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A Little Kelp From My Friends

Lucky Peach
Sep 16, 2014 · 21 min read

by Rachel Khong

This story starts on the seashore off the rocky Sonoma Coast of California, a mile or so north of a town called Jenner. It’s just after sunrise — there was a full moon this week, so the tide is the lowest it’ll be all month — and the water’s pulled away to reveal rocks covered in seaweeds. Slippery seaweeds like oil slicks, seaweeds like fuzzy little brains, Kermit-green seaweeds that are stretchy like latex, eelgrass draped festively over everything like green tinsel.

This is where Heidi Hermann, Sonoma County’s only seaweed seller, comes each summer to harvest kombu. (The Laminaria dentigera that grows off the California Coast is a brown kelp similar to Laminaria japonica, the kombu harvested in Japan.) Kombu’s swaying stems stick out of the water, bent into elbows from the weight of their blades. Each blade, which is the palatable part, is roughly the shape of a cafeteria-lady glove with any number of fingers (a rectangle of kombu sold at the store is a portion of “finger”). Handling kombu feels like touching a thick, supersmooth piece of plastic that turns out to be easy to slice through with scissors. Heidi leaves a finger or two on each kombu glove so it will regenerate. She harvests the kombu farthest out first — making her way back toward the shore as the water rises. The kombu goes into plastic and mesh orange bags, which go into metal-framed backpacks.

This morning, there’s also a funny, bumpy maroon seaweed called Turkish towel, and bladderwrack (its genus, Fucus, isn’t much better sounding), seventies-era avocado-green stuff with a network of little bladders like tiny bubble wrap. Heidi’s mainly after the kombu, but also bags some bladderwrack (it tastes best directly off the rock: crunchy, savory, a little bitter), a few flags of Turkish towel (she keeps it in the shower to exfoliate with), and some fernlike sister Sarah, which she doesn’t sell, because it’s too obscure. (I take sister Sarah home, pickle it, and feed it to my boyfriend. He likes it.)

The seashore is where all our stories start. It’s understood that present-day humans evolved in littoral spaces, where the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and shellfish, originally from seaweed, were needed to evolve complex nervous systems and big brains. Which is to say: eating seaweed — either directly or by proxy — was what made us us. And seaweeds sustain life on earth, producing 70 to 80 percent of the world’s oxygen through photosynthesis.

The word seaweed is about as descriptive as “dog.” The “weed” part is especially misleading, because seaweeds look like plants but aren’t. They’re neither plant nor animal, but actually algae, which doesn’t narrow it down much, either. That term is also an incredibly vast umbrella, encompassing ten million different species that come in a multitude of shapes and sizes, from the tiniest microscopic phytoplankton to the most gigantic of kelp forests.

These non-plant things do bear an obvious resemblance to plants: macroalgae have rootlike structures called holdfasts, which anchor them to their habitats (usually rocks; sometimes other seaweed). The stipes look like stems, from which the blades — the things that look like leaves and are as heterogeneous in appearance as leaves on land — emanate. Seaweeds also — in addition to getting nutrients from the surrounding water — photosynthesize like plants do. Photosynthesis takes place on the blades, so the stipes must be long enough for the blades to reach the sunshine at the surface of the water: air-filled bladders help with this — they keep the blades afloat, near the water’s surface.

Seaweed grows pretty much everywhere, but flourishes especially in the world’s four coastal upwelling regions. The area from California’s Central Coast up to Oregon is one of them. The gist of what that means is that, in spring and summer especially, strong winds swirl nutrient-rich water up from the bottom of the ocean. In California’s upwelling ecosystem, the water is both nutrient-rich (the pounding surf replenishes the nutrients in the water) and clear (more light filters through to the seaweed), which supports more life and productivity. With more nutrients, the ocean’s creatures do more eating and growing. Coastal upwelling regions comprise only 1 percent of the world’s oceans, yet account for 50 percent of fisheries.

After the harvest, Heidi brings the seaweed back to her farm in Healdsburg, where she’ll lay it out on screens to dry in the sun. At forty-one, Heidi is young for a commercially licensed seaweed harvester. The old-timers, she explains, are in Mendocino County. She first got into harvesting seaweed with herbalist friends about ten years ago, and it stuck. (“It was free, and just fun.”) It was a way to interact with the Northern California Coast, which, on account of frigid waters and jagged rocks, is otherwise hard to do. She was a vegetarian at the time, and seaweed is an impressively ample source of protein.

Every summer she, with friends and volunteers, harvests enough seaweed for the year. Last year that was 1,600 pounds. Heidi sells one-ounce bags of dried seaweed, along with produce from her farm, at the Healdsburg farmers’ market (and to grocers in Sonoma and San Francisco). She sells it wholesale to chefs: some want the seaweed fresh, and will arrange a drop-off immediately after harvest. Occasionally she leads seaweed forays, teaching people how to identify different seaweed types and the basic rules of wildcrafting: take only if there is plenty of the same species around you, and only harvest a small portion, ensuring that you’re not having an impact on the next year’s growth.

Ultimately, though, harvesting seaweed is more about pluck than know-how. You research the tides and head out when they’re lowest. You scramble down steep bluffs, then make your way over slippery rocks. You don’t necessarily have to be discerning. Unlike foraging for mushrooms, if you don’t know what a particular seaweed is, you can just trim a piece off, eat it, and see if you like it. It might be gross, but it won’t kill you.

By practically all accounts, the Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company, founded in 1980, was California’s first commercial seaweed operation. It’s based in Philo, nineteen miles inland, far enough from the sea for the hot sun to dry the seaweed. John and Barbara Lewallen live there in a house without walls. Barbara took the walls out when John found himself unable to walk: the diagnosis was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A tumor had wrapped itself around his spinal cord, and suddenly he was paraplegic. The doctors said he’d never be able to walk again, but John can walk now. (“We like to joke that we don’t know if it was the green tea, the seaweed, or the pot,” Barbara says.)

The plan, at first, was to be a lawyer. John went to Stanford Law School for a year, dropped out, headed to Vietnam to volunteer in the war — “refugee relief kind of thing” — and “when I came back from that I was all whacked out,” John says. (He and Barbara think it was his exposure to Agent Orange there that caused the lymphoma.) “So I came here and started backpacking seaweed off the beach. Now it has become my spiritual path.”

He started the company with his late wife Eleanor. He gave Japanese names to the analogs that grew in California. There was a translucent Porphyra a lot like the nori cultivated in Japan; Alaria was a different genus but bore similarities to wakame, the green stuff in salads at sushi restaurants; he found a thick, brown Laminaria a lot like kombu.

Barbara grew up in Maine, another rocky coastline (“We always had seaweed in the lobster bakes and clam bakes”). Before meeting John thirteen years ago, she had her own holistic health care practice in Palm Springs, where she sometimes treated old movie stars: Frank Sinatra, Barbara Sinatra, Gregory Peck, Robert Wagner. (I ask if she fed them seaweed, and she says she did — dulse flakes and kombu — and I picture an aging Ol’ Blue Eyes looking down wearily into a plate of green.)

“Forty is the new teens,” she says. “I’m sixty-five, and sixty-five is the new forty-five. When I was young, someone who was sixty-five had white hair and was baking cookies for grandchildren, not hiking up and down a beach. Unless you were really an unusual…” She trails off. “Well, maybe I am an unusual person.”

Rising Tide Sea Vegetables, another Mendocino company, came along a year after Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company, in 1981.

“Really, it all started with a woman,” Larry Knowles admits at his headquarters (and home) in Fort Bragg. He’s wearing a beret, suspenders, and a low turtleneck. The woman in question was his now ex-wife Kate, who founded the company in 1981. Larry was working as a builder then and, in the way you adopt whatever the person you love loves, took this thing and ran with it: he built outdoor drying tables, and set up a temperature-controlled room that’s sometimes used to finish the drying. In the years that followed, he developed new-fangled methods of harvesting, including using sit-on-top kayaks to reach offshore rocks.

About a decade ago, Kate and Larry drifted apart. Kate, by then, had lost interest in Rising Tide. Larry forged ahead, and expanded the company even further. The core of the business remains locally harvested Mendocino seaweed — nori, kombu, wakame, sea lettuce, and sea palm — but the company now also imports seaweed from other locales, including dulse from the Atlantic and nori snacks from China, so it can purvey a wider range of products. Rising Tide makes a real effort to market seaweed as snack foods, a sort of atypical move among Mendocino harvesters (“He’s more of a compromiser,” John Lewallen asserts). One of the products is a little pressed sesame-seaweed square called a “Chewnami”; Alicia Silverstone is a fan. Lately they’ve been experimenting with a snacky topping: roasted Mendocino nori with California olive oil and onion powder. Several California Whole Foods stores carry their products.

Despite their differences in philosophy (and the fact that their businesses are in direct competition), Larry and the Lewallens are friendly with each other. They’ve shared the ocean for decades. John Lewallen was, in fact, the one who taught Kate, Larry’s ex, how to harvest seaweed in the first place. Several of John’s other pupils have gone on to start businesses of their own, and John is glad for that. “I like this way of life and I wanted to create it and spread it,” he says. “I knew I couldn’t get seaweed to all the people who needed it. I knew I’d need allies all the way around, and it’s really happened that way.” Still, Rising Tide has particular beaches it frequents, Mendocino Sea Vegetable has its own, and there’s an understanding, especially among the oldest timers, that your turf is your turf — and everyone knows whose is whose.

“It’s a very big ocean,” says Barbara. “There’s a lot of seaweed. We don’t feel competitive. Several of the people are competitive, and that’s something that we really try to stay away from. The ocean belongs to everyone.”

John mentions that, one year, he was so sick that other harvesters got together and harvested their sea palm for them: “It was incredible, man. Over a hundred pounds. A lot of work.”

They’re not only in agreement on methods of harvesting (“Doing it very delicately, and in minute quantities,” John says, and “with full respect for the seaweed, the ecosystem, the people”), Larry and the Lewallens are also unified in their championing of seaweed’s health benefits. In America, members of the macrobiotic community were among seaweed’s first enthusiasts; John’s first sales were to health-food co-ops. Seaweeds contain a broad range of trace elements and minerals, and are high in calcium and protein. Brown seaweeds like kombu and wakame have the most iodine. Reds, like nori, are high in potassium.

And seaweed has unique gelling and thickening properties. Carrageenan, extracted from Irish moss, is used in the industrialized production of ice cream, beers, and lipstick. (The gelling and thickening properties are also why you can make a DIY “personal lubricant” from kombu, Barbara tells me with considerable enthusiasm. “You wet the kombu and you let it sit and the gel comes out. And then you can use it like that, or you can mix it with essential oils or coconut oil.”)

“People really need, for survival, the things that are in seaweed,” says John. “Even if you’re the dumbest redneck in the world, you’re getting a little bit of algin in the ice cream and the beer. That’s a sign that God really loves people.”

At the moment, there aren’t many regulations surrounding seaweed in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. The Department of Fish and Wildlife limits noncommercial seaweed harvesting to ten pounds “wet weight in the aggregate” of marine algae per day for “personal use.”

Sea palm, Postelsia palmaeformis, is the exception — the only seaweed worth eating that requires a commercial license to harvest. Sea palm looks like little palm trees, and grows in groups on top of rocks in the intertidal zone, where it’s subject to the most violent waves (which, on the North Coast, are particularly violent). Its fronds are grooved and can be rehydrated into a faintly oceany “pasta.” Rising Tide sells roasted sea palm blades under the label “Sea Crunchies,” and eating one feels like putting an ocean-flavored twisty tie in your mouth, in the best possible way.

You can’t harvest sea palm without a commercial license, because improper harvesting could interfere with sea palm reproduction. In the late seventies, before they knew better, John and other Mendocino harvesters would collect entire plants, which could inhibit the following year’s growth. But leaving the stipes and harvesting just the blade tips solved this problem; John adopted and disseminated this method in the early eighties. Commercial harvesters are now permitted to harvest as much as 4,000 pounds, because they’re trusted to know what they’re doing — to cut only the blade tips off. “If I ever see a bed of sea palm that’s been harvested unsustainably, I can start asking around: does anybody know what’s going on with this?” Larry says. Usually someone will, and their network of harvesters will self-regulate.

In 1999, California enacted the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), meant to reevaluate and redesign the state’s marine protected areas (MPAs), many of which — having been around since the fifties — were woefully out of date. The MLPA designated marine reserves — no-take zones — including one spot in Point Arena, which had been John’s regular, and unusually accessible, sea palm site.

“It had a save-the-fish intention,” John says, “but it was taken over by Schwarzenegger and a gang of thugs and just became a complete corruption of everything: government, science, truth, ecology, everything.”

There are six goals to the Marine Life Protection Act, including: “Protect the natural diversity and abundance of marine life, and the structure, function, and integrity of marine ecosystems”; “Help sustain, conserve, and protect marine life populations, including those of economic value, and rebuild those that are depleted”; “Improve recreational, educational, and study opportunities provided by marine ecosystems that are subject to minimal human disturbance, and manage these uses in a manner consistent with protecting biodiversity”; “Protect marine natural heritage, including protection of representative and unique marine life habitats in CA waters for their intrinsic values.”

Which, ostensibly, are goals that Larry and the Lewallens share. But according to John, “That was a completely corrupt process. We — us and everybody else who gets food from the ocean — lost unfairly,” John says.

Since the MLPA, Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company has had to harvest their sea palm on kayaks, which John can’t do himself. “It’s more dangerous because the northwest winds keep coming; it’s usually choppy and windy, so boohoohoo,” John explains. “But it was the greatest privilege of my life to be able, for over thirty years, to harvest seaweed there in Point Arena.”

All this does raise a couple questions: should seaweed be more stringently regulated by the government? If demand ever went up, could it be at risk for overharvesting?

When it comes to seaweed — sea palm aside — Fish and Game are pretty hands off. In the past thirty years, they’ve come to favor commercial harvesters, who are trusted to harvest properly and sustainably. Mechanical harvesting of bull kelp has been banned north of San Francisco. It’s a rough ocean, so shore harvesting almost certainly has to be done by hand, and the damage that these small, hand-harvested operations can do is minimal — or seems so, anyway. Seaweed is the basis for the ocean’s food chain: almost everything in the ocean eats seaweed (or eats something that eats seaweed), so it’s necessarily abundant. With the exception of that spell of improper sea palm harvesting, there hasn’t ever been a case of seaweed species becoming endangered on account of overharvesting.

The Lewallens report to the Department of Fish and Wildlife every month, but John doesn’t believe that informed harvesters — harvesting by hand, in reasonable quantities — could harm the growth.

Larry is more open to cooperating with the powers that be to more proactively put regulations into place. “It’s incumbent on anybody involved in an industry or as an involved citizen to really make sure that things are happening well. That’s something that I think will happen in California — having industry-generated regulations and guidelines based on science,” he says. “The science is in place; the science has been done. And it’s a matter of putting it through the agencies and the commission. There’s something called the California Sustainable Seafood Initiative. It would be good to get seaweed certified in that process. It’s pretty easy to see how it would happen, it just hasn’t happened.”

At 5:45 on a foggy morning in June, the Lewallens hike down to Greenwood Cove with three other harvesters — including Barbara’s visiting son, Jonathan — and their dog, Dominique, aka the “Seaweed Queen.” (“When I first got her,” Barbara says, “I took her down to the ocean, and she started eating seaweed off the rocks. I said, ‘That’s my girl.’”) This is the same beach John has harvested from for thirty-five years, and still now, after the lymphoma, he makes his way — with the help of two walking sticks — slowly but steadily over the seaweed-covered rocks.

Jonathan and the other two younger, wet-suited harvesters take off toward the water, where the kombu and wakame grow. With Heidi in Sonoma, we used scissors and pruners. These guys mean business, and have knives. They slice the kombu off its stipe, then slash the blade tips, where other algae sometimes collect. It takes two seconds, tops. The Lewallens stay closer to shore. Barbara harvests nori, one-cell thick and gauzy, draped on the rocks (“like lace,” she says). Because nori grows closer to the shore, it can be sandy, but Barbara is proud of how clean she’s able to get it (“My elder friend George Somersol taught me how you slap the nori down and any seashells that are in there come off, so you don’t have to worry about crunching your teeth.” Barbara rinses the nori in a bucket of ocean water, not fresh water, the way, she says, the Wappo tribal people do. (She never sells to them; if they want nori, they get it for free.)

Today, John wants his crew to spend some time gathering a seaweed they — and nobody else in America, really — have never sold before. “We’re reintroducing an ancient Japanese seaweed to the world!” he says. “They’ve forgotten about it or something.” He points out fuzzy little antlers clustered low on the rocks in big bouquets.

“The scientific name is Codium fragile,” he says, pronouncing it fra-JEEL. “But it’s anything but fragile. I’d never seen it at the beach, but about ten years ago, fifteen years ago, it appeared out of nowhere. And I thought, fragile, I’m not going to touch this stuff. It moved a little bit, it changed a little bit, then I started cutting the tips off it, then it spread everywhere, it went boom boom boom boom! It’s spreading all over the place.”

He hands me a piece of dried Codium fragile (“I’m sure you won’t be poisoned”). The flavor and texture is like a less fishy piece of dried squid. Barbara says that dried Codium fragile, when aged, tastes almost like bonito and that historically the Japanese would mix powdered Codium fragile into green tea.

“You’re watching me in process. First, I study it and get to know it on as deep a spiritual level as I can. I’ve been watching it for ten or fifteen years. I research it; I make sure it’s a well-known edible. There’s no question about that: it’s known as a real good food. The main use is in Korea, and in the Philippines and Hawaii there are some recipes for it. Then I watch it, I study the seasonal cycle, I taste it in different seasons.”

Barbara’s been sending it to chefs — fresh, packed in ice. “It’s wonderful raw in a salad,” she says. “I think it’s really great with cucumber — a cucumber salad with the fresh Codium fragile and some mint leaves.”

Which brings us back to this question of beginnings. Though this particular seaweed is ancient and abundant, few Americans have ever seen — let alone eaten — it before. We can’t be sure how long human beings have been eating seaweed — whatever archaeological proof of seaweed that might’ve existed has long since broken down and disappeared — but by most educated guesses it is a very, very long time. The oldest proof we have is the seaweed found in mortars in southern Chile dating to 12,000 BCE — an archaeological discovery called the Monte Verde find. (The reason these seaweed traces lasted so long is because they were preserved in an acidic peat bog.) Vikings took seaweed on voyages. The Chinese learned to extract agar (a gelling and thickening agent) in 1658. In the twelfth century, monks in Ireland gathered dulse, a thin red seaweed abundant in the Atlantic with an almost bacony flavor. In Iceland, fresh dulse is commonly baked into bread. Hundreds of years ago, the coastal tribes living along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts gathered acorns, fished for salmon, and harvested seaweed.

Yet it still strikes a lot of people as slimy and strange and new. At the farmers’ market, Heidi gets a lot of questions about how to prepare it. It’s exhausting, because talking (and talking) about seaweed doesn’t necessarily lead to sales.

“There is always some education at a farmers’ market — usually it’s about how to use this purple carrot or some herb,” she says. “But seaweed is new and exotic for a lot of people. It just takes more words.”

Another question that comes up a lot lately is about radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, and whether or not the seaweed harvested off California’s coast has been contaminated. The answer is: not so far. Heidi has her seaweed tested every year and, as of this moment, it’s still free from radiation from Fukushima.

It’s a downer of a conversation topic, but the concern is valid. The radiation has been calculated — based on the ocean’s circulation, and the rate of its currents — to arrive on the California coast in mid-2014. Which is to say, right now.

In the wake of Fukushima, the worrisome contaminants were iodine-131, tellurium-132, cesium-134, and cesium-137. The iodine-131 and tellurium-132 are pretty much gone — they have shorter half-lives, and have since decayed — but the cesium-137 and -134 are still around. Cesium-137 is the longer-lived one — it decays slowly (its half-life is about thirty years), and it’s still in our environment from nuclear weapons tests conducted in the fifties and sixties. Kelp Watch, a scientific campaign organized by University of California scientists, tests bull kelp and giant kelp blades — ideal test substrates because kelp is known to concentrate these substances in its tissues — for traces of both isotopes.

The radiation could show up at any point. It could arrive between the time of my writing this and the time of your reading this. Larry believes that, as the cesium is moving across the ocean, it’s getting more and more diluted; by the time it reaches our shore it will no longer pose a health hazard. And anyway, we already have cesium in our environment, from military nuclear testing. “The terror is making people paranoid and ill,” Barbara says. “You would not believe the calls I get from terrified people.”

“Anything from the ocean, people are a lot more cautious about these days,” Heidi says. “There’s no real follow-up. There are so many unknowns about the ocean, and a lack of science literacy, so we run with these dubious news bites.”

“A good direction would be to focus on ways to protect our food sources,” Barbara says. “I advocate for nuclear disarmament and not using nuclear reactors for our energy source.”

The stakes are high for Heidi, Larry, and the Lewallens, who are all gathering food from their homes and seeing, firsthand, the repercussions of human activity. “It was getting involved with seaweed harvesting that compelled me to think more about the systems that are involved with the ocean here,” Larry says. “And that just wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had a vested interest.”

“The seashore… it’s our food shed,” Barbara says. “People forget it’s our food shed. How many people go to the ocean at a minus tide? They always want to go when the water’s up, or when it’s a little low and there’s a little tide pool. But going out and gathering seaweed? It’s an impetus to keep our ocean clean.”

What they all said: it felt good to work those long days — hiking to their harvest sites, gathering and rinsing the seaweed, laying it out to dry, taking it back in again. Those days felt good to me, too: waking up before sunrise, standing in a part of the ocean I wouldn’t otherwise be able to stand in, gathering ingredients I’d cook with later. It was fun.

“You harvest it and you eat it. Nothing else is involved,” Heidi says. “Even growing vegetables can be more complicated. You wonder: is this seed owned by a multinational?”

“When I got into seaweed harvesting one of the things that really struck me — it continues to strike me — is what’s motivating this organism to do what it does — this drive to fit into an ecosystem,” Larry says. “In the case of sea palm, where it gets slammed by the waves — to adjust to that ecosystem, the desire that it takes to do that, and the ingenuity it’s taken to get to the point where they can put out a gazillion reproductive spores — they have some kind of volition, like an animal does.

“There’s this desire and this vitality out there in seaweeds that is just phenomenal. When I was snorkeling last week, the seaweed canopy was so lush. I was in calm water and the seaweed canopy was so thick it was a nursery for thousands of young fish, creating this incredible fecund community of creatures and seaweed. Something’s going on there that’s really compelling and I don’t know what it is, but I can’t really separate that from what’s going on with animals and us,” Larry says. “Whatever that desire is that compels beings to go through this life cycle, I don’t know. I don’t even know what it is for me, for that matter.”

When I visited Point Arena, I stayed in the refurbished school bus of a recreational seaweed harvester named Blake, who was from West Covina, an LA suburb not far from where I went to high school and where my parents still live, and where the water comes from wells and via aqueduct. It was a funny coincidence: all these seaweed harvesters, it turned out, had made their separate ways here from the desert. Barbara spent twenty-four years in Palm Springs, where she fed seaweed to Frank Sinatra. Until he was fifteen years old, Larry lived in Barstow, a desert city in San Bernardino County.

“People are always saying, ‘Barstow? Oh, I hate that place. My car overheated and wrecked the head gasket and I was stuck there for two weeks. I didn’t know people actually lived there!’” Larry says. “But growing up in Barstow informed me about the environment in a really effective way.”

He remembers, as a teenager, noticing the cottonwood trees beginning to die. “Our parents bought our property that I grew up on in the fifties. It was right on the Mojave River, and at that time the Mojave River was surrounded by cottonwood trees. It was a riparian corridor thirty or forty miles past Barstow, with this little river running through it. The water table at our house was eight feet; you could dig down eight feet and you would hit water.

“Water diversion for San Bernardino and LA started to take water from the San Bernardino Mountains and all of a sudden the cottonwood trees started to die. I noticed this and it didn’t sink in until I was a teenager. It was a very different place. It really made me aware of the impacts that humans have, because I saw it happen. Doing things unsustainably is a dead end. It’s not something that I can easily deny because of that experience — seeing those ecosystems change.”

This is another thing about seaweed: for as long as it’s been around, it’s still pretty mysterious. No one seems sure of why particular seaweeds grow in certain places, while others don’t. On the beach north of Jenner, where we were harvesting kombu, Heidi normally sees wakame, but didn’t notice any that morning. At Larry’s regular spot for nori, he says, “I have a few theories about why it’s here based on what I’ve observed over the years. There are places I think, Why isn’t wakame here? It’s not here at all.” Then he admits, “I don’t know.”

This I don’t know, a common refrain among all the harvesters, seems crucial — a sensible acknowledgment that we haven’t been around for very long, comparatively speaking. And I don’t know either, but this ability to concede we might not know it all strikes me as a rare quality — as enviable, and part of the solution. Thinking we know best — however well we mean — might be part of the problem. “Regulation might change,” Heidi says. “The health of the ocean might change. I’m not tied to this as my forever career. I see it as being a window in time.”

On that morning in May, where we were harvesting north of Jenner, there were little crabs attached to the kombu, the exact same color of the blades, that’d scurry off the moment they noticed you; there were tiny shrimp clinging to Turkish towels, perfectly camouflaged. They seemed like a lesson in symbiosis. And it was such a nice day.

Photos by Gabriela Hasbun

Lucky Peach

Seven pieces from Lucky Peach that were nominated for James…

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