I enjoy reading books about an easy overlooked aspect of natural history, and seaweed definitely falls into this category, so Josie Iselin’s book The Curious World of Seaweed quickly grabbed my attention. Josie Iselin is a visual artist who focuses on different aspects on the coastal environment, including seaweeds and this book is an exuberant love-letter to the huge varieties that can be found on the West coast of North America.
In the book, Josie Iselin looks at 18 particular species across 16 chapters. In each chapter she looks both at their ecology and biology as well as their place within scientific history. Vivid descriptions of the physical properties of the seaweed and anecdotes about her own personal encounters are interwoven with stories about the naturalists, explorers and artists who have studied these often overlooked life forms. For example, we learn about how Pyropia spp. (better known as nori) was studied by Kathleen Drew on the Welsh coast, and how her insights into this organism’s reproduction helped nori farmers in Japan to develop more efficient practices at a time when the industry was in crisis. In the chapter about the Red Coralline Algae Corallina vancouveriensis, Iselin tells us the story of Kichisaburo Yendo, who travelled from Tokyo to Botanical Beach on Vancouver Island in Canada to join a teaching program for Midwestern undergraduate students.
As well as being a book about seaweed biology, the book focuses on the visual representation of seaweed in various art forms and its role in several cultures. There are plenty of beautiful pictures, both in the form of flat-bed scanner photography by Iselin herself and in the form of drawn and painted illustrations from older natural history texts. When I was reading through the book I found that a few names began to become familiar. This included William Henry Harvey, an Irish naturalist who laid out the system for classifying seaweeds into three groups, and Franz Josef Ruprecht, an Austrian naturalist who made illustrations of feather kelp specimens that he received from Russian expeditions during his time in St. Petersburg. Their detailed illustrations, and those of many other artists and scientists, are included alongside Iselin’s own work. In several of the chapters, Iselin also goes into detail about a particular seaweeds importance in various First Nations cultures. For example, we learn about how different parts of the bull kelp organism were used in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska to create objects such as water bails and fishing lines, and how Walking Kelp was used to create a funnel trap for herding salmon into fish traps.
You can tell that a book is good when it dramatically increases your appreciation for its subject matter. Before reading Josie Iselin’s book I thought of seaweed as that slimy stuff you find on the coast, but now, after learning about the vast range of forms and their significance in ecology and natural history, and admiring the gorgeous illustrations, I feel like I have a much better appreciation of seaweed. I would highly recommend this book, particularly to anyone with an interest in the ocean or natural history art.
This book is available to borrow from the library.