in the family to maintain order. One of my friends apprenticed with a Swiss cabinetmaker. During the first week, Erek was given a broom and told to “sweep”. After a week, Erek approached the cabinetmaker and asked, “When are you going to teach me something? When are you going to show me how to sharpen tools?” The cabinetmaker replied, “No use teaching you anything until you learn how to maintain order.” Then he took Erek around the shop and showed him all the places he had missed in his sweeping. Details! Details! Life is nothing BUT details, and if you happen to have a mind that doesn’t particularly know how to exclude distraction and pay attention to the details of the moment as well as the overall goals, then apprenticeship toward the goal of self-employment is going to be more difficult.

I want to share with you a poem that I wrote in the first decade of the work. I wrote it one day after hanging up a ton of kelp. Before I give you the poem, I want to tell you what I was reading about during that season. Bill Spears, a macrobiotic counselor, had arranged for kelp to be shipped to Chelyabinsk, a city in the Ural Mountains where people have endured exposure to much more radiation than was released at Chernobyl. Kelp contains sodium alginate which can help the body excrete heavy metals and radioactive isotopes. The available iodine in kelp prevents the thyroid from absorbing harmful radioactive iodine that can concentrate in the thyroid and burn tissue and/or cause cancer. Bill was working with doctors to help detox children.

I was also reading Sogyal Rinpoche’s book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. What impressed me the most about the Tibetan view was that it is not necessary to wait until death to realize that we are light. There are practical everyday spiritual practices that can take us there. But you have to do them, you can’t just talk about them. The more I could integrate these practices with everyday life, the more I could develop toward the goal.

I was also reading Namkhai Norbu’s book on Dzogchen, describing how a Tibetan Dzogchen practitioner had died: “When he gave instructions that he be closed up in a tent for seven days they understood that he had realized the Body of Light. On the eighth day many people rushed to take part in what was going to happen, including some Chinese officials who were convinced that they would be able to show once and for all how foolishly superstitious the Tibetan people were. But in this case, too, when the tent was opened, all that was found inside was the practitioner’s hair and nails. I remember how my uncle, who was present at the opening of the tent, returned in tears saying: ‘I knew him for years and years without even realizing that he was such a high practitioner.’ But many Dzogchen practitioners are like that, simple people, who, even if they show no external sign of it, possess real knowledge. The Body of Light is the supreme realization of Dzogchen.”

Finally, I had read Michio Kushi in The Book of Macrobiotics, describing how, in traditional societies, babies were born with the head down, as the mother squatted, and that at the end of life, people went from here to the next world sitting up, with the consciousness naturally going out the top of the head. The “ah, ah, ah” sound at death is directed to the energy center at the top of the head, and the soul comes out at the head gradually like the labor contractions at birth. When I was ten, witnessing my father’s death, it was like that. Michio advised praying to ancestors for guidance. He advised chanting to open up the spiritual channel in front of the spine. He wrote about “erasing the boundaries between life and death,” and I was beginning to realize some of the possibilities.

What finally sparked the poem was a friend writing to me, telling me that she lifted weights in her son’s room, and that it made her feel so strong…..

“Weight lifting,” she said…..”it makes me feel so strong……”

When I go out for a kelp harvest,
early in the morning,
Father sits with me,
in the boats,
giving strength.The outboard motor I use is a 1955 Johnson,
built when I was a kid.
I chant with the motor.
Father hears. Father chants with me, in double octave.

I remember father, dying, chanting "ah, ah, ah"—
birthing up toward the Light.
When I go out for a kelp harvest,
I'm going to float in a boat in a kelp bed of voices,
and I'm going to breathe 2000 wet pounds of kelp
into the boat(s),
in two hours,
during low tide.
Bend over, breathe out, grab kelp, cut,
and breathe in, pull in.
Breathe out, let go, rest.
Inspired by seeing next plant,
Breathe in, breathe out, go for it!
Bending over, grabbing, cutting, starting again.
One moment, one moment, one moment.
When I get home, 2000 pounds of kelp gets lifted into baskets.
2000 pounds of kelp in baskets gets carried to the lines.
2000 pounds of kelp in baskets gets lifted once again and placed
in exact position near hanging spot on lines.
2000 pounds of kelp gets lifted to the lines and fastened with clothespins.
One at a time. One moment at a time. One. One. One. We are all One!

That's five lifts of 2000 pounds. 10,000 pounds, five tons, lifted in a few hours.
This harvest starts early in the morning, sometimes before sunrise.
By noon or one o'clock, it's all flapping in the breeze, on the lines.
I sometimes take an apprentice.
I almost always have a kelp hanger who works for three or four hours.

It is not weight lifting.
It is grounding.
It is allowing breath to elongate body.
It is prayer and communion with the devas,
the good-natured voices within me that are always on the water.
It is breathing - that place where the will of God always touches
into my diaphragm - that observed breath, over the years,
that develops basic awareness, basic mindfulness.

And it is seeing the kelp fish come into the boat,
Seeing the kelp bird fly up to the line,
And seeing the child in Chelyabinsk,
Able to live for another year.

It is not weight lifting.
How could it be?
I am 145 pounds of Light!
God does not lift.
God breathes and draws us upward toward the Light.

Rotational Harvests for Kelp

Trace a kelp plant (saccharina latissima) from holdfast at bottom up along the stipe (stem) to the place where the frond attaches to the stipe. That part of the frond is where the cells are dividing, where the frond is growing. If you punch a hole in the frond at this place, the hole will migrate toward the other end of the frond as the frond grows. At the far end of the frond, cells are dying and sloughing off. In older plants, there will also be a darker spore band stripe in the middle of the far end of the frond. I leave it to you, the would-be harvester, to determine the age of kelp plants in the particular bed you are working. Tie a piece of surveyor’s tape on a plant, punch the hole, and check back now and then to measure its progress. In shallows, kelp plants don’t live as long. Summer temperatures and overhead penetrating sunlight are rough on them, and they bleach out yellow and quickly become brittle with age. In deeper water, kelp plants can live to be several years old before they grow long enough to be torn out at surface on the low tide by fall hurricanes or winter storm waves. The main point is to realize that young plants at the bottom of a bed should not be disturbed. These are the plants that will come to surface as mature plants a year or two in the future.

I don’t have the time to measure the age of all the kelp plants in beds that I work with. In the springtime, I survey the kelp beds at low tide to get a general sense impression of where the thicker beds are located this particular year, and in my imagination I count boatloads of kelp as I motor through the waters within my five mile working radius from home port. Most often, I end up harvesting kelp beds in a two year rotation, that is, if I am harvesting three and four years old plants, I will wait two years before I return. Then I will be harvesting the plants that were once one and two years old plants at bottom. As long as I don’t change the flow conditions within a kelp bed too drastically (spores need to settle), all will be well.

When I started harvesting kelp beds in the early 1970’s, I used a set of aerial photographs that I discovered in the local tax assessor’s office to help me locate my kelp beds. They showed up as dark submerged patches in the waters of Dyer Bay and Gouldsboro Bay. I’m proud to say that I still work in those same places today. Nothing has been harmed. In fact, since dragging for mussels and scallops has all but come to a halt, now there is more kelp than ever before, and some beds are appearing in new locations! A bed of kelp that’s 20 feet wide by 100 feet long can easily yield an annual sustainable harvest of one wet ton per year. That 2,000 wet pounds will dry out to 200 dry pounds x $25/lb. = $5,000! I challenge any mussel dragger or scallop dragger to realize that kind of income from a kelp bed that size. On the other hand, there are only 15 wet tons of kelp available to a sane and sustainable harvester within a five mile working radius of my home cove. Kelp is not overly abundant. If draggers understood this, they might develop some respect for a seaweed harvester’s resource, and they would steer clear of kelp beds.

One very good apprentice who was a diver and had looked at the havoc created by draggers going through kelp beds said to me, “Dragging for kelp is something like what would happen if I decided to drag my garden for tomatoes in the middle of the night using a flashlight and a helicopter! After it’s all over, young kelp plants are ripped out, mangled and destroyed. The bottom looks like a plowed field.”

In those days, I still believed that the Maine Seaweed Council would publish a set of sane harvest guidelines and support the work of training sensitive apprentices. But the secretary for the Council was married to a man who used a mussel drag, and she wasn’t ready to support a set of harvest guidelines that specifically advised against the use of drags for harvesting kelp. “Maybe, some day, they will find a way to drag without doing any damage……and we don’t want to tie our hands, just in case…..” That was the argument. Well, she had a big family to feed, and secretaries run the world. In the meantime, I’ve watched draggers destroy beds, and the average person on the street has no idea how heartbreaking it is to come upon a kelp bed that has been destroyed by draggers. This is one of the reasons why I still say, to this day, that membership in the Maine Seaweed Council has been “a heart-numbing experience”.

Kelp beds are like estuaries. They can be harvested by hand if the apprentice is sensitized by years of observation. While I’m harvesting a kelp bed, my heart is listening to the unique consciousness that is kelp. A lot of people are not able to ascribe interiority to forms beyond their own kind. Nevertheless, human evolution is going in this direction. Don’t miss the train! You will be very lonely if you think of yourself as an independent competitive entity hurtling around the sun on just a ball of resources meant only to be exploited.

When fishermen get more attuned to their brothers and sisters working on the bay, kelp beds will naturally become off limits to draggers. In the future, when we manage kelp beds in a sane way, one harvester will be assigned to each bed, and that harvester will be held accountable for sustainability, year after year. There will be an apprentice program, and there will be no overlapping efforts because that’s when the resource can easily be over-harvested. More about this later when I get to describing rockweed.

Here’s a poem I wrote when I was thinking about careful harvesting of kelp:

There are unseen patterns,
Afloat in the Universe,
Anchored to the earth by mineral salts,
That determine the Form of each plant.

A plant is but a condensation of a Pattern, or Thought,
Expressed in transformation of minerals, water, and sunlight,
Yearning to return, through evolution, to its true home,
In Infinity.

A human body, also, is a condensation of a Pattern,
And the human body is anchored to the earth,
Through the minerals of plants,
And the human spirit is aided in its return to Infinity
By the Essences of plants, arising, lifting, upwards toward the Light.

The sea plants were the first ones to truly anchor themselves,
To the earth, through concentrating minerals at their lower end,
And then floating, upwards, lifting, back toward the Light.

We all had to go down, into the depths, with dark and salt,
Before we could lift, upward, toward the Light.


I ask my daughter:
"If we destroyed all the daisy plants,
(like the ones in the vase on the table),
And all the daisy seeds.....
Would there still be a chance for daisies?
Does the Pattern still hold?"

I have sent her into the Darkness, to ponder on the Light.

She knows that her Pattern is anchored and uplifted
By the Patterns of kelp, alaria, dulse, nori,
Buckwheat, oats, rye, wheat, millet, rice, corn,
Carrot, kale, onion, bean, burdock, cabbage, and broccoli,
To name a few.

The thought of losing any link in the Great Chain of Being
Troubles her, especially in this precarious age.

The human body is asleep to this Awareness, this Knowing:

Destroy the plant patterns,
Or interfere with them,
In the name of "improvement,"
And you will distort the human pattern.

A sea harvester seeks the wildness of the outermost islands,
In hopes of capturing the unspoiled patterns.....
And when he grows old,
He roams in fields of waving grain,
Seeking the Wild Exception.

That’s the poem. Goethe, by the way, wrote that there is only one plant archetype. All else is an expression of what happens when that archetype interacts with the environment over time. My daughter went on to become a botanist with a PhD. I don’t know what she would say about Goethe.

I’ve spent time with people who use flower essences to heal people, and they would say that each essence is a complex thought form embodied in a plant. I took my name, Larch, for instance, when I was learning to build boats. Later I learned it is one of the essences in the original Bach Flower Essences collection, and it is “for perfectly good people who nevertheless lack self-confidence”. Six months later, after taking the name, I found myself rowing in a small boat slightly larger than a bathtub, in the surf, miles from home, contemplating starting up a seaweed business. That required self-confidence, for sure!

So far I’ve been describing rotational harvests for saccharina latissima kelp. Laminaria digitata kelp is a shorter plant that grows in deeper and more turbulent water, and the beds are more difficult to harvest. A successful digitata harvest occurs just after the new or full moon on a flat calm morning…..and even though the ocean looks flat calm, a digitata bed, by its very nature,—open and exposed, with a bottom that comes up abruptly, is never calm. The mentality of anyone who works with digitata is that of a rodeo rider roping calves: once you manage to find a place where it’s safe to work, and you get within reach of a plant, you don’t want to let go! Consequently, the harvest is more focused on a small area where it’s possible to work, and the results are likely to appear to be patchy. At the end of the season, the patches I have managed to harvest may represent 10% of the standing biomass of the beds. In practical terms, a three year rotation is usually best. At low tide, the beds appear shallow and turbulent. The underlying strata is granite, swept clean by breakers. Digitata seems to be the only plant that can grow there, and I rarely see any animal life. There’s too much turbulence, and no canopy. When I’m harvesting digitata, I stay aware of the fact that the beds in 90% of the entire area that I DON’T harvest will be the beds that release spore to regenerate the patches in the 10% of the entire area that I am cutting. Best to cut somewhere in the middle of the bed so that as the tide flows back and forth, spores will settle back into the patches within the outer borders of the bed. This attitude has worked quite well for me for the past 40 years. In the fourth decade of my work, I still maintain a sustainable harvest in the same places I worked in the first decade of my career.