In Search of the Wild Essence of Dulse

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In Search of the Wild Essence of Dulse

There was a time when I had to convince people that seaweed was food for humans. In those days, we were called Maine Edible Seaweeds. Another company in Maine is called Maine Coast Sea Vegetables...as if to say, "Go ahead, eat seaweed just like you would eat vegetables, as in garden vegetables."

All these terms and titles are somewhat misleading. Yes, they are of the vegetable kingdom, but the plants I harvest are not domesticated. The sea plants are wild, and it would be better to compare them to the wild herbs of the land rather than the pampered vegetables of human gardens. Thus I have come back to liking "seaweed," rather than "sea vegetables," because I think it's important to acknowledge the wildness of these plants, and I don't emphasize their edibility, as in "Some day we will feed ourselves primarily from algae products made to taste like anything you want." Sea plants are strong medicine, just as wild herbs are generally strong essences. You can eat them, yes, but only in small quantifies. They are concentrated sources of trace elements and minerals. Thus I have settled on the simplest title for the business: Maine Seaweed Company.

We experimented with importing seaweeds from other places, but through experience we learned that we could not vouch for the purity of the essences. Either I didn't know the water conditions as well as my own bay system, or I didn't have a close enough working relationship with the harvesters so that I could supervise their methods, assuring highest purity and quality.

One especially frustrating phase of the business was when we began to import dulse from Grand Marian Island, New Brunswick, Canada. Dulse is not plentiful in my bay; kelp and alaria are. So I journeyed to Grand Manan, which is part of the Gulf of Maine, to buy dulse.

As I observed the harvesting operation I became unhappy. The boats were painted with marine paints, and these are full of toxic chemicals. Worse yet, I saw that there was no separating bulkhead between gas bilge and plants in the boats, so if there was a gas leak, the plants were contaminated. When I talked to dulse harvesters about their drying fields, they told me that they sprayed herbicides to eliminate grasses. Does it surprise you that in the seaweed industry, herbicides are a problem? The drying fields were made of flat rocks over which a layer of old herring net was spread. This net had once been treated with toxic algicides to prevent the nets from growing seaweeds on them. So, more chemicals entered the picture. The final insult was the "tea chest." This was a shipping crate made of spicy/aromatic luan mahogany which had once held black tea. This crate cross-flavored the dulse. Most people like that particular aroma, but I felt it was not fair to the true essence of dulse. So I stopped importing dulse, even though it was a large part of my business. Now I sell only the plants from my local ecosystem which I also eat as daily food, and I inform people about the relative abundance of various plants in the ecosystem as well as in our inventory, on a year-to-year basis.

In every business which attempts to offer so-called organic food, you will find problems. This is not a perfect world. Rice farmers sometimes mourn the fact that their "organic" rice is irrigated with water from the common watershed which is polluted with everyone else's run-off of herbicides and pesticides. Even if this problem is totally eliminated, there's a tractor, somewhere, polluting the air and water and soil in the field. There are only relative standards of purity in this relative world.

Picking dulse is slow work, compared to cutting and hauling a boatload of kelp, for instance. At the end of a dulse harvest day, I have much less to show for my work than at the end of a kelp harvest day. For awhile, I felt that I should charge more for dulse. After all, I said to myself, there's more work in a pound! This sounds good, but it has a back side. I become more egoistic when I "charge for my labor," and I tend to become a clock-watcher and time-card keeper, rather than a soul who is grateful just to have some genuine work to do.

After awhile, this becomes a "time-is-money" existence, and I lose my deeper dream: to sit, in gratitude, on the water, with some of the oldest plant families on earth -- the sea elders.

So, the latest experiment in cultivating a right attitude toward this work is to offer to share this world with other people who would like to sit in gratitude with the sea elders, during July and August, on the coast of Maine. I call it Kayak Camp (although it will probably have as many canoes as kayaks).

The demand for true wild dulse is growing, as people start to realize that most dulse now offered comes from polluted waters. (The clam flats on Grand Manan are often closed, due to pollution, for instance, as are clam flats on the southern coast of Maine. It is this way wherever there are cities and numerous harbors.) I'm fortunate to live where there are no cities, no factories, no nuclear power plants -- all of which are serious sources of pollution.

Last night I received two phone calls. One was from the state of Washington and the other from Oregon. Both of them were from men who think it's a good idea to combine aquacultured salmon with aquacultured dulse. Both of them talk about how people with shorefront property don't like to see floating fish pens spoiling their view, so the government and the universities are supporting the creation of inland concrete fish tanks for aquaculture. Sea water is pumped to the raceway pens, and there's a lot of energy expended to keep the water in motion, because salmon require it. Imagine how much energy it must take to create an artificial stream.

Tonight, as I read Herman Aihara's essays on salmon, I feel sadness about these beautiful wild creatures, now caged in concrete tanks, unable to exercise their free judgment to fred the right food and the right water conditions in order to develop their strongest nature. If we continue to domesticate wild creatures for our convenience by putting them in cages, we will find ourselves more and more in cages, too. Our food will not give us the strength to develop our true nature, and we will always compromise ourselves in some way.

The men who aquaculture salmon tell me that they can grow dulse in the waste water created by the salmon. "Effluent," they say. "What do you feed the fish?" I ask. They tell me that they use a fish meal made from grinding up fish that fishermen regard as undesirable for one reason or another. I wonder to myself if a free salmon would choose to eat these fish. "And we add vitamins and minerals," they add. Great, I think to myself -- just like Wonder Bread.

Finally, one of the men offers a possible price: $2.50 per pound. This is less than half the price of Grand Manan dulse, and from a business viewpoint, it's an incredible offer. (From his viewpoint, he's just trying to create a secondary income off his "effluent," while reducing the nitrates, so there will be less reason for people to complain about his discharge back into the sea.) He's waiting for me to take the bait, hook and all. He asks me, "How much can you sell?"

"Not interested," I reply. In my mind's eye, all I can see are caged "factory-chickens," pelletized feed, and the nitrogen-burned plants that are the result of applying chicken manure directly to the soil without composting, or the showy-but-imbalanced greenery that often occurs when there's an overabundance of nitrogen in garden soil.

"What do the plants look like?" I ask. The man explains that the plants grow very rapidly, which confirms my hunch about overabundant and imbalanced nutrients. (Dulse in the wild develops itself slowly, while being pounded by the surf. I could say the same about my own progress as a sea harvester!) In fact, he says, they have to shred the plants, in order to keep them turning over nicely in the bubbler lank, and the plants then respond to the tearing of the leaves by producing little leaves along the tears. Yes, I think to myself, I've seen plants like that, and they appear to be the plants that grew a little too high in the dulse zone, a little too exposed to sunlight and surf-stress. I never pick them, because something in my intuition tells me they are not the best for me.

"Not interested," I reply. I offer to taste-test, because I'm always curious about the world, and after a little more talk, I hang up.

At this writing, it's still winter here. I've been cutting and splitting firewood. In April, May, and June some of you, looking for the missing wildness in your life, will harvest dulse with me as we wander out beyond my bay system, looking for the true essence...and many more will appreciate our work. Rest well. Dulse season will be upon us, soon enough.

George Ohsawa Macrobiotic Foundation.

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By Larch Hanson

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