Gifts From the Sea for My Students

I teach marine biology at a small college in central Maine. One of the high points of the semester is when I indulge one of my great pleasures - collecting seaweed for my students.

In poetry, art, and song, the sea has been celebrated as having unsurpassed beauty. But, truth to tell, there is much in the ocean that is downright ugly - to the uninitiated.

Take seaweeds, for example. They don't flower, they're slimy, and their spectrum of colors is limited to just red, brown, and green. Even some of their names sound disagreeable: fucus, chondrus, ulva.

My students' experiences with seaweed do nothing to ennoble it. They relate childhood episodes of splatting their siblings with gobs of the stuff. Others describe having smelled it rotting on the beach. Now and then I encounter the intrepid chap who has eaten it, vowing never to do so again.

To me, my students' attitudes toward seaweed represent nothing less than a challenge. To take something that at first blush seems uninteresting at best, and reveal the beauty deep within is, for me, a deeply satisfying aspect of my teaching.

As I drive through the low, snow-covered hills along the Penobscot River, my anticipation steadily heightens as the river widens toward the bay. I don't know what excites me more, the seaweed or the idea of being absolutely alone on a Maine beach in the very heart of winter. Perhaps it is some intangible combination of the two.

I arrive at Blue Hill Falls at low tide - heaven for the marine biologist in search of algae. Some specimens can withstand exposure to air until the tide rises again, but others must stay submerged. The ebb tide allows me to get within arm's length of these holdouts. If I'm fortunate, I'll return with a bucket containing 16 or so different species.

My students find it hard to believe that some biologists - called phycologists - spend their professional lives studying the seaweeds. When I was an undergraduate, I actually hobnobbed with a professor who had discovered a completely new species. He named it after his wife, calling it Patricia elegans. A decided improvement over "fucus."

I sit down on a large rock and pull on my waders. I am surrounded by seaweeds. Up beach are the rockweeds, high but not quite dry. At my feet are leathery sheets of devil's apron, brown and perforated. In the tidepool not five feet from where I am sitting are tufts of green tubeweed and the pinkish, delicately-branched corallina.

Before I embarked upon this collecting trip, I dramatized the effort for my students, portraying it as something of a safari. In fact, on some of my trips I have gone to heroic lengths to retrieve that perfect specimen.

I once slipped into a cleft in a sheer granite face right at the water's edge. I wanted to retrieve a delicately pleated specimen of the red seaweed called laver (Porphyra umbilicalis). My young son stood slack-jawed as I strained after the alga, managing to seize it in my fingertips and scramble from the cleft just as a massive wave exploded at my heels.

Earlier in the course I had primed my students for their first informed contact with seaweeds by telling them some amazing facts about the plants. For example, a single blade of giant kelp can grow to 200 feet. Sargassum weed, one of the few unattached seaweeds, is the trysting place for the American eel. And if they look at the list of ingredients on a carton of good-quality ice cream, they'll see carrageenan, a seaweed extract that lends smoothness to the product.

Like anything else in nature, seaweeds are at their best in their native habitat. At low tide, one is able to look down and see them splayed out like angelhair or shifting about like mopheads. In the gentlest current they sway at ease, as if showing off the latest fashions.

When I remove them from the water they collapse into slippery, amorphous clumps. But when I drop them into my bucket of seawater, they blossom again, still beautifully alive, but more sedate in the absence of currents.

THE grandmother of a friend of mine was a marine biologist in an age when it could provide a livelihood for few men, let alone women. When she passed away, she left her granddaughter a unique and lovely gift from the sea: a set of individually framed seaweeds that she had ever-so-carefully lifted from the water on sheets of paper so as to preserve some semblance of their glory for posterity. Each specimen was lovingly hand-lettered in the clear and flowing script of a bygone age.

My students don't realize how much they know about the seaweeds already. Before I left for the coast, I went over them in depth. The fact that seaweeds have no roots because they get their nutrients from the seawater that surrounds them. Some seaweeds are edible: dulse and kelp, for example. Other seaweeds live out their lives attached only to other seaweeds. The dense mats and forests of seaweeds provide both food and a refuge for a tremendous array of animals, juvenile and adult.

The incoming tide augurs the end of my collecting. In my bucket I have 15 different species. Not bad. I pack up and begin the drive back to school. When I arrive, I will fill 15 fingerbowls with cold, clear seawater and reverentially transfer a seaweed into each one.

When my students enter the laboratory they will set to work, touching, examining, sketching. I feel as if I have prepared a feast for them, and I will stand on the threshold, wringing my hands in deep satisfaction as something that was ill-thought-of, or even un-thought-of, slowly becomes extraordinary for them.

For a teacher, it doesn't get much better than this.

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