Freezing Time, Seaweed, and the Biologic Imaginary

9. The submerged deep history of the near coastal, the history of a space where human impacts and life-cycles meet, as petroleum swirling with Bosphorus seaweed Pamuk describes, might point to a future. If the historical span of Celâl’s fantastic column is over-the-top in its goulish vision of the changes as the Black Sea’s water-levels fall, and a once- flowing Strait that was a source of life dry up, its rather visionary quality suggests the vast scale of the consequences of compromising.coastal habitats, or the unimaginable scale of environmental transformations at stake. And it reminds us of the dangerous poverty of historical condescension to the shores, and to their vulnerable nature.

The danger of a failure to detail, enrich, and examine the submerged landscapes of the offshore, often not fully revealed in almost the best data visualizations and geolocated imagery of near coastal habitats, challenge the limits of photography, cartography, and remote sensing, as they demand the detailed attention to the category of the coastal that remote observation fails to provide, and a broader historical vision of the shoreline’s properties as a significant habitat. For only by increasing the depth of our historical vision of the shoreline’s sensitivity can we fully appreciate the threat of its impending loss.

Could strategies for better visualization of kelp beds help as part of benthic environments preserve the locally decimated beds of seaweeds off the California coast? While Darwin seems to have almost immediately appreciated of the very delicate nature of the startling benthic surroundings observed in the ‘aquatic forests of the Southern Hemisphere” from aboard the HMS Beagle’s second journey of surveying the South American coast in the early nineteenth century. Darwin was so astounded at the variety of residents in the nourishing ambient kelp beds of copious density, he grasped an ecosystem whose loss is difficult to register or perceive today. Despite huge advances in remote sensing and aerial photography, as well as coastal management, the readiness to isolate seaweed as ornament, and difficulties to integrate extensive brown algae in an ecosystem of interdependent relations, provides only the most partial picture of the stakes involved.

The degree to which evolutionary biology promoted wonder at the structures of kelp as antecedents of living structures, algal vital forms between plant and animal, of a complex structure of almost unsurpassed variety and elegance among collections of wondrous objects, corals, or terrestrial beasts, aroused a near-contemporary interest in seaweed ornaments as they were included in objects to be preserved as specimens, and of a visual fascination that transcended or compared to actual abilities and technologies of manufacture, and their uncanny recognizability as biological forms and structures, suggestive of a vitalism associated with polyps, and hinting at new possibilities of reproduction and evolution.

10. There was a great pleasure in stopping time, and studying the ornate evidence of life forms of the past as seaweed samples, abundant in the oceans, became incorporated widely as natural decorative motifs in crafts books and samplers. Formal interest in seaweed as specimens partly grew as Darwin’s work was read. The role of seaweeds were often ornamentalized in maps and in ocean life, at the very same time as first scientifically studied–collected as specimens displayed as artifacts and natural wonders, that female collagists frequently arranged in imagined scenes as sites of fantasy, artfully placing the strands of marine algae in imitation of doilies or other woven fabrics, framing the natural shapes of algal specimens as ornaments.

If seaweeds were seen as frozen aspects of evolutionary time, preserved deep undersea, they were explicitly removed from environments as aestheticized ornaments–around a decade after Darwin ruminated on the place of kelp forests in sustaining the biome–even if the term was coined a century after Darwin appreciated the concept on his exploratory voyage, as the vey structure of seaweeds became mounted on doilies to provide evidence to admire of the stunning design of the structure of a lost living past, able to be arranged by women as a site of insight into the natural world that fit the parameters of leisure activities and decorative design in the middle of the nineteenth century across The Atlantic.

Sea-Weeds (1848), Eliza A. Jordson/Brooklyn Museum Archives

–even if they were artistically celebrated because of the visual interest of their isolated biomorphic forms when transposed into a scrapbook of mementos and removed from their environments as “natural” forms of art and ornament, in images that were framed by paper doilies that served to accentuate their delicate structures–

“Sea Weeds” (1848)/Brooklyn Museum Archives
Brooklyn Museum Archives

–even as they were assigned scientific botanical names, exercised fascination as decontextualized forms of life, as if frozen beneath the ocean in a primitive ecosystem we could look to as to the past.

Lycett collection, 1879-1994/Brooklyn Museum Archives

There is an odd sense, in seeing seaweeds and algal forms along the shore, washed up by waves, that they are framed by the sands lying beneath themselves–

–in ways that made nineteenth-century collectors, as several seventeenth century naturalists, obsessed with the possibility of viewing the seaweed in its oceanic setting.

11. The simultaneous question of mapping the abundance of kelp beds in the northern seas was confronted in the mid-nineteenth century in British admiralty charts, by sailors perhaps astounded by the quantity of kelp beds discovered off of the British Columbia coast, as much as intrigued with th possibility of avoiding them in laying anchor. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century nautical charts may offer a needed baseline for measurements of BC seaweed or maps of a kelp forest, by tracing the expanses of kelp that then extended several hundred meters offshore, and served to protect environments of cooler Pacific waters of British Columbia, as naval maps noted lest they be obstacles to oceanic travel.

Could these navigational charts provide a basis for tracking measurements of these undersea rainforests’ decline?

There is hope the precise record of mid-nineteenth century nautical maps will gain a second life when compared to digital maps of kelp populations and uncover the changing range of kelp forests to assess their current environmental degradation in the same environments, in a serendipitous media archeology or cross-fertilization. The discovery of a historic bull kelp map of the 1850s, for exam[ple, among a range of charts from 1858 to 1950 of British Columbia’s coastal kelp beds were used by Maycira Costa of UBC’s Geography Dept. to track the persistence of longstanding kelp forests at different sounding levels in offshore coastal waters, which employ a strikingly similar iconography of the individual strands of kelp blades–and one cannot but think of the doilies assembled as curios by Eliza A. Jordson–to indicate local kelp beds.

Historic Kelp Mapping from UVic SPECTRAL Remote Sensing Lab/ Canadian Hydrographic Services and Fisheries and Oceans Canada

The striking similarity of such maps to satellite or drone shots of overhead views of coastlines raises questions of the differences in media technologies. The coverage of these maps will be adopted by the Canadian Hydrographic Service, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the Pacific Salmon Foundation, to plot the concentrations of kelp that were not exactly measured, but seen as dangers for sailing that vessels should avoid–rather than as nesting sites for starfish, juvenile salmon, and herring eggs, in expansive forests of bull and giant seaweeds that suck CO2 from the ocean waters offshore, and produce much of the needed oxygen for oceanic environments and for the world’s atrmosphere. Indeed, the coastal coverage of old admiralty maps that might have languished forgotten in local archives may be able to provide a needed if startling baseline for recent forms of remote sensing, to calibrate the historical expanse of kelp beds against current kelp populations–

–for University of Victoria geographer Costa to affirm the vital role of kelp forests in the undersea region’s living geography and historic geography. Is it overly simple to suggest that in so doing so, Costa is investing new environmental meaning in an iconography of frozen time? The imaging of kelp habitats interested the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada in documenting one of the first maps of historic kelp presence in coastal areas.

The old nineteenth-century marine map gain new life as they might allow one to reconstruct a broader kelp environment, in short, that was not the subject of the original map at all, and to reconstruct an environment it did not even conceive that may prove invaluable as we collectively reorient ourselves to the critical role of kelp beds in nourishing ecosystems and an ability chart ecological loss and table marine ecosystem change in ways we have only begun.

Elephant Kelp Offshore in British Columbia

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Filed under climate change, Global Warming, oceans, remote observation, seaweed

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