Photographer and author Josie Iselin’s self-proclaimed mission is to make “enticing, well-researched and well-designed books that combine art and science.” With “The Curious World of Seaweed,” she scores a bull’s-eye. It is at once beautiful and informative. It is also the work of a passionate phycophile – phycology being the study of seaweed.

Cover courtesy of Heyday

A longtime Maine summer resident, Iselin lives the rest of the year on the West Coast, where she says the waters are far richer in seaweed diversity. She picks 16 species – presumably her favorites – giving each a short chapter. And amazing they are, with evocative names like Bladder Chain Wrack, Dead Man’s Fingers and Rainbow Leaf.

Despite some apparent physical similarities and the fact that they share the gift of photosynthesis, seaweeds are not vascular plants, but algae. Iselin points out that although their basic parts – holdfast, stipe and blade – appear to mirror that of a flower or tree – root, stem and leaves, respectively – they function wholly differently. As she notes of one species, “nothing in the plant kingdom of our terrestrial world… ready us” for our encounters with the world of seaweed.

Seaweeds are sorted into three categories: the browns, the greens and the reds. The author sticks with similarly straightforward language wherever she can. And when she departs from it, she tends to go in the direction of flowery (no pun intended) rather than scientific. Completing a basic description of the Feather Boa Kelp, “whimsical” bladders appear along its length, but out of water, it quickly loses its “fabulousness.” Meanwhile, the Sea Palm is “kookier, more Dr. Seuss-worthy” than any other kelp.

Iselin is as fascinated by the history and subsequent environmental issues that have arisen around Pacific Coast seaweeds. Many are intimately bound up with the sea otter, which ranged from Alaska down to Baja California before it was almost extinguished by the fur trade. The otter is one of two predators that keep sea urchins under control. The other is a starfish, and when that was hit by disease, there was nothing to keep the urchins from “clearcutting” the kelp forests. Where sea otters have come back or been reintroduced, kelp is thriving once again. On the other hand, the abundance of abalone, another part of the food chain, which had soared without otters to eat them, has been cut back to historical levels. Markets used to higher abalone production have made further reintroduction of sea otters controversial.

The fur of the sea otter started becoming a valuable commodity in the 18th century when Russian explorers discovered the species all along the coast of what they then called the “Big Land.” The English were soon in the game, as well. As so often in the history of exploration, ruthless exploitation forged a pathway for scientific curiosity. While the traders were depleting otter populations, naturalists collected, described and categorized the phycological wonders of these new-found lands.

Iselin has read the logs of their expeditions, admired the drawings they made of their finds, and perused many of the actual descriptions by which these new species were introduced to science. She has distilled all this into a wonderful narrative that weaves into and around the subject of each chapter. Some of the explorers’ names were familiar to me; others, like Alessandro Malaspina, an Italian humanist in the service of Spain, sound well worth further investigation.

Besides the early explorers, the book includes an equally interesting cavalcade of more recent scientists, many of them women, who have dedicated their lives to the study of seaweeds. Some noodled over the minute details of classification; others set their studies of particular species in the greater picture, “determined to go doubly open,” a phrase the author quotes from John Steinbeck’s account of a marine ecology trip he made to the Sea of Cortez. One of them, a 19th century English woman named Anna Atkins, pioneered the use of cyanotype (the original blueprint process) to document English ferns and seaweeds. (Her beautiful work was exhibited at the New York Public Library last year.)

Iselin’s text is set off with lavish illustrations. She uses a scanner to turn the specimens collected on the beach into striking images that are as much artistic as scientific. In fact, many of them are available from her studio as fine art prints. She also includes plates from the early botanists, sometimes overlaid with one of her vibrant pictures. In homage to Atkins, she superimposes her own cyanotype images on the natural silhouettes of her Victorian forerunner.

“The Curious World of Seaweed” is an absorbing jigsaw puzzle of science, art, history, ecology and personal observation. If the author occasionally overdoes the fey metaphysics, it’s a small price to pay for a fascinating read.

Thomas Urquhart lives in Falmouth. His new book, “Up for Grabs, a history of Maine’s Public Reserved Lands,” will be published in June.


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