The Mast-Head: Seaweed Memories

Eelgrass has made what appears to be a comeback in Gardiner’s Bay

   My son, Ellis, and I spent a few minutes one afternoon this week gathering great handfuls of eelgrass and making a quick pile of it after Saturday’s hard northwest wind pushed long lines of the stuff on the bay beach near our house. My intent was to add it to the compost; Ellis, who will be 3 in February, thought it was a fine place to drop down for a rest and look at the sky.
    Eelgrass has made what appears to be a comeback in Gardiner’s Bay, supporting a bounty of scallops. At the same time, the spongy, green Codium, a true seaweed thought to have spread around the world from the western Pacific, has all but gone away.
    When I was a child, my father referred to Codium exclusively as Sputnik weed,  apparently due to its appearance in our region more or less contemporaneously with the Soviet satellite’s game-changing 1957 launch. For decades, it was the most visible seaweed washing up on the beach at the southernmost reaches of the bay, where we live. Now rockweed is dominant in the near-shore shallows. The eelgrass, I presume, has repopulated in underwater meadows in slightly deeper water less affected by storms.
    The day after Ellis and I made our pile, we returned to the beach with a fish box and filled it with eelgrass. Then Ellis removed his shirt and shorts, tore off his pull-up diaper, and went for a swim. When he got cold, I had him hop on top of the box for a ride back to the house and a hot shower — with a detour at the compost bin to dump in the eelgrass.
    Many years ago, when I was traveling around between high school and college, I ended up on Inisheer, one of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. There, I saw huge piles of kelp, which the inhabitants gathered to freshen their fields and to pack for export. The memory of those haystack-like mounds and the people who made them has stuck with me, as I hope Ellis will dimly remember our own late-summer afternoon on the beach when he is older.