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September 18, 2014

BQ Book Club: An Ocean Garden by Josie Iselin

Or: Kelp –it’s not just for whales anymore.

If the very word seaweed grosses you out, you’re not alone. If it brings up mental images of a slippery, drab mess slumped over rocks on the beach, or the creepy tentacle-thing that tries to wrap itself around your ankle and drag you down to the ocean’s murky depths, you’re in good company. But, you’re also missing out.

You may never realize just how elegant seaweed can actually be without this book – An Ocean Garden: The Secret Life Of Seaweed by Josie Iselin. Unless you happen to be a scuba-diver, or a sea serpent, or you can get your hands on some gillyweed from Hogwarts.  So, assuming most of us are non S.C.U.B.A. certified human muggles, who want to stay nice and dry and not get eaten by sharks, this little volume is just what we need to appreciate this misunderstood vegetation.

Author and visual artist Josie Iselin shows what is really going on with this wet, slimy stuff bobbing around in the waves. By collecting samples from the coasts of Maine and California and placing them on a flatbed scanner she creates rich, textural images that you just want to reach out and touch. As she states in the introduction – “In the tradition of the photograms, sun prints, and pressings of artists and naturalists past – I hope to reveal the largely unseen forms of ocean flora as a nexus where art and science converge.”

The text is brief and sort of scattered throughout – which makes it possible to enjoy this book in one sitting while still taking your time with it – but what writing there is will inspire even the most land-loving shore-huggers among us. She manages to be sciencey and personal and deep (bad pun, I know) all at once. She even cracks a couple of nerdy jokes that I needed a dictionary to get*. You will learn a lot of Latin names you will immediately forget, but you will also you will learn things you didn’t know you wanted to know about marine algae. By the time you are through you will understand, not just seaweed but life itself, in a new way.

What this book is is a kind of hybrid art/coffee table/field guide/philosophy book. What it ends up giving you is that ever elusive and sought after sense of awe and wonder – the awareness that all things are connected. "To survive, this kelp must grow and die simultaneously. Mightn't this be a refreshing alternative to the wilting blossom as a metaphor for our journey through life?"

* in reference to tiny creatures that attach to some seaweeds  – “Gaining motility as a sessile animal must make nearby barnacles envious.”




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